The Surge in Remakes and Their Collateral Damage

With everything from The Craft to Kindergarten Cop getting some kind of remake right now, what's the real damage that's being done?

It might just be us, but the number of remake announcements we’ve seen in 2015 seems to be on the increase. In recent weeks alone we’ve had the cheery news that new takes on Big Trouble In Little China, Sister Act, The Craft, and Kindergarten Cop are getting new takes of various sizes. And the response is both understandable and predictable: has Hollywood run out of ideas?

Well, probably. And yet I’d argue it’s not that simple. That, in part, the dependency on remakes and sequels is a little bit down to us, but even more so, down to the fact that fewer big movies are being made, and studios want as much on their side when they’re committing a nine figure spend to a film.

Let’s deal with the bit that’s our fault first. If we didn’t go and see all these remakes, they wouldn’t make them. It really is that brutally simple. But the truth here is that even with a remake that wasn’t deemed to be a massive success – 2014’s RoboCop – the familiarity of the name does a bit of the exposure work for the film. RoboCop was liked by some, disliked by others, but still rustled up $242 million of business. If it had been called something different – Finger Gun Man, perhaps – then its take would surely have been far lower.

Remakes walk hand in hand with sequels, franchises and cinematic universes. They lessen the risk for a movie studio. That’s pretty much the core reason for their existence.

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Every now and then, there’s a filmmaker-driven reason. Steven Soderbergh tackled Ocean’s 11 because he thought the first one missed the mark (and his take on Solaris substantially cut the running time), while Breck Eisner found interesting things to say with the new take on The Crazies. But most of the time, a remake comes with a known-name, and that instantly cuts back a bit – but far from all – of the marketing job.

After all, just look at the take for acclaimed, standalone nine figure blockbusters. We cite the example regularly, but Doug Liman’s excellent Edge Of Tomorrow did a third of the business of the mainly-hated Transformers: Age Of Extinction. That’s the power of the brand name, and the weight of a franchise that can lure in international audiences in particular.

But why do studios choose to make so many blockbusters anyway? Is there not room in the marketplace for a range of films at various budgets? Probably, but the riches now are at the top end of the market. Every movie studio, over the past decade, has reduced its motion picture output. Jeffrey Katzenberg, back when he was heading up Disney’s movie output, set a goal of a new Disney film every week in cinemas back in the early 1990s. For 2016, Disney currently has 12 films in total planned for release. Of those, one is a DisneyNature movie, three are animations, three are in some way based around previous animated films (Alice Through The Looking Glass, The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon), two are Marvel movies, and one is a Star Wars project. The other two are Steven Spielberg’s take on The BFG (that the studio is co-producing) and Craig Gillespie’s The Finest Hours.

So: from around 50 films to 12. And all but two of those 12 movies is going to cost over $100m to make, and about the same to market. Of those Disney wants, we’d imagine, fewer riskier, standalone projects such as Tomorrowland and John Carter, and more safer bets, like a Marvel movie. 

But this isn’t picking on Disney. Go around the other studios, and Paramount, for instance, doesn’t even have ten films for 2016 yet, whilst the likes of Sony Pictures is reducing its output. The studios, as they have been for years, are making fewer films. With fewer slots on the schedule, every film is having to be marketed as some kind of event.

As a consequence, the mid-budget level of filmmaking has been eroded heavily. It’s only really “smaller” major studios like Lionsgate that continue to invest at this level. Furthermore, production companies such as EuropaCorp are nimbly working away, but not necessarily with studio backing every time. That’s why EuropaCorp will sell the Taken films to Fox, and Lucy to Universal. The studio gets to pick and choose projects, limiting its own exposure in the process.

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Lots of the films that we rightly laud from the ’80s and ’90s sat in the mid-level budget bracket. The somewhere-around $20-40 million mark, where there’s enough money to put scale on screen, but not too much to remove creative risktaking from the process. But Hollywood studios are looking at films primarily that fall into one of two financial categories: very cheap, or very expensive. With little in between. Horror in particular is enjoying a resurgence, not least because someone like Warner Bros knows it can get a decent horror movie for $10-15 million, and if it pumps marketing collateral at it, it can score a very profitable $300 million (or more) hit, and sequels. Comedy too gets a pass. But action films? Thrillers? Sci-fi? It’s big or small, with little in-between. These are the films that are getting squeezed out by the current Hollywood system.

Hence, we arrive at remakes. I can’t sit here and say that every remake I watch is bad. Far from it, oddly enough. But I am increasingly of the view that a remake on the schedule tends to be a missed opportunity.

It’s a simple view, certainly, but if Disney backs a Sister Act remake, or Warner Bros invests in a new Point Break, then the blunt truth is that the film in question will take up one of the slots on its major release calendar. With so few slots to play for anyway – especially with Disney, where a live action take on an animated movie, a Star Wars film, a Pixar film, a Walt Disney Animation Studios projects and at least two Marvels have their towels on the loungers of six slots a year already – remakes are inevitably being more keenly felt. And they always feel like a missed opportunity.

For that’s the great loss here. Where is the next, interesting $50 million movie coming from? Nowhere at speed, as instead, bets are being hedged on sequels primarily, but remakes aren’t far behind. And every time a remake is greenlit, it’s one more fresh tale that’s failed to get through the Hollywood system.

With at least 60 remakes currently in assorted stages of planning – and that’s not even factoring in the films that are effectively being remade for TV shows – this is a trend that’s going nowhere fast. That Back To The Future remake edges ever closer…

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