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Selling Nostalgia: Reflecting on the Entertainment Industry at the End of a Decade

The new decade allows Canadians to reflect on the lifestyle changes in the 2010s. One’s mind may quickly focus on innovations in technology, with the development of new cellular phones, tablets, laptop computers, and more. Technology has changed our lifestyle; back in 2010, Canadians first encountered the wonders of iPads and the arrival of 3-dimensional films – something most people are accustomed to nowadays. In the last decade, Canadians have also witnessed the development of streaming services, such as Netflix, Hulu, Crave, and, most recently, Disney+. The decade has popularized the phrase “cord cutters,” referring to people deciding to cancel their cable television subscriptions in favour of streaming services.

I am interested in this relatively new concept of streaming: what attracts Canadians to the idea of possessing multiple subscriptions to different streaming platforms? For example, Disney+, a platform almost entirely made up of content from the 1990s to the early 2010s, has been deemed attractive due to its comforting element of nostalgia. Nostalgia is a wistful, yearning look at past events or objects. The commercialization of nostalgia is especially relevant today, with the apparent resurgence of sequels, prequels, reboots, renewals, and adaptations in the entertainment industry. Today, several films and television programmes may be split into the following categories: remakes, extensions, and adaptations.

The live-action remake is especially relevant due to recent improvements in computer-generated imagery (CGI), because animators now have the capabilities to animate reality. Examples of such films produced in 2019 include Aladdin, originally animated in 1992, and The Lion King, originally animated in 1994.

The second category consists of extensions, referring to prequels, sequels, and spin-offs of previous films or TV shows. In 2019, this was a very popular category of film, most likely because these types of films have pre-established fanbases, and are therefore attractive to companies that are looking to make a lot of money; consumers enjoy seeing extensions of stories they love, even 20 years after the original content has been produced. Such 2019 films include Terminator: Dark Fate, the original having been produced in 1984, and Toy Story 4, the original having been produced in 1995.

Films in the “extensions” category may also be part of a much larger franchise, such as Marvel, the first comics having been produced in 1939, or Star Wars, founded in 1977. In the past year, such a phenomenon has produced films such as Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Captain Marvel, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and the television programme The Mandalorian.

The third category consists of film adaptations of previous works. This year, Canadians have witnessed films such as Little Women, adapted from the 1868 novel and several subsequent films, Cats, from the 1981 stage musical (originally based on a 1939 poetry collection by T. S. Eliot), and Alita: Battle Angel, adapted from a manga series from the 1990s.

It is evident that the “improving, adapting, and extending” phenomenon in the entertainment industry has been a concept for a long time – artists tend to take inspiration from previous works. The question is, however, when does all of this become too repetitive? In 2020, have we reached the point where this phenomenon has taken over modern cinema?

This type of media entertainment – a type based on the popularity of previous works of art – is largely reliant on a question of economic success. The pre-established fanbase is an essential element that leads to the success of these types of films. CNN recognizes Disney as the most financially successful production company of 2019, single-handedly obtaining seven of the North American top-ten highest-grossing box office films, and one more that was co-produced with Sony. The other two films that met the top-ten list were Warner Bros’ Joker and It: Chapter Two. Every film on the North American top-ten list was a product of the extension and/or adaptation phenomenon.

However, the concept of nostalgia controlling the film industry is not altogether negative. Remakes compel current audiences to reflect on how our lives have changed. Many people bemoan today’s culture of nostalgia, and many people are critical of the difference they may recognize in today’s adaptations of stories from the 20th century or earlier. However, I believe that these differences are an opportunity to reflect on humanity’s evolution. Recent film adaptations, oftentimes corrected to align with today’s cultural climate and values, allow for humans to reflect on our history.

Big corporations know that nostalgia sells, and the common consumer is not concerned with the motives of the deals. However, there is perhaps a valid argument in saying that we, as the consumer, should rather support new independent films to prove to big corporations, like Disney, that we value creativity and originality over “what sells.” Independent films may be accessed through TIFF, Paradise Cinema, Hot Docs, the National Film Board (at which TFS has a membership – ask a librarian!), the Revue Cinema, or Royal Cinema. The Toronto Public Library also has access to a selection of independent films and documentaries through Kanopy, a streaming video platform. Local filmmakers need support, just as any local business. That being said, the question remains: what further changes will the new decade bring to the entertainment industry?

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