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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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The habit Hollywood can't seem to kick: Remakes

September 7, 2009 | 11:48 am

Hollywood, as everyone knows, is teeming with liberals of every shape, size, creed and color. Away from work, the legions of Prius-driving actors, filmmakers and studio executives are always busy ardently promoting some desperately important progressive cause, whether it's spreading the word about jailed journalists in Egypt, saving an endangered species in Africa or helping lead a sponsor boycott against Fox News' resident bomb-thrower Glenn Beck for labeling Barack Obama a racist.

But when it comes to making new product these days, Hollywood is perhaps the most enthusiastic outpost anywhere of cultural conservatism. Judging from the announcement stories that pop up in Variety every week, the movie and TV businesses are obsessed with reliving the past, giving the green light to a deluge of projects adapted from old (and, ahem, not-so-very old) movies and TV shows. 

17-harvey In light of a summer that offered audiences a mixed bag of remakes, reboots and re-imaginings ("Star Trek," "Terminator Salvation" and "Land of the Lost" just to name a few), the list of upcoming recycled properties is pretty stunning, especially when you see how many top filmmakers -- who would presumably have the clout and artistic ambition to do something more original -- have embraced older, more familiar material.

Steven Spielberg, the world's most successful living filmmaker, recently announced that he's doing a remake of "Harvey," the 1950 Jimmy Stewart comedy, with that project bumping aside, for the time being, Spielberg's involvement as a director in a remake of "Matt Helm," the 1970s TV series that is being developed as a feature at Paramount.

Robert Zemeckis, another major league filmmaker, is at Disney, doing a remake of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine"; Bryan Singer is now at work on a remake of 1981's "Excalibur"; while horror-meister Rob Zombie, fresh off his second "Halloween" movie, is redoing the sci-fi camp classic "The Blob." (which had already been remade once before). "Shoot 'Em Up" director Michael Davis is doing a remake of "Outland," the 1981 Sean Connery-starring sci-fi thriller, while Screen Gems is moving ahead with a reboot of Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs."

There are dozens upon dozens of remakes already on the studio release slates. MGM has a new version of "Fame" due out later this month, with a remake of "Red Dawn" in the works. Sony, which just did a remake of "The Taking of Pelham 123" this summer, has remakes of "Karate Kid" and "The Green Hornet" coming next summer. 20th Century Fox has a new version of "Gulliver's Travels" coming next summer, with a remake of "The A-Team" to follow, along with yet another installment in its "Predator" series, this one from filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. Universal has updates of both "The Wolfman" and "Robin Hood," the latter with Russell Crowe in the lead role and Ridley Scott behind the camera.

But wait ... there's more. Paramount already has a remake of "Footloose" on its schedule for next year, with a revamped "Beverly Hills Cop" in active development. Warners has an updated "Sherlock Holmes," with Robert Downey Jr. in the lead, coming this Christmas, with remakes of "Clash of the Titans" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street" due in 2010. 

Mr3 TV is just as crammed with remakes as the big screen. The CW is launching a new version of "Melrose Place" this month, while ABC has "Eastwick" (based on "The Witches of Eastwick") due out soon, Fox is developing a reboot of the cult film "Heathers" while NBC is offering up a new version of "Parenthood" as a mid-season show. As Variety reported not long ago, NBC is moving ahead with "Parenthood" even though the network already failed in an earlier effort to remake the show back in 1990, having quickly canceled a reboot that featured Ed Begley Jr and a very young Leonardo DiCaprio.

The best part of this remake mania is hearing how filmmakers are forced to really stre-e-e-e-e-tch to come up with plausible aesthetic justifications for what is, in most cases, a clearly careerist move. In his attempt to explain just how his new "Blob" would be different from the original sci-fi film, Zombie insisted, "My intention is not to have a big red blobby thing -- that's the first thing I want to change," which raises the question of why he'd want to call the movie "The Blob" if it isn't going to have a nice, juicy blob in it.

