Revenge of the epic movie flops

By Arifa Akbar

The 2000 box office smash Gladiator was essentially a remake of the little-known 1964 swords and sandals saga, The Fall of the Roman Empire. Photo / Supplied
The 2000 box office smash Gladiator was essentially a remake of the little-known 1964 swords and sandals saga, The Fall of the Roman Empire. Photo / Supplied

When Overboard - a dubious 1987 comedy about the antics of a rich woman who suffers from amnesia after falling from her yacht - was released, not even a stellar cast featuring Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn could stop it from sinking at the box office.

Then there was Dune, the lavish 1984 science fiction odyssey directed by the ultra-hip David Lynch, starring the acclaimed Francesca Annis and Sting, which cost US$40m to make. It pulled in a grand total of $29.7m at the box office.

Then there was The Shadow, 1994's offering about a masked vigilante, with Alec Baldwin in the title role. The film was meant to be a summer blockbuster and the starting point for a new franchise with toys and clothing lines to boot. Critics and fans did not agree, and it flopped.

These films not only have failure in common. With a rafter of other screen turkeys, they are all to be remade as part of a growing trend in Hollywood to look to the past for big budget failures in the hope of transforming them into success stories.

The next "big idea" in America's studio-led film industry is to copy the old "big idea" that went wrong, according to insiders who have noticed an increasing number of former flops currently slated for re-makes or in development.

For some, the trend is mystifying. Although Overboard experienced a healthy second life on cable television in America, it had an ignominious initial run. It was critically lambasted and floundered at the box office, making only $26.7m when it was expected to gross much more.

Now, more than 20 years after its unmitigated failure, it is to be remade for modern audiences with Jennifer Lopez - not an actress who always celebrated for her comedic skills - rumoured to be in the starring role. In its new incarnation, Lopez is said to be playing the role of the spoiled heiress who learns that money is not everything after falling overboard her yacht, and experiencing not just a bout of amnesia but also a brush with the "other side" in her encounter with a working-class family.

When it was released, during the height of Hawn's fame, The Washington Post described Overboard as having "one-dimensional characters" and its distinguishing factors being "a good long look at Hawn's buttocks and lots of pathetic sex jokes". That judgement has not stopped Sony and Overbrook Pictures from putting together a remake.

Dune, meanwhile, was considered such an embarrassment when it was first released that even Lynch distanced himself from it. Now,the respected director Pierre Morel hopes to improve on Lynch's effort with a big budget remake for Paramount Pictures.

Sam Raimi, the American director and actor, is said to be leading a new version of The Shadow. The Black Hole, a 1979 Disney film that was billed as the studio's answer to Star Wars and the most expensive movie of its time, is also being rehashed. While the original did turn a profit, it suffered a critical panning.

There is even a remake of a remake in the pipeline; Godzilla, a second version of the Japanese film of the same name, was co-written and directed by Roland Emmerich (director of Independence Day) in 1998, but failed to fire the public's imagination on release. A third version is now underway.

One theory for this reliance on rehashed ideas is that Hollywood studios, overwhelmingly owned by multinational companies seeking profit, are fearful of original concepts that may be seen as too high risk to make. Revisiting bad ideas in hope to turn them into good ones are seen as a safer bet.

Leo Barraclough, a British correspondent at Variety magazine, suggested that a film tainted by box office disappointment still boasted some name recognition.

"They (the studios) do look to work with something that is a known quantity. It doesn't necessarily need to be a remake - it can be based on a bestselling book or some kind of intellectual property that is a known quantity.

"The stakes for Hollywood films are higher (because of the money involved) so they can't take the creative risks that the independent film sector can. The Hollywood studios can't afford to be cavalier on what risks they take," he said.

The key to a successful remake, he suggested, was to add something novel.

"The key is not just to slavishly remake the film but to do something new with it, connect it to the world in which the audiences live," he said.

A remaking trend that he had noticed was the mining of old French films being adapted for Hollywood audiences. Films based on French originals which are understood to be in development include the 2008 hit, LOL (Laugh Out Loud), starring Sophie Marceau, Dinner for Schmucks, about a group of rich people who invite the dimmest person they know for a dinner party once a year, and Welcome to the Sticks, about the divide between Parisians and country folk.

There are some notable examples of remakes of flops that have worked in recent cinema history, most famously Ridley Scott's box office smash, Gladiator, which was essentially a remake of the little-known 1964 swords and sandals saga, The Fall of the Roman Empire. The new version starring Russell Crowe and victorious at the Oscars with a best picture statuette, raked in $457.6m worldwide in 2000.

Jonathan Kuntz, a professor of film studies at the University of California, told website that while remakes were not a new phenomenon, Hollywood studios were more in the habit of turning to old films that had been hits the first time around.

Barry Norman, the veteran film critic, was dismissive about remakes of classics such as Get Carter, Alfie, The Pink Panther, Breathless and The Italian Job, branding them "cowardly" - and other pundits agreed, declaring them inferior to the originals.

But making good films out of former flops, on the other hand, was no bad thing, said Mr Norman.

"It is a cautious and cowardly way of making film if you just do remakes but I'm wholly in favour of remaking films that didn't work the first time round but could work if they were made again," he said.

"It makes much more sense if you have an intrinsically good idea that wasn't pulled off but could be done better. There is no sense in taking a film like Casablanca or Citizen Kane and remaking it, because it can't be improved upon."

He did however express reservations at the overall culture of remakes, sequels and prequels in which Hollywood had become immersed - a far cry from the roots of the studio system on which it was founded in the 1930s and 40s.

"Men like Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B Mayer who established the studio system really loved films. They really pushed the boundaries. Nowadays, there is no equivalent. The bottom line now is the dollar. The studios are run by accountants who are interested only in making money. Making films is seen as to be based on a formula that works, like making baked beans," he said.

He also pointed out that while these remakes may well make a profit, the films that had been scooping the most Oscars in the past two years were innovative, independently made ones including Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire and Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker.

Others, however, have speculated that successful remakes of past flops may be aided by special effects which were simply unavailable to movie makers the right the first time.

Now, with the dramatic advances in 3D and CGI, a remake of Dune, for example, may be breathtaking for its special effects alone. The advent of computer graphics and 3D technology could mean that dated action films could be modernised for new generations of film enthusiasts.

The old, in this way, may just be rendered thrillingly new.


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