2011: A Record Year For Sequels, Prequels, Remakes, and Spin-Offs

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If, over the last 10 months, you’ve sometimes felt that sitting through 2011’s movies has been somewhat akin to sitting through TV’s summer reruns, that’s because you have been sitting through reruns.  Well, reruns Hollywood style.

According to a Box Office Mojo story earlier this year, 2011 will end as a record year for sequels, prequels, and spin-offs.  I don’t know if Mojo included remakes in that calculation, but whether they did or didn’t, remakes have certainly added to that oppressive déjà vu feeling which seems to roll into the multiplex every couple of weeks.

And we’re not even considering the familiar-feeling clones and knock-offs.  “Oh, yippee, another superhero flick!  Another The Hangover wannabe!”  It’s like that Twilight Zone where Dennis Weaver is damned to relive the same bad dream over and over; the people take different parts in each cycle, but it’s still the same nightmare.

Which was why, in May, Roger Ebert glumly wrote in Newsweek that it seemed that these days “…nothing is harder to get financed than an original idea, or easier than a retread.”

Year-to-date numbers put 2011’s box office running 4.2% behind last year, and on track to finish the year down from 2010 (which, in turn, finished down from 2009).  I have no doubt there are any number of reasons for attendance to be off, but offering a steady diet of re-heated leftovers can’t be helping.  C’mon, be honest:  when was the last time you sat in a movie theater watching the coming attractions and didn’t feel like you’d already seen these “new” upcoming movies?  A couple of times?

What’s gone along with all this re-hashing, rebooting and remaking has been a lot of boo-hooing and hand-wringing in the critical community about Hollywood creative poverty/bankruptcy/ conservatism and so on and so forth and blah blah blah.  Not that I disagree, but if you do a little research you’ll find there’s nothing – absolutely not-a-thing – new about Hollywood going back to the same creative well more than it should.  Movie studios did it back in those artistically daring years of the 1960s/1970s, and they did it back during the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood under the old movie moguls.  In fact, there was never a time the movie business didn’t strip-mine itself for properties to regurgitate.

What has changed is how quickly and how often and how deeply that well gets drawn from these days, and, as a consequence, it doesn’t seem to take very long before the well is empty and nothing’s coming up but bottom mud.

*****

Hollywood has been remaking and sequelling since, well, since there’s been a Hollywood.  And, despite all the pissing and moaning about what sequels and remakes signal about the creative collapse of the mainstream movie business, there’s nothing inherently artistically corrupt about them.

Some damned fine films have been remakes.  The classic 1941 noir, The Maltese Falcon, for example, was actually Warner Bros.’ third version of Dashiell Hammet’s hardboiled private eye novel.  Then there’s MGM’s 1959 epic, Ben-Hur.  A monster box office hit, the Oscar record holder (until 1997’s Titanic) with 11 wins including Best Picture, and considered one of the best of the era’s sword-and-sandal extravaganzas,  William Wyler’s 1959 adaptation of the Lew Wallace novel was a remake of a 1925 silent blockbuster hit which, in turn, was a remake of a 1907 version.  There’ve been four screen adaptations of Ben Hecht’s screwball stage comedy The Front Page, with Howard Hawks’ genre-defining 1940 screwball comedy, His Girl Friday (which turned the character of Hildy Johnson into a woman), being the second one.  Or how about Philip Kaufman’s impeccable 1979 redo of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the first of three remakes of the 50s classic)?  Or David Cronenberg’s turning of 50s teens-on-a-date sci fi schlock into a pitch-perfect adult blend of grotesque horror and tragic love story in his 1986 remake of The Fly?  And need I mention the Coen Brothers 2010 Oscar-nominated refashioned-from-the-ground-up version of True Grit?  See?  Remake is hardly an automatic dirty word.

Hollywood’s been an even more prolific remake maker when it comes to properties in the public domain (Hollywood loves a property it doesn’t have to pay for).  According to the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB), this month’s release of The Three Musketeers is at least the 11th U.S. theatrical adaptation of the Dumas classic, the first big-screen rendering dating back to 1903.

That’s nothing.  There’ve been 15 takes on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, at least 33 Romeo and Juliets, and God knows how many Draculas and Frankenstein monsters (even Boris Karloff’s iconic flat-topped 1933 Frankenstein was a remake, preceded by a frazzle-haired 1910 grotesque).

