Studios have gone back to the future as they develop their upcoming slates, eyeing a slew of hits from the 1980s to remake, reboot or reimagine. The irony is that “Back to the Future” isn’t one of them.
Everything else is essentially getting the “Clash of the Titans” treatment: retooled with flashier f/x and a new cast of recognizable names to reintroduce the material to a new generation of moviegoers.
At least 30 films from the ’80s are being revamped, including the comedies “Police Academy,” “Short Circuit” and “Private Benjamin,” horror fare like “Fright Night” and “Poltergeist,” actioners “Escape From New York,” “RoboCop” and “Red Dawn,” and everything in between from “Near Dark” to “Footloose” and “The Karate Kid.” New sequels are in store for “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Ghostbusters.”
The projects are the latest sign of Hollywood’s continued retrenchment into a safe zone where it only greenlights films with built-in awareness — pics based on kids and young adult books, videogames, comicbooks and toys, for example.
Of course, Hollywood isn’t just remaking movies from the ’80s. Studios have dug into their vaults and are eyeing remakes of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” comedy “The Graduate,” sci-fi classics like “Fantastic Voyage” and oater “True Grit.”
It makes sense that Hollywood is gravitating toward films that will be 30 years old by the time their new incarnations hit the bigscreen. Many of the higher-profile properties were produced at a time when studios were first embracing the concept of the summer tentpole after films like “Jaws” and “Star Wars” proved that high-concept pics could translate to big business at the box office. And the thinking is: If they worked then, why not now?
There are a slew of reasons why they should:
- Many of the projects being brushed up for redos, especially horror fare and actioners, target younger audiences — still the Holy Grail for studios and exhibitors, given how many movie tickets that demo buys each year. Thirty-year-old properties seem fresh to the demo, given that they weren’t around to see the movies when they first bowed at the multiplex, or if they have seen them it was probably on cable.
- Remakes of retro pics from that era are cheaper to produce, with new versions of “Private Benjamin,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Fright Night” and “The Thing” boasting easy-to-digest midrange budgets thanks to their up-and-coming teen or twentysomething casts. The same is true for some laffers, with the original “Police Academy” having starred a cast of then-unknowns. Producers behind the relaunch of the seven-pic franchise are similarly looking to newcomers to play the fresh batch of recruits.
Michael Bay’s production shingle Platinum Dunes, especially, has gone after the youth market with reboots of “Friday the 13th,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “The Hitcher,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “The Amityville Horror,” “The Birds” and “Monster Squad.” It was working on a reboot of Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire tale “Near Dark,” but put the project on hold because of “Twilight.”
- Remakes are fairly easy to develop, with much of the groundwork having already taken place, from the development of the central characters to the soundtrack’s main theme.
- Films that relied heavily on innovative visual effects at the time — like “The Last Starfighter,” “The Neverending Story” and “Escape From New York” — now look outdated and could benefit from the latest computer-generated imagery. Some are being eyed for 3D treatment.
- Financially, relaunching a franchise from scratch can also generate more revenue. Sequels generally earn 30% less than the first pic, so it makes more sense to start over and produce a series of films based on a reboot. The original “Clash” earned $41 million during its entire domestic run, not taking into account inflation; the new version earned $50 million in its first three days.
- Titles like “Ghostbusters,” “Tron” and “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” provide studios with opportunities to pump out merchandise and collect licensing revenue. That area of Hollywood’s bottom line has grown in importance over the years as congloms demand more from their studio arms. And films that can be exploited through retail are especially attractive, considering that many of the top toy properties from Hasbro and Mattel have already been snatched up and set up at various studio lots around town.
Disney Consumer Products earned $27 billion in sales from licensed products last year alone, while Warner Bros. generated $6 billion, 20th Century Fox collected $2 billion and Sony brought in $1 billion.
- Many of the films feature strong characters — Conan, He-Man, RoboCop and “A Nightmare on Elm Street’s” Freddy Krueger — that are bankable in their own right and bring auds to the megaplex while also giving something of a spotlight to the actors that portray them.
