Thursday, 29 January 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #221: The End of Ideas?

As I write this, word is pinging around the internet like a ferret on meth that a major studio is all set to do a remake of the classic outlaws in love movie Bonnie & Clyde, this time starring tween queen Hillary Duff as the titular Bonnie. Now unlike some commenters I'm not going to say that this Nicolodeon inspired bastardisation of a beloved crime film is some sign of the apocalypse, how it will lead to a remake of The Wild Bunch starring the Jonas Brothers and Joey Fatone of N*Sync as the evil General Mapache, and that you should start hoarding supplies and ammunition in your compound in the woods.

Nor will I say that it marks the end of ideas in Hollywood. The reason why I won't say that is simple, because people have been saying that since the day after the invention of cinema when someone used the pie in the face gag in two films in a row The simple truth is that as long as there are humans living on this planet, people will be having ideas.

What it does mark is a symptom of the possible loss of any testicular fortitude in studio management.

I'll explain that in a second, but first a little history.

Remakes have been an integral part of Hollywood history pretty much since the beginning of the medium. And being a remake does not automatically disqualify any film from classic status. Just look at The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart as private eye Sam Spade, it was the third movie version of Dashiell Hammett novel produced by Warner Bros. and has become the definitive version for generations of film fans. So I won't condemn all remakes as an infernal machination of Hell's Grim Tyrant, but what I will condemn the motives behind the remakes.

In the Golden Age of Hollywood remakes were usually done for, what seemed to the studio, a pretty good reason. These reasons could be remaking the movie in question with sound, or in Technicolor, or even as a musical, or just having a do-over with a film that had a good idea, but had what was seen as poor execution. The problem with remakes today is that many don't have a reason behind them other than fear, the fear of being fired.

You see most studio executives these days are not the entrepreneurs and impresarios of old. They are not risk takers looking to construct a legacy in both business and culture, they are just takers, interested solely in getting fat paychecks, bonuses, and perks, and keeping them coming as long as possible. The surest way to maintain their jobs are to take the fewest risks as possible. The problem is that purely original material is inherently risky, because no one truly knows how the audience will react to something that doesn't have that ring of familiarity.

Now it used to be that those who gave projects that precious green-light were willing to settle for things that, although original, could at least be pitched to have some sort of similarity to a hit from the past. "It's like Jaws, but in the desert," they'd say, or "It's like Star Wars meets Ghostbusters with a hint of My Dinner With Andre."

But things have changed. With costs skyrocketing because of the industry's shoddy business practices, the ratio of risk to reward began went into a very uncomfortable place, the sort of place that could ruin the career of an up and coming executive. So movies being merely familiar stopped being good enough, they literally had to come from something that was already well known. Which is why we get adaptations of best-selling novels, comic books, and especially remakes galore.

Remakes are especially popular with executives, not only because they're familiar to the audience, but because they can just remake properties they already own, meaning they don't have to pay as much as they would to adapt a novel or comic book. They no longer need reasons for remakes outside of redoing a movie for about 10X to 100X the cost and some slicker special effects.

To try to avoid being branded with the stigma of being a remake, they attempt to give them new names like "re-imagining," "re-booting," or "re-energizing." Such "re-brandings" almost never work, with many remakes fading fast not only at the box-office, but in the public memory, but that's not going to stop Hollywood from milking that money cow. Because while writers and filmmakers are not out of ideas, the Hollywood executives are. Ideas having been scared out of them sometime in the 1990s.

Not all remakes are bad, and some even do well, but the successful ones share three specific traits.

1. They were made by filmmakers who were
passionate about the material.

2. They really offered a fresh and original take on the original story, not just slicker special effects.

3. They were made because of that fresh and original take, not just slapped together because of a familiar title.

Now Hollywood isn't going to stop doing remakes, that would take a miracle, so I propose a new policy when it comes to remakes. Movie history is loaded with movies that had good central ideas to them, but poor execution in the original film, how about giving them a try.

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