Rise of the remakes - familiarity breeds content

By Paul Little

What’s driving the rash of nostalgic remakes that have viewers catching up again with old screen friends — from Bridget Jones to an ageing cast of Cold Feet?
Bridget Jones is back, after 15 years.
Bridget Jones is back, after 15 years.

When hit 90s British TV drama Cold Feet returned to Kiwi screens this month more than half a million people tuned in to catch up with old friends they hadn't seen in 13 years.

And ahead of the new season launch of the Bafta-award winning show here, TVNZ OnDemand had more than 160,000 streams from those watching the old seasons one-five.

The show was the most successful drama launch of the year for ITV in the UK, with the first episode attracting more than eight million viewers. This week the British network said it had commissioned another series.

On small screen and large, this seems to be the year of the remake.

On the movie front, we've seen the return of the Bridget Jones franchise, 15 years after it first charted the life and loves of a 30-something singleton. Fast forward, and this year she is back with a baby - and the potential to keep the franchise running for decades to come.

And earlier this year, the stellar BBC TV sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, featuring the drunk PR trouts Patsy and Eddie, became a big screen hit, 20 years after the original TV series ended.

The Magnificent Seven remake is screening at the movies now, and remakes of Mary Poppins and A Star is Born are also on the way.

On the small screen, TV series versions of 80s classic Lethal Weapon and 70s horror The Exorcist have been created, along with 80s twee-fest Full House.

Never, it seems, have we been so obsessed with revisiting our past.

The Full House update, Fuller House, which screened on Netflix, played on its original audience's affection for the characters and gambled they would want to see how those folk were doing so many years later.

Although it had to do without the childish charms of the now grown up Olsen twins and other old faces, the series went down well with its older audience and picked up some new viewers on the way.

Bridget Jones's Diary 2001.
Bridget Jones's Diary 2001.

Netflix has a good record with old properties. Not only did it rejig a British original to bring us the vastly superior US House of Cards, it also took the cult comedy film Wet Hot American Summer and made it into a goofy but likeable eight-part series with the original cast, many of whom had become big names since the movie's release.

Movies and TV have been remaking, revising and generally mucking around with successful stories since their inception, although not always with equal success.

The most recent production of Ben Hur, which screened briefly here a month or two back, came in for a critical bucketing, with many comparing it unfavourably to its 1959 predecessor starring Charlton Heston.

Few noted that this was actually a remake of a 1925 Ben Hur, itself a remake of a 1907 version.

Recycled ideas used to be exceptional. Not any more.

In 1985, only one of the top 10 box office movies was a sequel: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

And in 1995, all the top 10- movies were original stories.

But 10 years later, according to The Huffington Post, The 40 Year Old Virgin was the only one of the top 10 not based on a previously existing movie, comic book, graphic novel, or classic literary work.

Ghostbusters 2016.
Ghostbusters 2016.

In 2015 the only original top 10 movie was Inside Out.

The popular book turned into a movie, such as Ben Hur, is an example of the main reason that remakes exist.

They allow programme and film makers to cash in on a known quantity and sell to an existing fan base.

If X number of people liked a book, whether it's Ben Hur or The Girl on the Train, then a certain percentage of X is likely to go and see the movie.

But why does the existing fan base want to see and hear the same stories over and over again with slight variations?

As often as not, it's the people we like and get all nostalgic about.

In many homes, watching the new series of Cold Feet was like reconnecting with friends who had gone off the radar, which was exactly the situation that was played out in the first episode.

We wanted to know how they looked, how they were, what they'd been doing and did they still have the same old problems?

The original Ghostbusters cast.
The original Ghostbusters cast.

Truly, familiarity breeds content - and that's pronouncing "content" both ways.

You tamper with audience favourites - especially if attempting to make them more "relevant" - at your peril according to Lorna Piatti-Farnell, associate professor in popular media and cultural history and Auckland University of Technology.

"When we remake to redress social imbalances," says Piatti-Farnell, "we might forget there is also a lot of nostalgia attached to iconic films.

"Although the remade version might be in keeping with our current social thinking, it might still alienate the old faithful."

Which is what happened with the all-women Ghostbusters, roundly derided for reasons that had little to do with the quality of the movie.

The reaction wasn't an anti-women "don't be silly, girls can't fight ghosts" knee jerk, it was a "you've messed with my precious childhood memory" cry of pain.

Revisiting a movie allows the audience to revisit the time in their life when they first saw it.

For two hours we can cease to be our adults selves mired in the drudgery of daily life and return to the carefree days of the past. They're the cinematic equivalent of comfort food.

Cold Feet 2016.
Cold Feet 2016.

