Execs look abroad for fresh ideas in ready-made packages

If “Ring” rings the bell at the worldwide box office, will studios continue to play foreign-lingo bingo?

DreamWorks Pictures’ “The Ring,” which opened Stateside on Oct. 18, is an American remake of the 1998 Japanese horror film “Ringu.” Pic is one of more than a dozen foreign-language remakes that have been set up at studios during the past year.

Bowing in December is Fox’s “Solaris,” joining such recent works as “Vanilla Sky,” “Unfaithful,” “Insomnia” and “Swept Away.”

In the works is a flood of remakes, such as Miramax’s redo of the Korean pic “My Wife Is a Gangster,” Japanese romancer “Shall We Dance” and French thriller “With a Friend Like Harry.” Sony plans to remake the Argentine drama “Son of the Bride.” Paramount recently nabbed remake rights to French suspenser “Read My Lips,” while Fox owns U.S. remake rights to Japanese pic “Afterlife,” a drama about souls on their way to heaven.

If these pics succeed, they will validate the trend and could keep scouts combing through foreign films for possible remakes; if they don’t, they may end this latest wave of the cyclical trend.

Hit pics like “Il Postino,” “Life Is Beautiful” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” reignited Hollywood’s love affair with foreign-language pics. And the idea of remakes is hard to resist. Rights are often available for a pittance, and studios can bypass lengthy and costly script development when they have the outline of a story that’s a proven success.

Hollywood was similarly smitten with foreign pics in the 1980s, resulting in some mega-hits like “Three Men and a Baby” and a couple of Victor Drai-produced pics, “The Man With One Red Shoe” and “The Woman in Red.” But there were also a slew of clunkers (“Father’s Day,” “Three Fugitives,” “The Vanishing,” et al.) that helped cool the trend.

Many of those projects started with farcical French comedies; however, the new crop of remakes takes in everything from stylish Asian pics to European thrillers. Also included in the mix are Radar Pictures’ remake of a Japanese project, “Turn,” while “Dark Water” is set up at Bill Mechanic’s Disney-based Pandemonium.

On paper, the deals look attractive: A studio pays a (hopefully modest) sum for rights to a story that has worldwide potential, and certainly has a built-in audience in its home territory. The studio puts a writer on the project and, in the best-case scenario, there’s a “go” script within a year.

Softening the risk

“The studios believe that source material — something you can read or look at — will provide a greater backbone for a first-draft screenplay than taking the full risk on an original pitch,” says ICM’s Ken Kamins.

“Studios are also more aware of the global marketplace,” Kamins continues. “The fact that it’s foreign in its origin does not necessarily mean it’s a foreign concept.”

Roy Lee, a talent manager-turned-producer who set up “The Ring” at DreamWorks and a score of other Asian-lingo projects with studios, says such films used to be the domain of acquisitions execs but that now studio production execs are in on it as well.

Lee is convinced films like “The Ring” will work. “I try to look for good stories that have universal appeal,” Lee says. ” ‘My Wife Is a Gangster’ is a female version of ‘True Lies’ set in the mafia world.

“The film industries in foreign countries are getting more sophisticated and making more commercial films with higher production values. That helps, as does the fact that they are subtitling them now.”

Brooklyn Weaver, a lit manager and producer with Energy Entertainment, who together with Lee took Japanese pic “Turn” to Radar with a writer client attached, acknowledges, “This would have been a near-impossible pitch sale if there hadn’t been a film Radar could watch to see how the concept was executed.”

Ashley Kramer, exec veep of Pandemonium, says of her company’s decision to acquire the rights to “Dark Water,” “We knew that you could basically rewrite the script in English and have your movie there.”

Kramer recalls acquiring “Afterlife” while at Fox with the realization that the original, as good as it was, would have to be completely redone for American audiences. Amy Heckerling is currently adapting the project with a mind to direct.

While Lee, his producing partner Doug Davison and Weaver are good at pitching projects and convincing studios that they can make a bundle, some remain skeptical.

“It’s all an issue of how much you pay for them,” says Tom Bernard, co-head of Sony Pictures Classics. “It can be a steal if you buy them for a lot less than what you would write an original script for. But if it’s costly, with backend deals, and it doesn’t work, it can be a disaster.”

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