Showbiz develops deja view

H'wood raids its vaults

A few years ago, Sony was shooting “Godzilla” — same premise, same giant lizard — but insisted it wasn’t a remake, because the original took place in Tokyo, but this version was set in New York. Producers don’t like to seem derivative, but want the comfort and convenience of recycling old chestnuts. And as remakes are flooding the studios, Broadway is seeing a deluge of revivals. In both cases, the impulse is the same: to minimize risk and to tap into the tried-and-true.

Will “Citizen Kane” be next?

Recycling old movies never goes out of style in Hollywood, but in the funhouse mirror of the contempo studio system, nothing is safe from a remake. Not even previous remakes.

There are a glut of redo’s germinating around town, a list that includes “Harvey,” “Charade,” “Suspicion,” “Freaky Friday,” “Barbarella,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Dawn of the Dead” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

Studios have reason to be confident in the genre, considering last year’s flashy remakes of “Ocean’s 11” and “Planet of the Apes,” which together grossed more than $360 million in the U.S. alone.

And while Hollywood has always embraced remakes, there are new incentives.

With soaring development and production costs, the studios’ corporate parents have given filmmakers the mandate to pump out blockbuster franchises. So they’re turning to studios’ libraries for a trove of free, pre-branded material.

Of course, studios are not the only sectors of showbiz that are cannibalizing the past.

Nearly half of the debuting shows on Broadway this year are revivals (see separate story). On TV, the WB is remaking old skeins like “Family Affair” and “The Lone Ranger.” The soundtrack “O Brother Where Art Thou?” an anthology of 1920s roots music, has sold more than 4 million copies and just nabbed six Grammys.

The studios’ nostalgia trip covers a wide spectrum of remake strategies.

They range from Universal’s “Mummy” franchise (which reimagined a 1930s fright-fest as a gaudy, special-effects-driven romp) to Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho,” also for U, which used the same Joseph Stefano script as the 1960 Hitchcock thriller.

And then there are the U.S. remakes of foreign-lingo films (“Vanilla Sky” being the most recent example).

And even sequels: Though technically not remakes, many of them use the same characters, situations and dilemmas as the earlier pic. (Can anyone distinguish between “Lethal Weapon II” and “III”?)

And it’s not just remakes, but remakes of remakes. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train,” already filmed three times, is again in development at Warners.

A seventh version of “The Four Feathers” is due this year from Miramax. MGM and Miramax are remaking Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, “The Seven Samurai,” which served as the template for 1960’s “The Magnificent Seven,” among other films.

Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” remade as the 1964 Paul Newman oater “Outrage,” also is getting another life at Hollywood shingle Harbor Lights; and “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” the source for 1978’s “Heaven Can Wait,” was remade last year as the Chris Rock laffer, “Down to Earth.”

This penchant for going back to the well dates back to Hollywood’s early days (several silent versions of “The Wizard of Oz,” “Peter Pan,” etc.). Errol Flynn’s 1938 “Robin Hood” was the sixth iteration of the story.

Brushing up on film history can take studios in new directions, says U Pictures chair Stacey Snider. The Coen brothers are remaking a U library title, Roland Neame’s 1966 romantic caper, “Gambit,” which Snider says will breathe new life into the genre.

“There was a feeling that we loved romantic comedies, but were tired of its conventions,” says Snider. “I personally have been involved in a lot of romantic comedies. You love seeing Julia Roberts or Cameron Diaz and talented and hunky guys in a movie together, but you want to do a movie that’s not just ‘Will he or won’t he?’ ”

Producers are adamant that their new version of an oldie is different or better or both.

Dino De Laurentiis insists U’s “Red Dragon,” the second adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel, is not a remake. The 1986 “Manhunter” didn’t follow the book as closely, he says.

Arnold Kopelson, who’s developing “Strangers on a Train” at Warners, says it’s not a remake, but a reconceptualization of the Patricia Highsmith novel.

Either way, a familiar title has additional firepower for producers in pitch meetings with jaded studio execs.

Art Linson writes in his forthcoming memoir “What Just Happened,” that he knew a new “Great Expectations” would be irresistible for a studio. “Studios love famous titles. I knew that when the marketing and development executives realized the movie already had a built-in awareness, they would get all warm and fuzzy.”

