Why Aren’t Filmmakers Creating Remakes of Bad Movies?
The roads of Hollywood are paved with subpar remakes of beloved, successful originals.
Sofia Coppola’s 2017 remake of The Beguiled, despite largely positive critical reception, performed modestly at the box office, making over $16 million against a $10 million budget. The original 1971 version of The Beguiled is not a classic, and its quality seemingly contributed nothing to the remake’s box office sales. It was a well-received period piece with minimal practical effects and only a few brief moments that feel dated. Of all the films begging to remade, the choice was made, as it so often is, to draw on a well-received film. Every time a remake of a strong film adds nothing to the original I wonder: Why are there so many more remakes of strong movies than of weaker ones?
I am specifically discussing films that are remakes of other, pre-existing films. Not adaptations of any media (television shows, books, plays, etc.) or sequels, but films (animated or live-action) that were later remade, ranging from inclusion of story and characters or remakes that are nearly shot-for-shot. At first blush the concept makes sense; if it works once, it’ll work again. Successes like True Grit, Ocean’s Eleven, and The Departed are some recent examples of films that have successfully improved on well-received predecessors. But navigating the nostalgia, expectations, and viewers’ emotional baggage is a difficult task, especially when handling a well-loved film. With the number of big-budget films increasing (According to Luis Prada for Cracked.com, over 40 tentpole films are set to be released in 2018 alone) people have had to become selective.
A form of art very much beholden to the market and public opinion, the prevalence of remakes, just like franchises and sequels, has much to do with marketability and profitability, and the frustrating prevalence of remakes is often excused by the notion that they are a safe financial investment. However, big-budget remakes have proven to not be as certain of a success they once were, and are increasingly hit-or-miss in terms of both critical reception and box office sales. According to Karma Allen for CNBC in 2015, the use of the remake hit its peak between 2005 and 2006, a period in which 43 remakes were released. “However, the industry has struggled to recreate the success of those years,” Allen continues “With the exception of “Godzilla,” which grossed $201 million in U.S. theaters last year, no remake has managed to cross the $200 million mark since 2006.” According to film statistics website Stephen Follows, in 2005, 17% of the 100 highest grossing films were Hollywood remakes. By 2014 the number had dropped to just 5%. What has been seen as a safe bet may no longer be as appealing to audiences.
Name recognition can only get a film so far, and if the quality isn’t there, a remake of a well-loved classic can still fail miserably. Earlier versions of films such as Annie, The Karate Kid, Robocop, and Ben-Hur were executed so well, so uniquely, or both that not only did they not need remakes, there was almost no way the remake could improve upon its well-loved and culturally prolific predecessors. In all these examples studios tried to improve on near-perfection for the sake of banking on audience nostalgia and severely disappointed viewers and underperformed at the box office. Nostalgia is a double-edged sword: It may bring viewers to the theater based on name recognition and childhood memories, but inevitable comparisons to superior source material can set expectations impossibly high. Without the quality that not only meets but exceeds the original, a remake can be a catastrophic failure.
What seems to be a comparatively more creative investment is to make another attempt at a movie that wasn’t done correctly the first time, whose concept or characters were interesting but whose execution was otherwise sub-par. This presents its own difficulties, of course; stained expectations, lack of interest, and less positive nostalgia to tap into. But a filmmaker willing to tackle a critically panned or even terribly received film allows them to take the creative choices allowed when one is dealing with a movie that’s less than sacrosanct. Why not remake Tank Girl, for example, a financially unsuccessful, poorly reviewed film, but one that had a stellar aesthetic and interesting protagonist? Cutthroat Island, one of the biggest flops in film history that bankrupted Carolco Pictures, would make a remarkable remake as well in the wake of Pirates of the Caribbean’s waning domination of the pirate genre. Why not remake Weird Science? If a studio is going to remake a movie, why not give themselves a near certain chance that of improving on the original and the freedom to avoid creatively walking on eggshells to keep the general public’s childhood memories intact? To acknowledge a film’s bad reputation, even, could feel fresh and self-aware.
It’s easy to claim that Hollywood is lacking in originality, but I don’t believe the prevalence of remakes has to be a manifestation of that. Remakes aren’t unnecessary across the board; they’re unnecessary when they approach movies that have already been executed well, or even near-perfectly. In a world overflowing with content of all kinds, the pool of intellectual properties considered for adaptation should be larger. With the sheer amount of content that exists, from webseries, webcomics, podcasts, and other forms of new media available to us, not to mention real-life events and people, there’s no excuse for production companies to fall back on stories already adapted into films as much as they do. If an earlier film must be the source material for a new film, perhaps a new kind of approach is a solution for reinvigorating an adaptation tactic of which people are quickly becoming wary.