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Budget-conscious Hollywood in grip of remake fever

 A scene from the 1980s film
A scene from the 1980s film 'A Nightmare on Elm Street'. REUTERS/File
— image credit: Reuters

By Steven Zeitchik and Borys Kit

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The impressive opening of "Fast & Furious" during the weekend not only proves there's gas in that franchise, it also gives fuel to Hollywood's obsession with movies based on, well, other movies.

Studios have been remaking movies pretty much since they began making them, but during the past year and particularly the past few months, the remake machine has gone into overdrive.

The 1980s have turned into a full-fledged garage sale of titles. "Romancing the Stone," "Footloose," "A Nightmare on Elm Street," "Dune," "The Karate Kid," "Red Dawn," "RoboCop," "The Big Chill," "Arthur," "Ghostbusters" and "The NeverEnding Story" are but a few of the titles from that decade being developed in Hollywood.

The trend has broadened to include lesser-known properties from other media whose full value was thought to have been realized -- and, in some cases forgotten -- long ago ("Candy Land," anyone?).

When Warner Bros. sought screenwriters for open assignments in February, eight of the 10 requests were for projects based on a previous movie or other branded property.

AN EASIER PITCH

Producers say it is now common for them to check lists of hits from another decade to see what might be easiest legally and creatively to package and set up at a studio.

"If you're trying to get a movie made now, you can push the rock up a mountain or you can push it on flat ground," said one studio-based producer, explaining the rationale for remake mania. "And most of us would rather push it on flat ground."

Development executives say it's now routine for anyone who ever had a branded property to explore big-screen possibilities.

When "Transformers" took off two years ago, its filmmakers got a pitch from the Mattel toy line Hot Wheels wondering if they'd like to find a good guy-vs.-bad-guy story arc in the venerable brand. (In that case, at least, the response was negative, though the toy line now is in development as a feature at Warners.)

As the remake net is cast ever wider, the cycle from original to redo continues to shorten.

Like "Furious" -- which brings together the principal cast and writers from the 2001 original and occupies ground somewhere between sequel and reboot -- other movies are coming back in new guises sooner than ever.

Neil Moritz, who produced "Furious," is developing a new version of the 1990 sci-fi hit "Total Recall" as well as relaunching "XXX," which first hit the screen just seven years ago. "Lara Croft" is getting a new treatment from Dan Lin and Warner Bros. just eight years after the Angelina Jolie original. Fox already is eyeing a relaunch of its "Fantastic Four" franchise; the two entries were hits just a few years ago. And at the recent ShoWest exhibitors' conference, Sony said it will bring back "Men in Black" for another escapade.

No one's saying that "Titanic" or "Forrest Gump" is getting a redo -- yet -- but the fact that teen audiences don't generally remember any picture that's more than 15 years old is a key factor in remakes' fashionability. In just a couple of years the multiplex could be programed with the same titles that first unspooked during the Clinton administration.

As one producer put it, "The '90s are totally fair game."

AUTOMATIC RESPONSE

Earlier manias for remakes tended to fade if the movies did poorly, as in the late-'90s craze for TV makeovers a la "The Mod Squad" and "Lost in Space." But today's remake reflex is less easily discouraged. Even when a project fails to take off, as "American Girl" did back in the summer, it doesn't stop other branded properties from moving forward. For example, Hasbro, which has a deal with Universal, is full-speed-ahead on several movie projects based on its board games.

Every party in the movie development process has a reason to be invested in redo culture.

If it's harder for agents to sell scripts written on spec, they're embracing the possibility of putting their writer clients to work on existing properties.

If it's harder for producers to sell a pitch, they enjoy the option of letting the familiar title speak for them.

If marketing budgets are tighter, then studios can rely on built-in brand awareness when they prepare promotion and publicity campaigns.

"For original movies, you need to advertise the idea, the story -- it's about convincing people that it's worth seeing," one executive said. "With something that is branded, no education is required."

If development budgets are smaller, then studios can plumb their libraries, as MGM is doing with such properties as "Red Dawn" and "RoboCop." Such remakes from the vaults are less expensive from a rights perspective and enhance the value of the catalog title.

Part of the strip mining of the recent past is generational: Film executives want to play with properties that had an impact on them as youngsters.

"To execs who grew up on these movies, this is high art. I was doing my own 'Dawn of the Dead' with an 8mm camera when I was 9," said Eric Newman, co-head of Strike Entertainment, which remade 'Dead' with Zach Snyder and is developing new versions of "The Thing," "They Live" and "Creature From the Black Lagoon." "I don't think it means we are out of ideas. I think these movies are great stories, and great stories are told over and over again."

FEAR FACTOR

Underlying these reasons, it's the recession and, by extension, nervousness that's driving the trend. With fewer projects on tap, studio executives would rather go with safer bets -- and a remake is perceived as safer, even if the movie turns out to be less than a sure thing at the box office.

"With so many studios now having ubermanager CEOs looking over their shoulders, it's much easier to blame someone else if a remake flops. You can say, 'It wasn't my fault. The movie should have been a hit. It was the execution -- the director screwed up,'" says one studio executive.

Still, Hollywood insiders have mixed views of the remake craze.

"Creatively, it can be bad, but it's an endless money train to be on," said one studio executive.

On the other hand, profit participation can be a problem because including the people attached to the previous property, remakes often involve more players to share the pie than an original idea would.

And not every brand benefits from being reimagined as a movie.

"There are plenty of brands out there, and plenty of them shouldn't be made into movies, but everyone thinks that the new holy grail is a branded movie as a key to success," Moritz said. "I think there are certain brands or certain properties that can be turned into movies. A brand doesn't guarantee success."

Whether it has or hasn't gone too far, the remake craze is changing how and what producers do -- for good or for ill.

"You're still developing, but it's a different kind of developing," producer JC Spink said. "It becomes a business of matchmaking -- where can you find a great property, and what great piece of talent can you pair it up with? That is exciting."

Others are less enthusiastic.

"I now sit down and scroll though IMDb looking for movies, and I spend time researching rights to old TV shows," one studio executive said resignedly. "That's where I spend more of my development time."

(Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters)

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