Top Film Industry Stories of 2015:
#6 Nostalgia Rules
By Kim Hollis
January 20, 2016

2016's best movie couple?

Movie fans and film commentators constantly bemoan the fact that Hollywood is out of original ideas. Unwanted sequels, terrible remakes, and book adaptations that miss the point are the norm. Still, even though people claim to want original concepts from the film industry, it’s the comfort food of the known quantity that draws people to theaters. 2016 was a standout example of this way of thinking, as nostalgia for days past heavily influenced a significant number of major releases - and for the most part, the studios and distributors that took advantage of the trend were rewarded financially.

Kid Stuff

One reason that films that evoke such feelings of nostalgia can perform so well is because they work on a multigenerational level. A number of 2016 films certainly qualified as properties that people enjoyed years ago as children, but now are able to share with their own kids. As such, these “new” movie releases become events. With so many competing media trying to capture consumer dollars, it’s becoming ever more important for studios and distributors to put forth product that will bring in entire families.

We’ll cover a couple of the biggies under this category a little later, but there were a few classic stories that made their way in a new form to the big screen in 2016. Things got started in January with the release of Paddington, an animated film with source material that dates all the way back to 1958. Paddington first came into existence as a beloved children’s book series by Michael Bond and illustrated by Peggy Fortnum. Although the story of the anthropomorphised bear from darkest Peru is obviously most popular in his home country of Great Britain, North American audiences thought fondly of the character as well, propelling the movie adaptation of his story to $76.3 million domestically.

But Paddington was only getting things started. It had been more than 10 years since SpongeBob SquarePants graced the big screen in The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. Based on a Nickelodeon animated series that began in 1999, the show was popular with kids, weirdos, and, er, people who enjoy a certain type of recreational substance. In 2016, it might have seemed like SpongeBob’s time should have been long past, but instead what we saw is that people who were preteens when the little yellow sponge was at the height of his popularity were now ready to introduce the character to their own kids. Also, it seems like countercultural icons may never go out of style. Under any circumstance, the first SpongeBob film made $88.4 million total, while the 2015 film, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water opened with $55.4 million. Its final domestic tally was $163 million, proving that people were ready and willing to revisit Bikini Bottom.

Women and girls of every possible demographic era have come to know and love Cinderella thanks to the 1950 animated film from Walt Disney. The princess’s castle is an iconic structure at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, and little girls wear Cinderella costumes every year at Halloween. Every girl who has ever dreamed of being a princess thinks of this fairy tale first and foremost. Since Disney has long understood the allure of this simple story, they decided to follow-up the massive success of 2014’s Maleficent with a similar live-action version of this beloved romance. It’s fair to say that the adaptation was a stunning success, bringing together princesses of all ages to propel the film to a $67.9 million debut. By the time it finished its run in domestic theaters, Cinderella would cross the $200 million mark. The nostalgia bug had bitten yet again.

As Halloween approached, fans of the children’s book series Goosebumps were treated to a theatrical adaptation of the series featuring Jack Black as the writer R.L. Stine. Once again, we were looking at a situation where people who grew up with the stories are now parents in their late 20s and 30s who could take their kids out for a fun day at the movies. You might be surprised to know that the film earned $79.6 million domestically, easily surpassing its budget well before international and home video numbers added to the tally.

But perhaps the purest version of childhood nostalgia came in November when the first Peanuts feature film in 35 years was released to theaters. This time around, the characters were CGI, but the creators of the film treated Charles M. Schulz’s comic source material with such reverence and care that audiences couldn’t help but be enchanted. Co-written by Schulz’s son and grandson, the movie gave audiences exactly what they were looking for - a simple story that revisited the timeless events in the daily life of Charlie Brown and his beagle Snoopy. The producers and distributor of the movie were rewarded for their careful handling of the property with a $44.2 million opening and a current domestic box office total of $129.5 million.

We Love the ‘80s

Nostalgia wasn’t only reserved for child-friendly titles, though. Although both franchises officially got their start in the 1970s, both Mad Max and Rocky were franchises that flourished throughout the 1980s, adapting and changing with the times. For Mad Max, Beyond Thunderdome brought pop star Tina Turner into the mix, while Rocky IV was a product of the Cold War, complete with a vicious villain from the USSR. Both franchises returned in 2015 and were received with delight.