And sequels?  Let me tell you about sequels.

There was a time long before this one – back during that supposed Golden Age, when kings like Louis Mayer and the brothers Warner were running the big studios – when the business couldn’t have gotten by without sequels.  Just like now, every major (and most of the minors) had movie series (franchises, if you will) that were regular, predictable contributors to a studio’s bottom line.

In the 1930s, the studios had come up with the idea of the double bill – two movies for the price of one – to try to lure back the moviegoers the cash-draining Depression had chased away.  The sequel/series/franchise – call it what you will – regularly helped fill out the bill.

They came in all shapes and sizes, from upscale A productions (the Thin Man, Andy Hardy, and early Tarzan series) to Poverty Row efforts (the long-running Bowery Boys/East Side Kids series).  There were comedies broad (Ma and Pa Kettle) and not so broad (Maisie), domestic comedy (Blondie), melodrama (Dr. Kildare), adventure (Jungle Jim, Bomba), Western (Hopalong Cassidy), and tons and tons and tons of mysteries (Boston Blackie, Sherlock Holmes, The Saint, Crime Doctor, Charlie Chan, The Falcon, et al).

Han Solo, Captain Jack Sparrow, Harry Potter, even James Bond – they would’ve all fit right in.

Granted, most of these were strictly B flicks, low-budget bottom-of-the-bill filler, instantly forgettable and utterly disposable.  With their tight budgets, short schedules, and formulaic plots, they more resembled the episodes of a TV series than what we would think of as a movie sequel today – which, in those days before TV, was more or less what they were.

So, what about real sequels?  Sequels like we do think of them today.  How about those?

Well, yes, there were “real” sequels, and they were made for the same reasons they’re made today:  to cash in on the brand name popularity of the original.  Son of Kong was ground out so fast it managed to come out the same year King Kong was released:  1933.  And then there were all those Frankstein, Dracula, Wolfman sequels and cross-pollinations Universal spat out on a regular basis throughout the 1930s/1940s.  The only thing which kept Warner Bros. from sequelling The Maltese Falcon was Dashiell Hammett’s warning that while the studio owned the rights to his novel, Hammett still owned the characters.

See?  Nothing new.  At least in principle.

What did change was a certain attitude, a certain strategic thinking about what sequels were supposed to do v. what they could do.

The non-series sequel – the kind that we, today, think of as a sequel – was always a purely, cynically mercenary affair.  They weren’t about continuing a story, and the idea of maintaining (let alone nurturing) a franchise wasn’t part of the thinking; sequels were about how many more ways a given cat could be skinned.  The strategy was simple, the calculation exact:  make a sequel cheap, make it quick, get it into theaters while audiences were still thinking warmly of the original, and, with luck, you’d earn somewhere around 40% of what the original had brought in.

That’s why most old sequels – especially in long-running franchises – look so damned bad!  The original 1968 Planet of the Apes cost a then respectable $5.8 million to make.  Each subsequent sequel, however, was made for less than the installment before, and by the time the fifth entry came out in 1973 – Battle for the Planet of the Apes – the budget was down to a skimpy $1.8 million and looked like it had been shot in someone’s backyard.

Or take the sequels to The Magnificent Seven, made in 1960 for a budget of $3 million.  Seven A-list star Yul Brynner was the only one of the original cast to show up in 1966’s Return of the Magnificent Seven, and by 1969’s Guns of the Magnificent Seven, his compact, bald character had magically morphed into thick-middled, gray-haired B-lister George Kennedy.  By the last sequel – 1972’s The Magnificent Seven Ride — the cigar-smoking character was now the mustachioed, pipe-smoking Lee Van Cleef, and the movie had all the production value of an episode of Bonanza…and not one of the better episodes at that.

*****

With The Godfather:  Part II (1974), writer/director Francis Ford Coppola proved a sequel didn’t have to be a low-rent rehash of the original.  Godfather II continued the story arcs of the first film, building and expanding on the original to turn the sequel into a true second chapter in an epic story begun in Godfather I.  The result was a movie every bit as dramatically and aesthetically impressive as the original (some might argue even better), and the first sequel to ever – and deservedly — win a Best Picture Oscar.

