Remakes need a makeover

H'w'd steps up its updates, but idea is far from surefire

With more than 15 remakes in preparation, Paramount clearly subscribes to the notion that redos are the closest thing Hollywood has to a foolproof idea: By tinkering with a script that has already proven successful, studios can avoid lengthy and costly development.

At other studios, execs and producers are similarly mining catalogs at a fever pitch. After a summer of sequels, Hollywood seems to think the next big thing is remakes.

The only problem is, there’s no evidence indicating a remake has an advantage over an original when it hits theaters.

Proponents of the old-is-better school point to such recent hits as “Ocean’s Eleven,” “The Mummy,” “The Ring,” “Mr. Deeds” and “Gone in 60 Seconds.”

They conveniently forget flops like “Rollerball,” “The In-Laws,” “The Four Feathers,” “Get Carter,” “Sweet November” and “Treasure Planet.”

Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman says “there’s no inherent advantage” in doing a remake, as opposed to an original. “It’s a different kind of development — not necessarily easier or harder.”

Donna Powers agrees after having written, with husband Wayne, the remake of 1969’s “The Italian Job” for Par.

“The original was a good template, but I don’t know that (having it) it made our job that much easier,” she admits. “We needed two years and we worked on nothing else.”

The Powerses went through 18 drafts in two years. And the remake — with a domestic gross near $90 million — ended up with only a few elements of the earlier pic.

Clearly, a remake is no guarantee of anything. But the range of success, both artistic and financial, for remakes raises the question: What are the elements that work when redoing an old pic?

There are some rules for what doesn’t work:

  • Well-loved star vehicles. “Sabrina” didn’t work without Billy Wilder or Audrey Hepburn; the Hepburn-Cary Grant hit “Charade” devolved into the less beloved “The Truth About Charlie”; and “An Affair to Remember” lost its spark when it became Warren Beatty’s “Love Affair.”

  • “Time capsule” movies. Some movies are very much a product of their time and place. In 1929 and again in 1939, “The Four Feathers” was a time-sensitive study of war, heroism and cowardice; by 2002, the world’s view of war had changed so much that the plot was inapplicable. Similarly, the 1939 “The Women” is a hilarious comedy with a lot of juicy roles. But the film’s pre-women’s lib sensibility has stymied filmmakers for decades who have tried, without success, to update the material.

  • Sci-fi/fantasy pieces that could be redone with new technology. “The Time Machine,” “Godzilla,” “Rollerball,” “Willard,” etc., all were touted as providing tech opportunities to outdazzle the first go-round. The visual effects may have been better, but the overall effect wasn’t.

  • French comedies. Despite flukes like “The Birdcage” and “Three Men and a Baby,” Hollywood is littered with pics such as “Visiting Day,” “Three Fugitives,” “Father’s Day” and “My Father the Hero.”

  • A faithful reworking of a timeless script, e.g., “Psycho.”

“The No. 1 rule is: Don’t remake a classic,” says screenwriter Leslie Dixon, who wrote the remakes for “The Thomas Crown Affair” and the upcoming “Freaky Friday.” “Do not remake something like ‘Casablanca’ because you’ll be tearing down a perfect structure. But it can work on a film that had a good premise with a flawed execution.”

What seems to work best are films that don’t follow the original too closely. This again raises the question of exactly what constitutes a remake.

Hollywood seems to need a new term — a “revamp” or “rework” — for a film that borrows little more than the title and vague concept of an earlier pic, such as Universal’s “The Mummy” or DreamWorks’ “The Ring.”

“Cheaper by the Dozen” was the title of a book and then a 1950 film, but Fox’s upcoming version is not a retelling of either.

“Movies are remade for different reasons,” Rothman says. “At Fox, I’d say we believe more in a remake where you’re giving a contemporary incarnation to a big idea.”

Rothman says there are three key factors when mulling a revamp: “We tend to look at big ideas; strong titles that convey the idea; and an idea that lends itself to contemporary treatment.”

While saying development is no easier with a remake or revamp, the exec says the concept “can be an advantage if there is a great title or a great story.”

As an example of a great title, he mentions “Dr. Dolittle.” Though the two Eddie Murphy films bear almost no similarity to the 1967 Rex Harrison musical, the title immediately says: Here’s a man who talks to animals.

Producer John Davis had long sought to remake “Dr. Dolittle” and the upcoming “Flight of the Phoenix” because of the profound influence those pix had on his childhood in the 1960s.

“It’s really simple: I like to make the movies that I want to see,” Davis adds. “They’re both part of my movie DNA. I had thought about them for years and years and years.”

For “Phoenix,” which shoots this fall in Namibia, Davis believes improvements in aeronautical shooting and f/x will freshen a compelling tale of losers rebuilding a crashed airplane. “I would not remake ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ — that would be like spitting on the movie gods,” he adds.

Remakes tend to be the province of persistent producers who can see a hit arising from the ashes of the original.

“The concept of the Mummy is something that runs through every culture of the world,” notes producer Sean Daniel. “If we hadn’t made it with Universal in 1999, someone else would have by now.”

Here are a few other examples of elements that help a remake succeed:

  • An old film that has been reinvented and updated, particularly a comedy: “The Nutty Professor,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Father of the Bride.”

  • Horror remakes: “The Ring,” “Red Dragon,” several “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

“Horror has a huge international fan base to it and it’s not cast-driven,” notes Primal Pictures partner Amanda Klein, who specializes in remake rights after a decade in acquisitions at USA Films.

  • High-concept actioners: “The Mummy,” “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Gone in 60 Seconds” ($230 million globally).

“The shorthand for the movie is so much simpler,” admits MTV exec VP David Gale of his shingle’s attempts to remake “The Warriors” with Tony Scott helming. “People use the original as a reference point, and although it still requires a tremendous amount of thought and discussion, the fact that it’s a remake is a clear advantage from a marketing standpoint.”

Gale asserts “The Warriors,” which grossed an unspectacular $22 million in 1979, is ripe to be remade partly due to its seminal influence on hip-hop and musicvideos. “In some ways, it was before its time,” he adds. “We think it’s territory that hasn’t been well-explored since. So there’s a way to do this so it’s fresh.”

Generally, it helps if the remake isn’t overly worshipful of the original. Wayne and Donna Powers say they watched the 1969 version of “The Italian Job” only once.

“It did have a strong impact on us, but the problem with watching it more than once is that you run the risk of copying it,” he recalls.

“The studio and (producer) Donald De Line even said it didn’t have to include Mini Coopers, but we felt that they were a great device. We also wanted to preserve the traffic jam, the gold bars and the lack of guns.”

So the Powerses decided to set the film in Los Angeles, give the characters funny nicknames like Handsome Rob and Napster and have the heist crew do without firearms.

But critics and audiences who are nostalgic for an old film can turn against the new version with venom.

“We were ready for everyone to say, ‘How dare they remake a classic and why can’t Hollywood come up with something original’ when we opened ‘The Thomas Crown Affair,’ but we were fortunate that a lot of the critics actually had looked at the original,” recalls screenwriter Dixon.

“They realized that we knew it would have been idiotic to pretend that Pierce Brosnan is the same guy as Steve McQueen.”

Producer Sean Daniel, who spent nearly a decade developing “The Mummy” with partner Jim Jacks, agrees that remakes require assiduous handling.

“We met a wall of skepticism along the way until we got Stacey Snider and Ron Meyer to back us,” he recalls. “Essentially, what we were trying to do was take a low-budget concept and turn it into an event movie.”

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