F/x remakes hooked on the non-classics

Remakes of classic films like “Sabrina” and “An Affair to Remember” bombed at the box office, so Hollywood is lowering its sights: The studios are throwing big bucks at camp.

Because they evidently are still wary of original ideas, the studios are embracing remakes — but this time, they are turning to talking fish, mutated ants and giant lizards. Some of the films were critically panned and a few were even B.O. clunkers.

A few years ago, most execs would have laughed you out of the room if you’d suggested remaking these chestnuts. But in a way, it makes sense. When you remake a classic, you open yourself up to comparisons with the first one. By remaking a minor or goofball pic, you can look better than the original.

Undeterred by the fact that “Doctor Dolittle” was a financial train wreck for Fox in 1967, the studio is remaking it. This time around, however, the man who talks to animals will be played by Eddie Murphy in a nonmusical version, set for an Easter 1998 release.

Sony is re-doing a film that has become synonymous with cheesy special effects, wooden acting and lame dialogue: “Godzilla.” But the studio insists the Dean Devlin-Roland Emmerich pic is not a remake — the mayhem this time is in Manhattan — and Sony will launch a marketing blitz next summer for the megabudget lizard pic.

Warner Bros. is high on a remake of “The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” the 1964 Don Knotts comedy about a man who becomes a fish. The part toon, part live-action pic has become a Sunday-afternoon staple on local TV — not exactly a prestige item. However, this time out, the top on the list to star is the $20 million man himself, Jim Carrey.

In the wake of the success of Universal’s “The Nutty Professor,” Jerry Lewis has sold “The Errand Boy” to Disney’s Hollywood Pictures label. In recent weeks, Lewis has been in talks about a remake of “The Bellboy.”

That would add to Disney’s plans for “Flubber,” a remake of “The Absent-Minded Professor” scheduled for a holiday release.

Keep it simple

Comedies, sci-fi and disaster pics seem to fit well with Hollywood’s drive toward big events (in contrast to complex dramas). And many of the plots can be found from films of the 1950s, when post-WW II themes of man emerging victorious over beasts or aliens were the norm.

“The audiences seem to be responding to certain kinds of simple concepts,” says David Vogel, president of Walt Disney Pictures. “Martians invade. Volcano erupts. Asteroid heads to Earth. We are in this world of headline movies. If the New York Post can put it on the front page, we can remake it.”

He notes that the renewed interest in pics from the Atomic Age may relate to the unknowns attendant to the coming millennium.

“A lot of this stuff is not dissimilar to the 1950s, when there was a great desire to make sense of things. With a movie about a monster that comes to terrorize a city but is conquered, you can define that. It is about conquering the visceral aspects of life, and there is something satisfying about it.”

And with special effects and new leads, they may indeed be made with more polish than the first. But money is a higher priority than a salute from the National Film Registry.

It is a lot easier to sell flying saucers than Sabrina, which means that these pics have a much better chance of being merchandising and marketing events. Also important is that they have easy-to-define plotlines, and industry thinking is that this simplicity can help a pic score big on its opening weekend.

Don’t fix it

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And if it’s a great film, why redo it? Critics and the public were indifferent to recent remakes of classic drama pics and sophisticated comedies like “Born Yesterday,” “The Getaway,” “Diabolique,” “The Bishop’s Wife” (“The Preacher’s Wife”) and “Miracle on 34th Street.”

Billy Wilder did not bash the 1995 “Sabrina,” but questioned why it had to be remade. Universal planned heavy plot changes on “The Day of the Jackal,” but intended to keep the well-known title.

However, the studio endured a wave of criticism and bad publicity when Fred Zinnemann, who had directed the 1973 pic, claimed they were unfairly exploiting the original’s title. The studio eventually dropped the moniker and for now is simply calling it “Jackal.”

No shortages

Studios still have drama remakes down the pike, such as “The Quiet American” and “Seconds” at Par. Others in development skew more to the adult crowd. Warner Bros. is looking to revive the swinging Rat Pack heist classic “Ocean’s 11” via Jerry Weintraub Prods.

And Fox has a remake of Stanley Donen’s 1967 comedy “Bedazzled,” about a short-order cook who is given seven wishes by Lucifer in return for his soul. Harold Ramis directs and writes the new version.

“Sometimes it is the more obscure films that are more interesting,” says producer David Permut, whose credits include the 1987 remake of “Dragnet” and the upcoming “Love Boat” film. “They may not be recognizable titles, but they are concepts that are valid and make sense.”

Often when you’re dealing with cherished material and true classics, you’re asking for trouble. However, with lower goals, you’re guaranteed an easier time.

“It is a generational thing,” Vogel says. “Some of these movies were made when today’s moviegoing audience did not see them.”

Aside from that, studio execs insist that they can improve upon the original. They’re betting that with big stars and improved special effects, they have a shot at doing these pics better, and with far greater returns at the box office.

Certainly star power and star effects helped Eddie Murphy to successfully step into Jerry Lewis’ shoes in “The Nutty Professor” (which was loosely based on the original) and helped Glenn Close become a live-action counterpart to an animated Cruella DeVil in “101 Dalmatians.”

Banking on star-power

For “Flubber,” Disney is banking on Robin Williams, linked up with special effects, to re-create “The Absent-Minded Professor.”

“Limpet” star Knotts recalls that “Limpet” was released virtually without fanfare, only to catch on in later runs. With a new version, Warner Bros. hopes to combine new animation technology with live action and the star-power of Carrey, if a deal is closed.

“He’ll get a dollar or two more than I did,” Knotts quips.

And if the studios aren’t raiding old movies for ideas, they’re strip-mining old TV shows, which offer instantly identified characters and plotlines, however desperate. (One recent pitch: “Lambchop: The Movie”).

But the rights to many of the best-known series now are locked up, and the price of the remainders have skyrocketed. Cinergi recently paid $1.75 million to the estate of Sheldon Leonard for the feature rights to “I Spy.”

“The TV vaults are empty,” says producer Permut, who bid on “I Spy” on behalf of Fox.

But even there, producers have looked beyond Hall of Fame classics like “I Love Lucy” and “All in the Family” to common-denominator fare like “The Flintstones” and “McHale’s Navy,” with varying degrees of success.

Remember “Flipper”?

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