Contributing writer for The Artifice.
Junior Contributor I
The Psychological Edge of the Familiar in Successful Media - The Uphill Battle of Novelty
A look at films in recent years that weren’t sequels or remakes that received fairly good ratings, but made little money at the box office. An example that comes to mind is American Ultra (2015), which received better ratings than many of the other films that opened the same weekend (all of which were remakes or sequels), yet was a box office flop. The film’s screenwriter, Max Landis complained that "American Ultra lost to a sequel, a sequel reboot, a biopic, a sequel and a reboot."
This phenomenon seems self-perpetuating. These failed new ideas will cause studios to hesitate before investing in further new ideas, which seem risky. It may be more economically encouraging to go with a sequel or remake that is bound to make money, and we therefore find ourselves inundated by constant remakes and reboots (just look at Pokémon Go, which seems to be successful not because it is particularly good, but because its content is familiar).
A few psychological theories could be invoked here in order to explain this phenomenon. One is the mere-exposure effect, a phenomenon wherein people tend to prefer things that they are familiar with (this is how subliminal messaging is thought to work). Therefore it could be possible that people are disproportionately likely to go out and see a film with a familiar name (such as the new Independence Day), even if it has worse ratings than something novel and unknown. Further, people tend to be risk-averse, and may want to avoid the risk of seeing something unknown and not liking it.