And when asked about why he's turning "Heathers" into a TV show, the project's producer, Lakeshore Entertainment's Gary Lucchesi, told Variety that he'd been talking about doing a film remake, but "doing it for TV seemed like a fresh and original idea." Only in Hollywood would changing the medium be considered fresh and original. Actually, it's about as original as the idea Warners just announced, which has the studio turning "Soul Train" into a feature film.

So why is everyone so in the thrall of remakes and reboots? Keep reading:

1) They work. Obviously not all the time, since Universal bombed with its costly adaptation of the old "Land of the Lost" TV series, just as Warners did a couple of years ago, trying to reboot the old "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" film. But in an era when studios are geared to creating self-supporting franchises, the lure of a familiar title that can be reinvented as a mass-appeal film is pretty irresistible, which is why Warners scored with its big-screen version of "Get Smart," New Line hit pay dirt with "Sex and the City: The Movie" and Paramount has made a huge pot of money with J.J. Abrams' reinvention of "Star Trek" (not to mention Michael Bay's "Transformers" movies).

As a way of explaining the appeal of the remake formula, a top studio executive walked me through the history of Warners' "Batman" franchise. It began as a TV series, then morphed into a series of big-screen features, which were huge moneymakers -- when Tim Burton was at the helm -- until the studio pretty much buried the franchise as the films turned into ghastly camp exercises. The studio then relaunched the series with Chris Nolan's "Batman Begins," which spawned "The Dark Knight," which ended up becoming the second-highest-grossing film of all time.

"If you look at that progression, you would have to say that audiences didn't reward anyone for creating anything new," the studio exec explained. "In fact, if you can make even more money than you could possibly imagine by doing a sequel to a film that was in itself a reboot of an old film series after it was a TV show, how would that experience possibly persuade any studio chief that people want something new and different?"

2) Moviegoers crave familiarity. Even though people went to the polling booths last November and elected a fresh face as president, when film audiences go to the multiplex, beset by economic woes and uncertainty about the future, they want fun, familiarity and frivolity. That would be fun, as in "The Hangover" and "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," frivolity as in "Transformers" and "The Fast and the Furious," and familiarity, as in "Star Trek" and "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs."

Familiarity is hard to beat. Since January 2007, the top 10 grossing films at the box office have all been sequels, reboots of franchises or action movies based on pre-existing comic book characters. Studio marketers say that we live in a media environment so full of noise and clutter that having a movie title with a little built-in resonance is a crucial selling point. If you can build your campaign around a familiar hook, whether it's "Star Trek" or "Halloween" or "Get Smart," people can identify the genre of the film and have some basic understanding of what the movie is about.

3) Filmmakers have given the thumbs-up to remakes. A decade ago, it wasn't easy to seduce a top filmmaker into jumping onto the remake bandwagon. It was almost a point of pride for filmmakers to apply their artistry to original material. But with careers more difficult to sustain than ever, a host of top filmmakers have abandoned their resistance to franchise-able projects. After all, it was Michael Mann who remade "Miami Vice," just as it was Spielberg who went back to the well to do another "Indiana Jones" movie while Chris Nolan has stuck with the "Batman" franchise and Sam Raimi has hung in with the "Spider-Man" series.

I've got no complaints with filmmakers working with familiar material, since some of our best movies have come out of the marriage between a familiar title and a restless artist's fascination with how to breathe some new life into the story. After all, even though it was a huge bestseller, "The Godfather" was little more than a mob potboiler until Francis Ford Coppola transformed it into a movie classic. And it was Howard Hawks who found new life in "The Front Page" by remaking it as "His Girl Friday," while also continually retelling his favorite western story, first as "Rio Bravo," then as "El Dorado," until he felt he got it right.

Of course, Rob Zombie is no Howard Hawks. We simply live in a world where the whole idea of originality is being rethought and reinvented. For now, artists are pressing the replay button -- they're spending more time re-imagining the world rather than seeing it all anew.


GALLERY: A few of the remakes coming our way