According to Dean Burnett, author of The Idiot Brain, remakes also come up against the "reminiscence bump" - the fact that memories made when our brains are still forming are stronger and more vivid - meaning they have greater impact.

And that, he says, feeds into that aspect of nostalgia that makes us think things were better "back then", whether they were or not.

Couple that with the "positivity effect" says Burnett - the tendency to remember the good stuff and forget, for example, how bad the special effects in the first Star Wars film were -and anyone making a sequel clearly has their work cut out for them.

Which is one of the reason why when it comes to remakes critics' views have little to do with a project's success.

The audience cares much less about aesthetics than sentiment. Although Fuller House got a drubbing in the reviews, viewers weren't deterred.

So far, so warm and fuzzy - but it's important to remember that the nostalgia factor is merely a subset of the main reason why properties are remade and tales are told over again: that's where the money is.

Cold Feet 1997.
Cold Feet 1997.

Marketing is a strong reason for the remake phenomenon says Auckland University professor emeritus Roger Horrocks, who has written extensively about film, and co-wrote Skin Deep, one of the best of the 1970s movies that rebooted the New Zealand film industry.

"Today there are so many entertainment options - films are not merely competing with other films - that being able to start with an already familiar brand is very helpful in marketing a film," says Horrocks, who goes on to sound a warning.

"I think the biggest problem is that we are living through a very commercial period when studios are hugely worried about box office returns, and investors tend to think that the best way to play safe is to repeat an earlier success or make something like it.

"Middle-size films are in decline and Hollywood feels that huge budgets and spectacular special effects are necessary to attract young viewers back to the cinema (pulling them away from all their other digital entertainment options).

"So a lot of money is at stake for each project, and that encourages an attitude of playing safe. Hence all the remakes and reboots."

Veteran producer John Barnett has a slightly different take on the commercial factor when it comes to remakes.

Magnificent Seven 2016.
Magnificent Seven 2016.

"When you're dealing in a multi-channel, crowded landscape for entertainment," says the Whale Rider and Outrageous Fortune producer, "anything that connects you to something that's had prior exposure to an audience is deemed to be of value.

"You're seeing it this week at the box office with Girl on a Train or Inferno by Dan Brown."

And Barnett doesn't think that budget and effects-heavy movies have elbowed out smaller productions.

He cites Girl on a Train again: "In America that's not an expensive film. It's got a cast of people who, if you have seen them before it's been only in smallish roles. And it's shot in couple of rooms and a train.

"It's definitely feasible to make those films so I don't think there's any lack of will to make something interesting."

This year's local smash, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, notes Barnett, also started out as a book with a following - Barry Crump's Wild Pork and Watercress - but it didn't get funded because it was an established property by a popular author.

There had been failed efforts to get it made before. This time, "it got made because people were confident about giving it to Taika Waititi to make."

Horrocks says another reason films are being remade is that the Chinese market is now open to US productions and many films are being made to supply this huge audience.

Obviously, you can't ship out a 40-year-old Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve. But you can start all over again with Henry Cavill and watch the money pour in.

The Magnificent Seven 1960.
The Magnificent Seven 1960.

Barnett believes that even within the restrictions of fidelity to source material there is room to move creatively. Audience members aren't slaves to the sources.

"They know who the characters are and what Thor does and as long as he stays true to character you can take them anywhere."

He cites an episode of the TV series Hercules that was set in the contemporary world and based around the idea of Kevin Sorbo, who played Hercules, going missing, creating problems for the production.

"If the audience feel comfortable with the character to start with, they'll go on the journey."

Technology has always been a big driver of remakes.

You can't blame Cecil B De Mille for wanting to update his silent, black and white 10 Commandments of 1923 into the all colour, big-screen, noisy, special effects-laden epic of 1956.

Closer to home Rudall Hayward seized the opportunity to remake his silent Rewi's Last Stand with sound.

As Horrocks observes: "With the help of computers, special effects have hugely improved.

"The other day I took my grandchildren to Pete's Dragon and I thought today's SFX version of the dragon (a real folksy character) added a great deal to the remake."

But better effects aren't enough in themselves to justify a remake.

The characters still have to connect and the nostalgia beast still has to be fed.

It remains to be seen how the long-threatened Mary Poppins sequel, due in 2018, will do any more than advance the special effects beyond the primitive state of those in the 1965 Julie Andrews version, but a more important factor will be the relationship between Mary and the children she nannies.

Everyone will be wanting their spoonful of sugar.

According to J Hoberman in the New York Times, this year's ethnically balanced Magnificent Seven "could also be considered a Bernie Sanders western, suggesting that disenfranchised white Americans make common cause with minorities to overthrow the privileged one per cent".

But all might not be lost for the female Ghostbusters - the end credits sequence left the way clearly open for a sequel.

- Herald on Sunday

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