RKO Pictures CEO Ted Hartley agrees. “It makes the whole development process easier. It allows people sitting around a table to focus better on what the movie is going to be.”

Hartley, who oversees a library of 1,100 features and 600 unmade screenplays, occupies a Century City office decked out with Hollywood artifacts like a spear from King Kong and the sled from “Citizen Kane.”

RKO is “remake central,” says advisor Thomas Mount, developing its own library projects like the Fritz Lang thriller “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt,” and partnering with studios on others, including “Suspicion” (set up at Dimension) and “Richest Girl In the World” (Fox).

Fueling the remake trend is the globalization of foreign cinema and the proliferation of international co-productions.

The huge success of “Three Men and a Baby,” based on the 1985 French “Trois Hommes et un Couffin,” opened the floodgates for Hollywood versions of foreign titles. Today, scores of producers travel the fest circuit, prospecting for new ideas.

Producers like Victor Drai led the wave of Gallic-to-U.S. remakes that followed “Three Men”; many of them ran aground when their fragile, whimsical premises proved largely unsuited to American auds.

But the cycle is on the upturn again as studios are finding inspiration in Asian, European and South American films for remake possibilities.

Intermedia Films co-chair Guy East likens that process to selling antiques: “When I was a kid, I’d go around to garage sales, find old brass and copper, polish it up, and present it to a new antique shop, where it would be much more valuable.”

Intermedia is doing much the same thing with European films, says East, developing American adaptations of “Sleepwalker,” a Norwegian thriller that Nicholas Kazan will script and Joel Schumacher will direct, and the German “Das Experiment,” which Baltimore/Spring Creek has come on board to co-produce.

That doesn’t mean a remake is a sure thing.

Hollywood insiders point to MGM’s unsuccessful remake of the ’70s actioner “Rollerball” as a project that lost its identity in the development process. And Paramount’s 1995 remake of “Sabrina” is an example of an unsuccessful attempt to replicate earlier magic (which in that case came largely from helmer Billy Wilder and star Audrey Hepburn).

Plus there is the kneejerk backlash from fans of the original. One observer describes “The Truth About Charlie,” Jonathan Demme’s “Charade” remake at U, as “pure insanity. You can’t beat Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. It’s a waste of everybody’s time.”

Demme defends his film, saying he’s not trying to compete with the Stanley Donen original.

“It’s not a contest in my mind,” he says. “We didn’t try to better ‘Charade.’ But we did try to turn it upside down and bring it up to the 21st century. There are a lot of opportunities to suck up the goodies of the movie and make a wildly entertaining picture.”

But plenty of producers are convinced they can improve on the original.

Kopelson, who remade another Hitchcock pic, “Dial M For Murder” as the Michael Douglas thriller, “A Perfect Murder,” says “With all humility, I think ‘Perfect Murder’ is a far better movie, considering the size of our movie, the look, the set design, and Michael Douglas’s performance.”

Kopelson says “Strangers” is “almost a perfect movie but it’s dated and older and I think there’s an audience for the movie today.”

Warner Bros. and U boast two of the largest libraries in town, 6500 and 9000, respectively, so that for both studios remakes are a way of turning languishing resources into assets that Wall Street can appreciate.

Remakes have become an explicit part of the corporate strategy at U; after the company was purchased by Vivendi, journalists and analysts were shown studio briefing books, which talked about plans to mine company vaults for remake opportunities.

Chris McGurk says he brought the U strategy with him when he moved to MGM to become vice chairman. Recently, the Lion created a theatrical entertainment division charged with finding ways to make stage properties from its library.

“You can develop these properties a hell of a lot cheaper and smarter,” McGurk says. “Every dollar you can earn in a library project is as green as any other dollar.”

Filmmakers have begun to see the remake possibilities in just about every film to come out of Hollywood. Even “Citizen Kane,” says Demme, isn’t necessarily exempt.

“Why not? If you can make a fantastic movie, and if you have a fantastic cast. It’s not like you’re pissing on the original by doing a remake.”

(David Bloom contributed to this report.)

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