Hollywood studios have been turning increasingly inward for inspiration. Megaplexes were deluged with remakes this year, with three retreads rolling out in the last nine days alone— King Kong, The Producers, and, yesterday, Fun With Dick and Jane.
It caps off a year when the major studios have delivered moviegoers 14 remakes of their own films, up from just four in 2000, according to movie research firm Nielsen EDI. These have ranged from the well-known, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to the obscure, like Yours, Mine and Ours, based on a 1968 Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda film.
That's not counting movies poached from other countries: Dark Water starring Jennifer Connelly was based on a Japanese horror film by Hideo Nakata; the Drew Barrymore-Jimmy Fallon romantic comedy Fever Pitch was based on a Nick Hornby memoir that was turned into a film in the U.K. eight years ago. Nor does it count the abundance of TV shows that found their way onto the big screen this year, like Aeon Flux, Serenity, The Dukes of Hazzard, and Bewitched.
What's the attraction of remakes, and how do they get made? King Kong, The Producers,and Fun With Dick and Jane are each representative of a different kind: Those fueled by a powerful cheerleader; those riding on the coattails of a previous success; and those that are repurposed simply because the studio can.
As King Kong director Peter Jackson has recounted on his publicity circuit, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's 1933 original King Kong is the reason he wanted to make movies. As the filmmaker behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy (worldwide gross $2.9 billion), Jackson has the closest thing to a blank check in Hollywood. King Kong became his pet project. Still, no amount of power helps if a filmmaker or a studio doesn't have the rights to a film.
Warner Bros. learned that the hard way when it didn't secure the remake rights on Dukes of Hazzard. A producer of the little-known 1975 film Moonrunners sued Warner Bros., saying that when he sold the studio his film's TV rights to make the Dukes of Hazzard series, he never granted any film rights. Last June, less than two months before Jessica Simpson was due to shake her short shorts in theaters, a federal judge issued an injunction barring the studio from releasing and marketing the film—even ordering that all copies be impounded. Since Warner had already spent more than $100 million on production and marketing, the studio quickly agreed to settle for a reported $17.5 million in order to release the film on time.
As it happens, the character of King Kong is in the public domain, which means he's anybody's for the taking. Likewise, Steven Spielberg had an easier time making War of the Worlds because the original H.G. Wells story is in the public domain.
When remake rights get tangled, it can stop a project cold. Take, for instance, The Hobbit, which was adapted into a cartoon in 1977. While New Line, which made Jackson's Rings films, owns the Hobbit movie rights, MGM has rights to distribute any Hobbit film. MGM's distribution rights are left over from a previous movie-rights purchase from J.R.R. Tolkien that the studio sold long ago. New Line doesn't want to share its profits with MGM (now owned in part by Sony), and of course Sony won't let New Line make the movie without getting its cut. Thus, the convoluted stand-off continues.
The Producers is an easier sort of remake to explain. Mel Brooks' original 1968 film starring Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel was a straight comedy, with precious few musical numbers. In 2001, Brooks turned it into a record-setting Broadway musical, this time starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.
The success of the Broadway show and the 2003 ChicagoOscar sweep inspired interest in an updated film version of The Producers. Several producers had owned the remake rights for the original film through the years, but they eventually landed at Universal. Wanting to get into the musical game, the studio lined up Brooks, his co-writer Thomas Meehan, and director Susan Stroman in the summer of 2003 to helm a film based on the Broadway show. Of course, critics have questioned whether the onstage magic translates onscreen, but if you need to get a movie made, finding a story that audiences have connected with in another medium isn't the worst idea.
Fun With Dick and Jane is in many ways the most common kind of remake: remade simply because it's there. Freshening up an old movie is, well, easier and faster than coming up with an original idea. If all a studio executive needs to fill out next year's slate is a family comedy or a horror film, the quickest way to get one is to recycle content from the studio's own film library. Much of the heavy lifting to shape a three-act story has already been done.
For instance, in the fall of 2003, just after a remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre demonstrated the box office clout of horror pics, MGM was eager to catch the wave and called in Michael Bay to produce a remake of The Amityville Horror, which it had first made in 1979. Able to shave years off the typical original screenplay development process, the picture was in theaters less than 18 months later.
But production of Fun With Dick and Jane, which started out as a quickie remake of the 1977 heist comedy starring George Segal and Jane Fonda, ended up a more difficult endeavor than expected. (Disclosure: My boss, Variety editor in chief Peter Bart, was a producer on the original and is an executive producer on the update.) Everything was in place to begin shooting in September 2003. Barry Sonnenfeld was attached to direct; Cameron Diaz and Jim Carrey were starring. But Sonnenfeld abruptly left the production, and there was no time to find a replacement before Carrey would be tied up filming Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Once Dick and Jane missed Carrey's window, production was aimed for the following fall. Dean Parisot was hired as a replacement for Sonnenfeld, but then Diaz dropped out a couple months before shooting. Téa Leoni joined the cast, and cameras were rolling by September. Production on the movie ran over schedule; it finally wrapped in March of this year. The "quickie" movie intended for release in the summer of 2004 didn't reach theaters until Dec. 21, 2005.
Retreading movies may not always go as studios hope, but don't expect the flood of remakes to subside. Next year you'll see updates of The Pink Panther, The Shaggy Dog, Flicka, The Poseidon Adventure, Charlotte's Web, Last Holiday, When a Stranger Calls, and Miami Vice. 2006 will feel like déjà vu all over again.