Director George Miller was responsible for all three of the original films in the series, and he returned to helm Mad Max: Fury Road, a film with updated moralistic sensibilities and amazing effects. Although box office might not have been quite as high as Warner Bros. would have anticipated ($45.4 million debut, $153.6 million domestic, $222 internationally), it has become clear that the studio’s $150 million investment was a sound one. With nine Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director, the film is now poised to clean up on home video as anyone who made the mistake of skipping it in theaters now has the easy opportunity to seek it out. Once again, Miller treated his own source material with great care, presenting a final product that was rapturously received throughout the film industry.

Creed didn’t quite get the awards accolades that Mad Max did (though it does have a nomination for Sylvester Stallone as Supporting Actor), but people were clearly ready for a “Rocky” film that kept the original character involved in the story, but passed the torch to a new generation. Audiences responded positively to the story as the film’s word-of-mouth and critical notices were strong, and the film has so far earned $109 million domestically (from a small $35 million budget).

Straight Outta Compton was one of the bigger financial surprises of 2015, and once again we can look to people who grew up with NWA during their heyday in the 1980s as key supporters and advocates for the project. The film rode its wave of musical reminiscence to a shocking $60.2 million debut and an eventual $161.2 million at the domestic box office. Here, too, is a film that received an Academy Award nomination - this time for Best Original Screenplay. It seems that Academy voters are sentimental, too.

Of course, any discussion of ‘80s nostalgia would be incomplete without addressing Back to the Future’s 30th anniversary. Considering the support people were willing to give their beloved icons from the past, it seems all but certain that a new film in the series would have been a hugely anticipated hit. Even without a new film, fans still attended Back to the Future Day in theaters and watched marathons of the three movies on TV. The anniversary blanketed social media, and retrospectives proliferated. In a year where memories of the past drove consumer behavior, the furor around Back to the Future’s original release added more fuel to an already strongly blazing fire.

The Blockbusters

The year’s two biggest films (and two of the biggest of all-time) owe much of their success to the nostalgia factor as well. We’ll be talking about both of these movies in the coming days, but Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens both saw audiences crowd into theaters to recapture feelings that they first experienced years ago.

For Jurassic World, it would have been easy for it to be just another middling sequel. After all, neither The Lost World or Jurassic Park III were particularly well-remembered by audiences. And yet somehow, there was an atmosphere surrounding the film that felt significantly closer to that of the original, released in 1993. Some of that comes down to the fact that the effects were clearly handled with the same kind of care and attention they received in the first film. Additionally, it had the feeling of an adventure - with an emphasis on the dinosaurs eating people aspect that was so appealing when the concept originated.

Another important factor was that the velociraptors were once again a primary focus of the film - even though the role they play in Jurassic World is decidedly different than what we saw in Jurassic Park. In this case, these alpha predators are key in bringing down a genetically engineered mega dinosaur - and giving audiences a callback while expanding the concept was a big draw.

I probably don’t even have to explain the nostalgia factor of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Many argue that the film is a loving remake of A New Hope, or alternately, a movie that presents Star Wars’ Greatest Hits. Whereas the prequels went backwards in time in an effort to build a story (about characters people perhaps didn’t care about), The Force Awakens brought back such beloved characters as Han Solo, Chewbacca, Princess Leia, R2-D2, C-3PO and Luke Skywalker. People cared about what happened to them 30 years down the line, and the film might very well have been sold by one single Han Solo line in the previews: “Chewie, we’re home.”

You know the rest of the story. In June, Jurassic World became the biggest opener of all time with $208.8 million and would eventually earn $652.3 million domestically. Then, of course, its record was demolished by The Force Awakens in December when it debuted with $248 million, and the latest installment of Star Wars went on to become the biggest grossing film ever in North American history.

The Misses

The formula wasn’t foolproof, though. A few films tried to cash in on the nostalgia trend without success. Most notable amongst these was Jem and the Holograms, a film adaptation of a 1980s animated series. Although people were embracing the ‘80s as a decade, moviegoers could sense the cynicism dripping from this project. It was obvious that the movie was greenlighted because it had a fan base, but then no care whatsoever was given to the actual production. It would finish with a lifetime gross of $2.2 million.

Other films that failed to cash in were Vacation (which took a beloved concept and obviously turned it into garbage) and Terminator: Genisys, which brought back Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator role, but had to replace Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn as Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese. Both films were able to trick some unsuspecting viewers on the strength of their name, but audiences could sense that the projects were bungled terribly.

Even with those (and perhaps a couple of other) missed opportunities, movie audiences flocked to theaters to celebrate nostalgia in 2015. It’s a trend that we may see continue in 2016, depending on how such projects as My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, Zoolander 2, Independence Day: Resurgence, Ghostbusters and even Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are handled.