Confronted by an unsightly clog of remakes, sequels and TV-inspired retreads, movie producer Valerie Dean still isn’t buying the widespread notion that Hollywood has officially run dry of original ideas.
"I can’t agree with that," says Dean, who had a hand in developing last year’s Oscarnominated "Kinsey." "There are plenty of good, original movie scripts in Hollywood. But I would estimate only one out of every 100 gets made."
Encountering far less resistance are movies like "The Longest Yard" and "Batman Begins," so-called "pre-sold properties" reincarnated from past efforts.
A perusal of the summer’s movie slate reads like a Nick at Nite revival marathon: "The Honeymooners," "The Dukes of Hazzard," "Bewitched" and "Herbie: Fully Loaded."
Billy Bob Thornton is reprising Walter Matthau’s role in "The Bad News Bears," and Johnny Depp is chewing regurgitated gumdrops in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."
What’s next — a 21st-century retooling of "Miami Vice"? Well, yes. Starring Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell. Should be out sometime next year.
HEDGING THEIR BETS
Certainly, the incidence of repackaged movie projects is trending upward, but why? Diminished daring? Institutional lack of imagination? Heightened emphasis on product recognition?
For movie studios, it all comes down to hedging their bets, says Jonathan Kuntz, associate film professor at UCLA.
"Movies are more expensive than ever — the average production cost is in the $60 million range — and the majors want to recoup as much of that as possible in the first weekend," Kuntz says.
"Therefore, they gravitate towards projects that have must-see appeal, anything that has a track record. Often, that means a remake or a sequel. And if you don’t have one of those, you dredge up an old TV show."
Sequels continue to dominate the box office — accounting for five of the top 10 moneymakers in 2004 — but the evidence suggests that remakes and TV-to-screen adaptations actually underperform financially.
Of the five studio movies based on TV shows in 2004, none cracked the top 25. Then again, none of them were as spectacularly unsuccessful as, say, "Welcome to Mooseport," an original movie that earned only $14.5 million.
The lesson: If you’re a studio executive and you want a guarantor of mediocrity, remake a TV show.
Remakes fared no better, placing only one film in the top 25 ("The Grudge" with $110.2 million).
IS ‘HONEYMOON’ OVER?
Anecdotally speaking, audiences seemed to prefer original movies.
If they were in the mood for a screwball comedy, they chose "Anchorman" ($84.1 million) over "The Ladykillers" ($39.7 million).
If they fancied a skullcracking revenge thriller, it was "Man on Fire" ($77.9 million), not "Walking Tall" ($48.1 million).
If they wanted a laugh at the expense of romantically dysfunctional men, almost invariably they turned to "Sideways" ($71.5 million), not "Alfie" ($13.4 mil).
Still, Hollywood continues to exhume its own ancestry with unprecedented vigor, remaking such vaguely remembered hits as "The Amityville Horror" and "House of Wax."
And then there’s "The Honeymooners," a comedy so crass and ill-conceived that it may force Hollywood to rethink remakes altogether.
Any mailroom novice could have told you that Paramount’s retooling of the 50-year-old TV classic as a star vehicle for Cedric the Entertainer was destined for failure (it opened with a meager $6 million), which raises the question: Has Hollywood’s remake dependence reached pathological proportions?
SUCCESS BRED IMITATION
"That was a bad choice," Dean says of "The Honeymooners." "Sometimes you ask yourself why actors we like — Cedric, for instance — do these films. Often they’re ganged up on by the studio and their agents.
"Everybody’s looking for a paycheck. Sometimes bad decisions are made, and once they get rolling, they can be hard to stop."
Contrast that with Dean’s experience on "Kinsey," the consummate risky, inertiaplagued production. It took Dean and her colleagues at Pretty Pictures — "Nurse Betty" director Neil LaBute’s production shingle — five years of grinding salesmanship to secure financing for the controversial drama about sex researcher Alfred Kinsey.
Another Oscar nominee, "Ray," languished even longer in development limbo; a dozen years, by Dean’s estimation.
Which isn’t to say that Hollywood has always placed a premium on originality and daring. Since the earliest days of filmmaking, success has bred imitation.
Edwin S. Porter’s seminal 1903 Western short "The Great Train Robbery" was remade by a different director the very next year, then spoofed by Porter himself as "The Little Train Robbery" (1905) with an all-child cast.
Kuntz notes that the classic Humphrey Bogart/John Huston film noir "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) was the third version of the movie that Warner Bros. shot in 11 years. Even modern-day recidivism rates aren’t that bad.
SLUMPING BOX OFFICE
However, the problem — if one can call it that — strikes an altogether more sinister chord in today’s listless cinematic marketplace. Compared with last year’s figures, overall ticket sales have slumped 18 weeks in a row, the most since 1985.
Many reasons have been cited, including the surging popularity of home video and gaming, but could creative stagnation also be a culprit?
Even "Batman Begins," greeted with generally effusive reviews, has performed below expectations.
There may be a silver lining to Hollywood’s slump: Often, following a build-up of declining profits, there’s a sudden, jarring movement forward on the creative level. Think back to the early ’90s. Ticket sales were declining by 10 percent to 15 percent yearly. Ultimately, Hollywood found an antidote in art-house blockbusters such as "The Crying Game" and "Pulp Fiction."
Studio pioneer Samuel L. Goldwyn once declared, "There are no problems in this business that good movies can’t solve."
Easy enough. So start making them.
From TV to . . .
When movie studios dredge the murky waters of television for the next box-office smash, sometimes they hit pay dirt and sometimes they hit . . . dirt.
5 THAT SCORED
1. "The Fugitive" (1993):
Whip-crack suspense and electric performances from Harrison Ford and Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones helped turn a middling 1960s TV adventure serial into the third-highest-grossing movie of 1993.
2. "The Untouchables" (1987):
Brian De Palma’s pounding crime saga (based on the Robert Stack TV show) keyed a generation of film students to the work of Sergei Eisenstein (by re-creating the Russian filmmaker’s landmark "Odessa Steps" sequence) and made a star of Kevin Costner (we’re still divided on that one).
3. "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (1982): Of all the "Trek" movies, "Khan" comes closest to capturing the bizarre aesthetic and galaxy-hopping brio of Gene Roddenberry’s cult sci-fi series (1966-69). Plus, Ricardo Montalban quotes Melville. How could that get old?
4. "Mission: Impossible" (1996):
With an original story line and a diminished emphasis on self-destructing tape recorders, it seems apparent that this De Palma-directed blockbuster hitched itself to the TV series (1966-73) solely to inherit the theme music.
5. "Wayne’s World" (1993)/"The Blues Brothers" (1980): Granted, neither was technically a TV show, but in a creatively shallow field of "Saturday Night Live" sketch movies, these two stand tall.
5 THAT BORED
1. "The Mod Squad" (1999): Hey, let’s remake a campy 1960s cop show and, like, take it seriously! And kill Claire Danes’ career in the bargain.
2. "The Saint" (1997): Val Kilmer plays Simon Templar, a high-class thief with an arsenal of disguises, all of them ridiculous.
3. "The Avengers" (1998): Only Uma Thurman’s hip-huggers kept audiences from collectively lapsing into a coma.
4. "The Nude Bomb" (1980):
Reprising his "Get Smart!" bumbling spy role, Don Adams "missed it" by considerably more than "that much."
5. "The Honeymooners" (2005):
Recasting Ralph and Ed as black men was OK, but did they have to outsource the joke writing to Bangladesh? Or maybe it only seemed that way.