George Lucas, whom Coppola had mentored into the movie business in the late 1960s, took Coppola’s concept even further with The Empire Strikes Back (1980), the first follow-up to his 1977 blockbuster smash, Star Wars.  Lucas had had the benefit of having a multipart architecture in mind all along, and with SW’s landmark success (it was, for years, the all-time box office champion), he could, as Coppola had done on Godfather II, pour more resources into the sequel rather than take the usual Hollywood tack of putting in less.  With cost overruns, Star Wars had cost about $13 million; Lucas put $18 million into Empire, and $32.5 million into the last chapter of the original trilogy, Revenge of the Jedi (1983).

While neither Empire nor Revenge hit the box office heights of Star Wars ($775 million), they were still astronomical hits in their own rights, earning a combined $1 billion domestic, with Empire on the all-time box office champs list right behind Star Wars.

Lucas had wisely retained merchandising rights and control of the property, and by the end of the first trilogy had created a new franchise paradigm for a new era in American commercial film.  Theatrical release was no longer a be-all/end-all, but only supplied the basis for a cross-promoting, cross-pollinating, multi-media brand involving everything from TV shows to re-packaged home video re-releases, videogames to action figures and Star Wars bed sheets.  Ultimately, under Lucas’ orchestrating hand, the Star Wars brand would make more money from ancillary markets and licensing deals than from theatrical box office.

The lesson taught by Lucas was that by investing in and maintaining a franchise – rather than trying to milk it dry – the franchise brand name could continue to generate revenue in any variety of ways for years to come.

Fortunately for studio accountants, and unfortunately for people who go to the movies, studios have been generally more intrigued by what Lucas achieved financially than what Coppola achieved artistically which is why we have more sequels like Transformers:  Dark of the Moon and The Hangover Part II and Pirates of the Caribbean:  on Stranger Tides than, say, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 & 2 and The Lord of the Rings:  Return of the King (2003).

By and large, Hollywood never got to that part of the Lucas memo where he says you put more money into sequels to make them not just bigger, but better.  Like a game of telephone where the message gets distorted with each retelling, what Hollywood heard is that bigger is better.  As a consequence, most sequels today are a rather numbing hybrid between Old Hollywood’s propensity for beating a once original idea to death in sequels, and the New Hollywood strategy of  compensating for a lack of entertainment value with bigness:  more effects, more action, and just plain more.  Result?  Except for scale and impressive production values, there’s not much qualitative difference between the latest Pirates or the last Spider-Man flick and something like Battle for the Planet of the Apes.

Having said all that, it’s still an undeniable if unpleasant fact that, by and large, sequels – even lousy ones — work.

Consider the Top Ten 2011 flicks in domestic earnings to date:

1)  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (sequel)

2)  Transformers:  Dark of the Moon (sequel)

3)  The Hangover Part II (sequel)

4)  Pirates of the Caribbean:  On Stranger Tides (sequel)

5)  Fast Five (sequel)

6)  Cars 2 (sequel)

7)  Thor

8)  Captain America:  The First Avenger

9)  Rise of the Planet of the Apes (series re-boot)

10)  Bridesmaids

Even though most of the above sequels showed signs of franchise fatigue – not pulling the audience numbers of earlier installments and lacking staying power at the box office – the seven follow-ups above still had a combined U.S. take of nearly $2 billion.

You think that’s impressive?  The combined worldwide take for those same titles is $5.3 billion! 

If you look at numbers like that, the question isn’t why Hollywood makes so many sequels; the question is, how could they not?

*****

While the strategic thinking behind sequels and franchises makes a blunt economic sense, the thinking behind remakes doesn’t make much sense at all since they often make fewer cents (bad pun intended).  So, then, why make them?  Why make so many of them?


Granted, as I pointed out earlier, movie history is filled with memorable remakes, some of them even better than the original (who the hell talks about the 1931 The Front Page?  The first two versions of The Maltese Falcon?).  And, like the Coens’ True Grit ($171 million domestic), there’ve been a few respectable earners of late.  Steven Spielberg’s return to H.G. Wells’ Everyman view in his 2005 remake of War of the Worlds was positively huge with a domestic take alone of $234 million.  Even awful remakes – like 2010’s Clash of the Titans – have sometimes brought in good money ($163 million domestic + $330 million foreign).

