Inside the Business of Nostalgia: How Studios and Brands Bank on Past Hits

“It’s how we connect with the past, and that’s just really powerful,” media analyst Paul Dergarabedian says

No one knows the business of nostalgia better than Hollywood, which continues to prove there’s no business like nostalgia.

Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” a poster child for a resurgence of ’80s pop culture, has led the way with its “Goonies”-esque sci-fi romp. A “Roseanne” spinoff became one of 2018’s most-watched TV shows. “Dynasty” found its way back on the air. “Top Gun” got a sequel. Queen’s greatest hits reemerged with the big-screen success of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Even Sylvester Stallone is starring in a new “Rambo” film out in theaters.

Of the top 10 highest-grossing films of the year so far, “The Lion King,” “Toy Story 4,” “Captain Marvel,” “Aladdin,” “It: Chapter 2,” and “Us” all tap into some form of nostalgia.

The nostalgia business, however, extends beyond Hollywood’s hills and valleys. Brands like Coca-Cola, Doritos and Nike have reached back in time to capitalize on consumers’ love of (almost) everything ’80s.

In July a pair of 1972 classic Nike Waffle Racing flats — also part of the silhouette Nike used for a new collaboration with Japanese luxury brand Sacai — sold for $475,500 at a Sothebys auction. They’re the most expensive shoes ever sold at auction.

“It has always been a dependable way for brands to connect with consumers. It’s always been a way for celebrities to connect with fans,” said Manny Ruiz, marketing expert and founder of the upcoming ’80s and ’90s throwback event NostalgiaCon, which takes place Sept. 28-29 at the Anaheim Convention Center. “Nostalgia is like lemonade: It’s bitter, and it’s sweet. Nostalgia is a powerful thing, it just always makes you feel good.”

And it’s not just the ’80s. Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film “Once Upon A Time” is a love letter to 1969 — a story about the past covered with a nostalgic gloss. The film has grossed $344.6 million at box offices worldwide, ranking No. 15 of the highest grossing films of the year.

Meanwhile, 1990’s nostalgia is making its way into the spotlight as Nickelodeon taps into its vault, harkening back to popular ’90s shows, such as “Are You Afraid of the Dark” and “Rocko’s Modern Life.”

Warner Bros. also recently announced that 2019’s most beloved actor Keanu Reeves is returning to the ’90s hit “The Matrix” that propelled him to superstardom. Carrie Anne Moss is also returning for the sequel. The cult classic “The Craft” is being remade, while Disney continues to bank on reimaginings of popular ’90s animated films. Not to mention TV networks and streaming services still fight for the rights to ’90s shows like”Seinfeld” and “Friends,” the latter of which HBO Max paid $500 million to nab.

“It’s everywhere,” said Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “I think it’s because a lot of people are dissatisfied with the way things are going right now, that harkening back to a simpler time just makes more sense.”

For all the turning-back-the-dial happening in and around Hollywood of late, it’s not a new phenomenon. People have always been addicted to the high of reliving the past at its peak, and Hollywood has always had the fix. 

While Hollywood today looks back at the ’80s, decades ago the industry was focused on another time.

“We were looking back to the ’50s constantly,” Ruiz said. “‘Back to the Future’ is arguably one of the greatest films of all time, and also one of the most nostalgic films in and of itself. It is seeped ’50s pop culture, which in the ’80s was super hot.”It was always cool to collect a ’50s thing or have a car that was a  throwback to that decade. And that’s exactly what’s happening with the ’80s.”

Entertainment litigator Matt Kline, who also advises some of Hollywood’s major studios and has worked with Warner Bros., said that when he was growing up in the ’90s, there was a fixation on the ’60s.

Creators love to mine old properties,” Kline said. “The key to a successful reboot is a creative spark. Bigger budgets and modern special effects can also help a reboot resonate with audiences or finally tell a story in the right way.”

Part of the cyclical ebb and flow of decades coming back into favor is due to filmmakers, writers, producers, and executives coming of age and being able to harken back to when they grew up and know to be the good ole days.

“The greatest art is a time machine — it transports you to a different time, a different feeling,” Dergarabedian said.

But at the end of the day, it’s still a business. The recent deluge of old movies, TV shows and IP being rebooted, remade, or otherwise reimagined speak to the state of Hollywood as an industry.

Recognizable brands and IP have become the currency in Hollywood, as blockbusters muscle out most original and indie films at the box office and networks contend with an increasing number of streaming platforms and a gaudy demand for content.

“With all of the channels and streaming platforms, there are more opportunities for content, so rights holders are going back to their vaults and modernizing successful properties from a generation ago,” Kline said. 

Because nostalgia can be as close to a surefire way as any to attract audiences, when a reboot or remake is announced, it can run the risk of feeling inauthentic, a corporate money grab.

“Let’s say it is a money grab,” Dergarabedian said. “Even if it is a bottom-line business strategy, if whatever you’re making is good, audiences don’t care. I’ve found that most instances of nostalgia are actually done fairly well.

“It’s how we connect with the past and that’s just really powerful,” he continued. “I don’t know when people started feeling that, or when they put a name to it, but it provides a very strong jumping off point for a lot of art… Studios would be remiss if in the midst of all their other content, there wasn’t something marketing to this feeling of nostalgia.”

Trey Williams

Trey Williams

Film Reporter covering the biz • • Twitter: @trey3williams


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