If We Want Bad Movie Remakes To Stop, Let's Cool It On Nostalgia Marketing

Do you look back on the past and miss the good old days? You’re not the only one – and companies are beginning to pay attention.

By Jillian Schroeder4 min read
Pexels/Jéssica Maria

Nostalgia is defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” Throughout history, this emotion has been reserved for the oldest generations – the old woman in her rocking chair, who looks back on the many decades of her life in reflection. 

But times have changed. Nostalgia is on the rise, especially among Gen Z and millennials. Half of Gen Z expresses nostalgic feelings for various types of older media, beating out 47% of millennials. 15% of Gen Zers and 14% of millennials prefer thinking about the past to thinking about their future. Though objectively still young, these generations have unusually strong feelings of attachment to good days gone by, and we’re starting to see the signs everywhere. Nostalgia has become so important, she even showed her face as one of the important new emotions in the summer hit Inside Out 2.

You don’t have to look far to find many of the good reasons younger generations are feeling increasingly nostalgic. Living in a world driven by the noise of social media, confronted by a bleak political climate and economic forecast, it’s easy to look back several decades at a time when everything felt more laid back and simpler. Companies, especially in the entertainment industry, have started to take notice.

Is the turn toward nostalgic marketing a return toward good things from the past, as in the wild success of movies like Top Gun: Maverick? Or is the use of nostalgia in marketing simply a ploy to get audiences to buy modern agendas in a pretty, old-fashioned package?

How Nostalgia Is Driving the Entertainment Industry Today

If you’ve felt like everything you see in theaters or on TV is either a remake or a rerelease, you’re not wrong. After all, millennials and Gen Z are the two generations most likely to go to a movie theater after Covid, and they are the most likely to use streaming services (at 88% and 80%, respectively). With numbers like those, it was inevitable that studios would rely more and more on nostalgic shows and films to keep the money flowing.

Feelings of nostalgia have also driven the recent, growing trend of theatrical re-releases in cinemas. Initially a rare occurrence, it has become common to find classic and popular films from the ‘80s to the early 2010s re-released in theaters for limited engagements. Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace, first released in 1999, was rereleased on May 4 (“Star Wars Day”) and beat out several new films to be the second highest grossing film at the box office. 2004’s Spiderman 2 also beat out several new films to be the second highest grossing film of the box office when it was re-released in April this year. Over and over in recent years, audiences have shown that they’ll turn out to the movies – but sometimes, it’s only for a classic they already love.

But millennials and Gen Z don’t just want their favorite classic movies – they want new content that is full of nostalgic references. Take the success of Netflix’s supernatural thriller Stranger Things. When Stranger Things was first released on Netflix in 2016, it was immediately acclaimed for its loving homage to films from the eighties, from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. From the show’s initial scene with the four young protagonists playing Dungeons & Dragons, Stranger Things hit all the nostalgic feelings for simpler days and simpler media. 

Each successive season of the show has maintained a high level of nostalgia, sending fan-favorite character Steve Harrington to work in a VHS video store and driving Kate Bush’s ‘80s song “Running Up That Hill (Deal with God)” to the top 40 US Billboard chart for the first time. Stranger Things is even marketed in faux-VHS boxes when purchased on DVD. Worth nearly $20 billion as a franchise, Stranger Things has shown production companies once and for all that nostalgia can pave the way to massive success.

Is Nostalgia Just a Marketing Ploy for Agenda-Ridden Remakes?

But the rise of nostalgic media isn’t a universally good thing. Even more than the rise of re-releases, we’ve begun to see a rise in movie remakes or sequels. From a studio’s perspective, it makes a lot of sense to remake a classic film or make a sequel several decades later. Franchises with built-in audiences are traditionally a solid source of income, and with the rise of nostalgia, this should mean lots of money without having to build a universe from scratch.

But you need only look at 2016’s Ghostbusters reboot to see why the reboot phenomenon isn’t always successful. Inverting the cast of the original 1984 film, the Ghostbusters reboot cast all women as the four eponymous Ghostbusters. Ghostbuster’s nostalgic marketing and tie to the original classic turned out to be a sham, however. Ghostbusters was filled with the same story of female-empowerment that many modern feminist stories follow – one where women have a value by taking the place of and behaving like men. Trying to spoon-feed modernism to audiences in a nostalgic casing doesn’t always go well: Ghostbusters proved to be a box office bomb when it was released, and the franchise has returned to making sequels based on the original film.

It’s a trend we can’t ignore, though. Take the recent musical film adaptation of Mean Girls, released earlier this year. I’m a millennial woman, I can’t stop quoting Mean Girls, and I love a Broadway musical – and the film’s marketing was pitched perfectly to me and other women of my generation. But Mean Girls the Musical isn’t the brilliant satire about toxic female friendship I loved; instead, the new film glorifies the behavior of Regina George and reduces the message our heroine, Cady Heron, will learn in the end to a simple tale of acceptance and inclusivity. 

Films like Ghostbusters and Mean Girls reveal the dark side of nostalgia marketing. They carry a promise to tell the audience a story they know and love, filled with memories of the past, but instead are force-feeding modern agendas to their unwilling audience. Feel lied to? You’re not the only one. 

Nostalgia Can Inspire a Return to Classic Storytelling

Looking through some of these examples, it would be easy to say that nostalgia has become just another marketing ploy – which it is, to some extent. But the impulse to look back on the past with fondness, to desire to recreate what we loved about it, can also inspire newfound creativity and a renaissance of good storytelling.

It’s in this way that nostalgia sparked the massive success of Top Gun: Maverick shortly after movie theaters reopened in 2022. Grossing nearly $1.5 billion worldwide, Top Gun: Maverick is not a movie of its time. Like its predecessor, Top Gun: Maverick is unapologetically patriotic, full of truly masculine men, and a cast that reflects the real, not forced, diversity of the United States military. Maverick follows classic cues of storytelling. There’s a crucial quest to be accomplished, but the story is grounded in well-rounded characters we really care about.

Top Gun: Maverick reveals what the nostalgic feelings of Gen Z and millennials are really telling us. They want to go back to a world where true masculinity is honored and femininity is revered. They want epic stories of bravery and goodness, not checklists of politically correct ideas strung together into a script. Companies that use nostalgia just for marketing are missing the point – and the opportunity for true success that a return to classic storytelling would bring them.

Closing Thoughts

In his 2011 Oscar-winning film Midnight in Paris, director Woody Allen examines the two-edged sword of nostalgia when modern author Gil (Owen Wilson) gets a chance to visit 1920s Paris – the era he’s always wished he was from. As he learns from his favorite writers and artists of the period, Gil slowly realizes that he can’t live in the past, but must embrace the era he was born into and find a way to live the old-fashioned life he wants in the modern world. 

Like Gil, Gen Z and millennials find themselves increasingly drawn to golden days of the past – some which we remember and some we’ve only read about. Sometimes, that nostalgia is used against us to take beloved films and franchises and remake them with a modern agenda. But some filmmakers and companies are learning the same message Allen’s Gil has to learn – that it’s possible to live in the modern world with old-fashioned values. Nostalgia for the tried and true methods of storytelling isn’t going anywhere, so it’s time for more creators to get on board.

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