But, more often than not, the earnings track record of remakes is less than impressive, and 2011’s bumper crop of redos have been spilling red ink like they have hemorrhagic fever:

The Mechanic (budget:  $40 million/U.S. box office:  $29.1 million)

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark ($25/$24)

Conan the Barbarian ($90/$21.2)

Fright Night ($30/$18.2)

The Thing ($35/$16.3)

Straw Dogs ($25/$10.3)

The Three Musketeers ($90/$16.3)

In case you haven’t been keeping score, that’s a total outlay of $335 million (excluding marketing costs), against a skimpy cumulative domestic take of just $135.4 million.  They’re not making it up in foreign, either, with a combined thin $132.5 million in overseas receipts (almost half of which has come from Musketeers).  As of this writing, the only remake turned out this year which stands to make money is the still-in-release Footloose, and not because it’s been a ticket-selling powerhouse (domestic b.o. will probably top out below $50 million, but the movie is playing poorly overseas and foreign looks to come in below $10 million), but because Paramount managed to make the movie for a lean $24 million (the 1984 original did over $80 million back when ticket prices were about 40% of what they are today).

Now, when you look at those numbers, then the question is why make them?

It certainly can’t be for the brand name recognition.  With the bulk of the heaviest spending audience demo being under 25, it’s doubtful the average ticket buyer has ever even heard of some of this year’s original source flicks.

So, again…why?

*****

One of the many quotable bits from two-time Oscar winner William Goldman’s classic book about his experiences in the movie business, Adventures in the Screen Trade:  A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting, is the following:

“Studio executives are intelligent, brutally overworked men and women who share one thing in common with baseball managers:  They wake up every morning of the world with the knowledge that sooner or later they’re going to get fired.”

Though now semi-retired, Bill Persky’s career in TV and film covered 25 years, earned him a shelf full of Emmys, and included collaborations with Carl Reiner, Sid Ceasar, and even Orson Welles.  He is what I refer to as a “credible authority.”

I was once grousing about some of the crap hitting screens one particular summer and I made the observation it seemed like studios would say yes to damned near anything.

According to Persky, the exact opposite was true.  “Their favorite word is, ‘no,’” he said.  In fact, they’d look for any reason to pass on something because “once you say yes, you’re on the hook.”  Greenlight a movie and now you’re responsible, you’re accountable.  “You always have to remember,” he told me – and this goes to Goldman’s point – “that the dominant feeling (in Hollywood) is fear.”

Which, he went on to say, is why studios spend so much time and money on market research, focus groups, polling, testing advertising elements, Q-scores, ratings…the whole Hollywood statistics menu.

Not that it does any good.  None of it ameliorates Hollywood’s outrageous failure rate.  Right now, of the 507 feature films released in U.S. theaters since January 1, 415 have made less than $20 million.  Only 49 have done better than $50 million.  The average take for 2011 domestic releases thus far stands at just a little over $15 million against an average budget in excess of $65 million (not counting marketing).

What all that research and ratings does do is provide – hopefully – some kind of ass coverage.  When a movie flops – and clear successes are so rare a statistician would consider them some sort of mathematical aberration – all those numbers and findings provide alibis:  “Yeah, ok, the movie died the day it opened, but it should’ve worked.  The story had all the elements the focus groups liked, the star has a visibility rating through the roof and his/her last two pictures opened at Number One, the poster looked just like the poster from our last big hit…” and so on.  In other words, you can punch up your Power Point for your boss and say, “See?  It’s not my fault.”

A remake kinda/sorta does the same thing.   It’s a proven commodity.  We’re not just talking a “favorable” from a test screening here, but a property that’s already proven its worth in theaters in front of a paying audience.

Then why do so many of them – in 2011’s case, why do almost all of them – do so badly?

 

In part it’s that fear thing Bill Persky talked about.  Having greenlit a remake – having, as Persky says, now put themselves “on the hook” – studio execs begin to sweat.  It belatedly occurs to the greenlighters that the moviegoers of 20/30/40 years ago are different from today’s moviegoers, and that’s when they take the source material and – as they like to say in press releases – “make it relevant to today’s audience.”

