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With 'Avatar' struggling, is the bloom off the rerelease rose?

August 30, 2010 |  5:40 pm


For a while now, theater owners — and to a lesser extent filmmakers and studios — have been touting the economic and cultural wisdom of rereleasing Hollywood's biggest hits.  Personalities as varied as Steven Soderbergh and theater mogul Shari Redstone have talked about the rerelease as a way both to keep theaters relevant and provide a service to tentpole-overloaded moviegoers.

Most films still don't get a wide rerelease, but those that do tend to fare well. "The Godfather," the first two "Toy Story" films and "Apocalypse Now" were all rereleased at least a decade after they first came out, all of them to strong effect.

None of the new releases re-created the blockbuster success of their original go-rounds — "Toy Story" made the most of the bunch, grossing $31 million domestically — but all came away with their reputations burnished. In the case of "Apocalypse Now," whose redux edition added a significant amount of footage, the 2001 rerelease not only solidified the movie with old fans but brought in plenty of new ones.

That trend changed this weekend, when a rerelease of "Avatar" passed quietly for filmgoers. The Fox movie grossed only about $4 million despite playing on more than 800 screens, as my colleague Ben Fritz notes.

The easy explanation for this failure is that with nine minutes of extra footage tacked on to a movie that was already as long as the Bible, this new version didn't add as much to its original as the other rereleases did. In a way, "Avatar" was a victim of its own success. With the original already perceived as the be-all-and-end-all in big-budget entertainment — many of us had already seen it in 3-D, and the film was already considered a visual feast the first time around — there's not much to improve on with a new edition.

(It's also worth noting that the movie grossed $750 million the first time around, some of that from repeat viewers, and it's asking a lot for people who saw it multiple times just six or seven months ago to pay to see it again, even if the alternative is "Takers" and "The Last Exorcism.")

But it's also possible that the rerelease just doesn't mean as much as it once did, what with the culture of the Internet and nonstop blog coverage putting movies in the public eye in a way it never has before. When "The Godfather" came out in 1997 after being away from theaters for 25 years, it felt like an event; no matter how well we remembered the movie or how many times we watched it on basic cable, seeing it on the big screen brought memories for those lucky enough to catch it there the first time and created that experience for those who weren't. Even the rerelease of the "Toy Story" movies last year struck a nostalgic nerve for a '90s animation era that seems so far away, before the form changed so radically.

But it may be that today's classics just don't fade into history in the same way. We've lived them, in a sense, too deeply (and exhaustedly) the first time around.

Despite the struggles of "Avatar," we'll probably see a few more rereleases of Hollywood's biggest hits. They're comparatively low-risk for studios, who see them not only as a theatrical play but a way to generate interest in the DVD. And filmmakers envious of new technology will push for them — George Lucas has made noise about a "Star Wars" release, for instance. Without significant additions, though, it's hard to see why a rerelease is worth the screens or the bother.

— Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "Avatar." Credit: 20th Century Fox.