This is a very common criticism of Hollywood, with many saying it is a sign of a lack of creativity. Others reply that the film industry has always used remakes and sequels.
Let's start out way back in the silent film era and check out the top grossing movies from 1919. I usually have been looking at the top ten, but Wikipedia only lists the top 8 for that year so we will stick with that.
As you may expect, none of these films are remakes or sequels. However, they are not necessarily all completely original films. Three of the eight are, which is a much bigger proportion than we will see in later years. The most notable of these original movies from 1919 is D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms.
That leaves five films that were adaptations of some previous work. Two of them were based on novels and one on a series of short stories. There were also two adapted from plays. In the early days of the film industry, taking ideas from theater was a very common occurrence. This makes sense, as the two mediums are similar in many ways.
This trend was still going strong in 1929. Out of the top 9 films in the United States that year, 5 of them were musicals based on preexisting plays. Only 2 of the 9 were not adaptations, with one coming from a story. The last was actually a sequel, surprisingly enough. The movie The Cock-Eyed World was a sequel to a silent film called What Price Glory?. This was one of the earliest examples of a successful film with a sequel that brought back the main actors as well as the writer and director.
In 1939, however there was only one theater adaptation in the top 10 grossers. There were 2 original films, but 7 of them were translated from books or short stories. The most notable one was based on L. Frank Baum's fantasy novel, The Wizard of Oz.
Going forward another decade to 1949, we see only one film out of the top ten that was based on a play. However, a whopping 5 of them were book adaptations, plus one biblical film. There were 2 original films, but both were inspired by historical events. There was even one sequel, Jolson Sings Again, about the life of Al Jolson.
Clearly even in the first half of the twentieth century, filmmakers were freely adapting previous works. However, we really aren't seeing that many sequels or remakes as of yet.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s we continue to see mostly book and stage adaptations in the top tens of each year, with original movies sprinkled in.
1955's top 12 saw only 2 original movies, with 6 based on books, 3 based on plays, and one on a short story.
In 1959, looking at the top ten, we see four book adaptations. One of them, Ben-Hur, was also a remake of a silent film. One was adapted from a play, two from short stories, and one from a fairy tale. Only two of them were wholly original.
1962 had a decent amount of original films, three, but also six based on books and one that was originally a stage musical.
In 1965, 5 based were based on novels, with only 3 original screenplays. One of the book adaptations was Thunderball, which was also a sequel, the fourth film in the James Bond franchise.
1967 has a similar proportion with 4 movies not based on anything and 6 taken from books. Again one of the book adaptations was a James Bond film, the fifth movie in the series, You Only Live Twice.
In 1969 only three in the US top ten were originals. There were three based on stage plays and four based on books. This includes, you guessed it, a James Bond film.
However, skipping forward to 1977 we see a slightly different picture. Surprisingly, half of the top ten grossers were original films, with four novel adaptations and one, Saturday Night Fever, based on a magazine article.
1979 is a bit more typical. with only three original films and four based on books. There was a sequel, Rocky II. There was also, in contrast to the previous years we have looked at, two films that started out at TV shows, The Muppet Movie, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. These were some of the earliest movies that came from shows, and appear to be the first ones to place in the top ten money makers of the year.
In 1980, we see a decent amount of original movies in the top ten, four. However, there were also three sequels, The Empire Strikes Back, Any Which Way You Can, and Smokey and the Bandit II. Only 2 that year were based on a novel, and one, The Blues Brothers, based on a Saturday Night Live sketch.
For 1987, we again see half of the top ten being non-derivative films. There were 2 book adaptations and 2 remakes.
1990 had 4 original films, 2 sequels, 3 novel adaptations, and 1 based on a comic book.
In this time period, we appear to see a slight uptick in original successful films. Many were adapted as well, but we see a greater variety in the source material. In the earlier decades of film, the source material was usually novels and the theater. In the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, films were based on TV shows, earlier films, comic books, and there were plenty of sequels.
In 1996, there were again 5 flicks in the top 10 not based on anything. It also included two remakes, two novel adaptations and one, Mission: Impossible, taken from a TV series. Most notably, there were zero sequels.
How does this compare to today?
In 2009, a respectable four original films made the top ten, with 4 book adaptations (2 of those also being sequels) , and 4 total sequels. However, this is the last time we would see this many original films in the top 10 of the year.
In 2010, only 2 of them were original scripts, Inception and Despicable Me. A whopping five were sequels, plus two based on books and one based on a fairy tale.
Then there's 2011. Astonishingly not one of the top 10 grossers this year was an original film. Only one was not a sequel, The Smurfs, and that was based on a TV show that was adapted from comics.
2012's top ten again had no original movies, with 8 of them being sequels. One was based on a book, and one, The Amazing Spider-Man was a reboot of a comic book franchise.
This trend changed slightly in 2013, as there were two original films in the top ten. One was the animated Frozen, the other the Cuaron film Gravity. 6 others were straight-up sequels. We also have a reboot, Man of Steel, and a prequel, Monsters University.
As we can see, filmmakers have looked elsewhere for inspiration from the beginning. There have always been movies based on books, plays, and other things. However, the number of popular films that are remakes or sequels has clearly been increasing at a rapid rate. Currently, it seems incredibly difficult for a film to gain traction unless it is based on a known quantity. Due to the huge budgets of today's films, studios are understandably reluctant to gamble on original screenplays.