What that usually means it taking out everything about the original that made it distinctive and replacing it with elements which make the remake look, well, pretty much like everything else.  That might mean younger, prettier casts (2004’s remake of 1965’s The Flight of the Phoenix), more action (2009’s remake of 1974’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three; the latest version of The Three Musketeers), and anything else today’s studios execs can think of that might “bring the kids in.”

It also too often means – even under the guiding hand of a strong filmmaker – misunderstanding the underlying essence of the original – its heart – which had made it so memorable.  Tony Scott’s remake of Pelham missed the point that the heart of the original wasn’t in its daring but simple subway hijacking, but in its wittily barbed portrait (thanks to a screenplay by Peter Stone) of a dysfunctional New York City c. 1970s.

Ok, Tony Scott may not be the kind of director you think of when I say “guiding hand of a strong filmmaker,” but Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake of 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate missed the thematic boat as well.   What has kept the original so resonant over nearly a half-century and beyond the Cold War dynamic which spawned it isn’t its cunning assassination plot, but its driving idea of how our own worst enemy is our easily exploitable paranoias.

Demme also mishandled the 2002 The Truth about Charlie, a remake of the 1963 thriller, Charade.  The original is a light, fun piece riding on the buoyant charms of leads Cary Grant and Audrey

Hepburn, backed by a colorful supporting cast of familiar faces (James Coburn, George Kennedy, Ned Glass, Walter Matthau), spouting the drollery of screenwriter Peter Stone with no less than Stanley Donen overseeing the whole enterprise, set against a romantic Paris.  Demme gives us Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton, a rather nondescript second tier, and a busy, hand-held execution which takes itself so seriously it saps from the proceedings both the fun and light-footed glamour which had made the flyweight original so entertaining.

But I think the 2011 award for the Most Badly Re-Thought Remake has to be Rod Lurie’s take of Sam Peckinpah’s highly provocative, highly controversial Straw Dogs (1971).  Peckinpah had found, in Gordon William’s source novel, The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, a vehicle to explore his feelings about man’s buried primal drives of territoriality and violence.  The 1971 movie was troubling then, and remains so because of its reveling in moral ambiguity; there are no good guys, there is no hero, there is only exposure of the primitive lying within even the most sophisticated human being.  In this, while the movie still speaks to audiences, it was very much a product of the socially unsettled 1960s/1970s.  But Lurie – as I pointed out in an August comparison between the novel, Peckinpah’s adaptation, and Lurie’s remake – doesn’t work in moral ambiguity.  In re-tuning the movie for today, Lurie replaced Peckinpah’s Cornish primitives with American southern rednecks; the morally ambiguous characters of Dustin Hoffman’s tight-assed, condescending, conflict-avoidant “astral mathematician” and Susan George’s immature young wife with James Marsden’s well-meaning screenwriter and Kate Bosworth’s supportive, post-Women’s Lib wife; and he turned Peckinpah’s universal exploration of the violent heart within every man into a Red State v. Blue State diatribe.

Will this kind of disastrous performance record convince studio executives that perhaps, possibly, just maybe they couldn’t do any worse rolling the dice on original material?

Nah.

Fear is a powerful thing.  It built the Great Wall of China, amassed Cold War nuclear stockpiles their owners were even more fearful of using, has regularly cast some race or ethnicity into the role of “other” to be looked at with suspicion and paranoia and even persecution.  Studio execs are no less riddled with foibles than the rest of the human race, so it’s pie-in-the-sky dreaming to think their thinking could ever be any more rational than that of anybody else.  They have high-paying jobs they want to keep but know they must inevitably lose, sticking them with the sad, scary, limited ambition of trying to forestall the inevitable as long as possible.

Between now and the end of the year, slated for release are no less than six sequels, one franchise reboot, and two remakes.  Enough of them will stink up theaters by flopping and/or being so stunningly bad as to confirm what the pissers and moaners have been saying year-in and year-out about lobotomized decision-making in Hollywood.  And, enough of them will do well enough for the decision-makers to feel they made the right decisions and think, To hell with the critics; I still have a job.

And next year, like poor Dennis Weaver, we’ll go to sleep and dream the whole sorry nightmare all over again.

Bill Mesce





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