Tony Black on remakes, and how and why they success and fail…
Harking back to the days of big stars headlining even bigger films, The Magnificent Seven trailer exploded online this week showcasing the always A-list Denzel Washington alongside, among others, Hollywood’s newest megastar Chris Pratt, in a remake of the legendary 1960’s Yul Brynner headlining Western. It’s just one of a flood of remakes we’ve seen over the last decade, a tide that shows no sign of slowing down with dozens more either about to land, or in production and pre-production. Edward Gardiner here on Flickering Myth recently argued how it’s fine to enjoy remakes of the classic movies we enjoyed as children or younger adults, and while many never recapture the glory of the original they do at least bring great pictures back into the public consciousness. Antoine Fuqua’s take on the Seven will absolutely see people check out the original film if they haven’t seen it before, and even if they don’t love it as much as the remake, it’s brought it to their attention. Should a line be drawn however on the sheer volume of these older properties being reintroduced for new audiences? Do some films warrant a remake more than others? And will people pay to see them? Let’s examine some remakes we’ve seen over recent years, and some we’re about to see for a better understanding of this.
Any idea what the first ever remake of an older film was? The Squaw Man, first filmed in 1914 by the great Cecil B. Demille, who went on to remake it just four years later in 1918 and again in 1931. Remakes are as old as the movies themselves but arguably they’ve become much more popular in the world of cinema over the last few decades. Some of them can also be pretty damn good – the Coen brothers’ 2011 version of True Grit, for example, to many could rank alongside the John Wayne-starring 1969 original. The Departed, from Martin Scorsese in 2006, remade celebrated 2002 Hong Kong crime drama Internal Affairs to great applause (and deservedly won the Oscar for it). Other examples are Peter Jackson’s well staged King Kong remake, casting away memories of the 1976 remake of the Fay Wray starring 1933 classic; Insomnia, Christopher Nolan’s 2002 remake of the 1997 Norwegian drama, or indeed 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven from Steven Soderbergh which despite sequels of diminishing returns is far more memorable than the 1960 Frank Sinatra/Rat Pack original. For every great remake however, a duff one lies just around the corner. We all remember Gus van Sant’s baffling shot-for-shot colour remake of Psycho, surely?
Cast your minds back to the halcyon days of 2002 when actors like Chris Klein got leading roles, such as the horribly misfiring version of 1975’s Rollerball, proof that the early 2000’s was one of the most fallow periods for mainstream cinema. The same year we had Swept Away, Guy Ritchie and Madonna (back in the pre-divorce days) teaming for a cringemaking vanity project which remade the 1974 Italian film Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August, though admittedly you’d be hard pushed to find anyone who knew the original particularly well. 2000 gave us a pretty terrible remake of 1971’s brutal Get Carter, with Sylvester Stallone during his career slump years, and in 2004 we had a painfully loud and badly made Queen Latifah starring remake of French action film Taxi. The list goes on, and there are probably pound for pound more badly realised remakes than the opposite – one of the most infamous being Nicolas Cage’s 2006 version of The Wicker Man, known more for spawning a dozen comedic memes than being any good. You could ask why people imagined they could make films like these better, but the answer is always the same: money. Much like The Magnificent Seven, or The Equalizer remake from Washington & Fuqua a few years ago which bore zero relation to the underrated 80’s TV series it was based on, you throw a major star at a property people remember and like and boom – success. At least in theory.
How successful were any of those films above, either good or bad? Did they light up the box office? Ocean’s Eleven arguably did, raking in a massive $650 million on an $85 million budget, and combined the trilogy Soderbergh delivered made a cool $1.2 billion. True Grit did well too, making $250 million on just $35 million to make it. Indeed many of them have delivered at the box office – The Departed recouped a profit, if not astronomically. King Kong cost a whopping $200 million to make but made back $500 million. Insomnia made peanuts, if still in profit, but had Nolan made it five or ten years later the receipts would doubtless have doubled. All of the critically successful films, most tagged with major leading stars or properties, cashed in and paid off. What about the critical duds though? Can the same be said for them? Rollerball cost $70 million and bombed at $25 million return; Swept Away cost a comparatively cheap $10 million but still only made $1 million back. Get Carter made only $19 million on a $63 million budget and The Wicker Man almost broke even, but still lost a couple of million on a $40 million budget. Taxi though? Cost $25 million and almost tripled its budget on a $69 million take. People must love Queen Latifah.
The point is that, bar a few exceptions, the rule seems to be: the more critically regarded your remake is, the more people will go and see it. The star power almost doesn’t matter – King Kong had no megastars and made money, whereas Get Carter & The Wicker Man had two beloved (if not always for the right reasons) movie stars and nobody went to see them. Word of mouth plays a big part, as does critical traction, and indeed familiarity of the source material to a degree. Coming up we have remakes about to drop that could be affected by all of these variables – a remake of Charlton Heston’s 1955 classic Ben-Hur is incoming, with largely character actors instead of big stars, yet the Big Trouble in Little China remake has The Rock hopefully swaggering on screen with enough cool, likeable reluctance as Kurt Russell did in the wonderful 80’s original. Will the long-gestated remake of The Crow continue suffering the strange curse that plagued the original, as all signs would suggest it might be? These are just a few examples of tons of remakes on their way in the next few years, and perhaps the only certain thing about remakes is how nothing is certain – not quality, not reception, and certainly not box office, until the product is in our hands. Let’s hope The Magnificent Seven, for a start, lives up to its name.
All that said, what do we need to do to make that Naked Gun remake go away?
Tony Black is a freelance film/TV writer & podcaster & would love you to follow him on Twitter.