Six actors have played James Bond on the bigscreen over the years; four have similarly donned Batman’s cape and cowl. Russell Crowe is the latest Robin Hood, and Robert Downey Jr. is now suiting up as both Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes.
These are iconic characters,” says one Warner Bros.-based producer behind a number of redos. “It almost doesn’t matter who plays them. The actor isn’t the star; the characters are much bigger than they will ever be.”
It’s why Legendary Pictures (which produced “Clash”) is looking to reintroduce Godzilla on the bigscreen, not as a remake of Sony’s 1998 pic but as an update of the Japanese pics that first introduced the rampaging lizard in the 1950s.
That iconic status is why Universal keeps eyeing its classic monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein, the Bride of Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Invisible Man and the Creature of the Black Lagoon as prime for bigscreen returns. U is moving forward with “Dracula Year Zero” as an origin story of how Prince Vlad the Impaler becomes the bloodsucking vamp, with Sam Worthington set to star. It also has a “Frankenstein” remake in the works with Guillermo del Toro set helm.
It’s also why studios aren’t eager to give up the rights to make superhero fare featuring characters from Marvel’s pantheon of crimefighters.
Fox is planning to reboot “The Fantastic Four” and “Daredevil” as new franchises after the films struggled to live up to their potential as major moneymaking franchises. And Sony is also relaunching “Spider-Man” as a new series of movies with a younger cast and director, after sequels proved too costly to make.
But in the case of “Fantastic Four” and “Daredevil,” it’s also a chance for Fox to try again and make the movies they should have produced in the first place. “Daredevil’s” $103 million take at the worldwide B.O. didn’t spawn sequels, although “Elektra” was one spinoff. And while not a failure, the two “Fantastic Four” films should have earned more than the $619 million they did worldwide, given how popular the characters are.
The problem was the execution,” says one producer close to the projects. “The studio wanted to rein in costs and hire actors with lower quotes and spend less on effects. A reboot allows you to try again and erase people’s memory of the other movies.”
But it’s easier to reintroduce superheroes.
The comicbook biz essentially invented the reboot, retelling origin stories or creating adventures for the same characters time and time again with new writers and artists shepherding the tales.
The frenzy over the latest crop of remakes has also been fueled by a recent string of B.O. successes.
After 20 movies, the James Bond franchise was re-energized with “Casino Royale.” “Batman Begins” brought fans back to Batman. And last year’s “Star Trek” made Trekkies cool. To a point.
The reality, however, is that not all of these current remakes will work. The latest, “Death at a Funeral,” from Screen Gems, has been panned by many critics, and the original Brit farce died at the B.O. in 2007.
Lionsgate stumbled twice with “The Punisher,” with four years in between pics. MGM also tripped up with a reboot of “Fame” last year, which danced its way to just $24 million at the domestic B.O.; “Death Race” didn’t cross the finish line with a big haul, either. Remakes of “Rollerball,” “Get Carter” and “The Bad News Bears” also failed to win over auds.
Still, with “Clash of the Titans” conquering the box office, Legendary will now focus on unleashing “Godzilla” on a new crop of moviegoers. Producers at the shingle are looking to fix what didn’t work in Roland Emmerich’s pricey version, including the rampaging lizard’s overall look. In the new “Clash,” they similarly made tweaks, tossing Bubo the mechanical owl from the original to the side and making the Kraken more menacing.
Similarly, MGM changed “Red Dawn’s” Russian baddies to invading Chinese communists to make the plot more relevant to the current state of the world. The new “Nightmare on Elm Street” now serves as an origin story of how Freddy becomes a serial killer. And Strike Entertainment and Universal’s “The Thing” was developed as a prequel to John Carpenter’s original scarefest, and focuses on the Norwegian crew that first discovered the shape-shifting alien in Antarctica.
You can make changes, update the plots and add more weight to the characters,” says a producer.
The question now is, what happens if the new versions don’t work? Or what if they do? Will Hollywood be remaking the remakes 30 years from now?