Fake it 'Til you remake it

Why are so many modern films remakes or sequels?

28th April 2018

Have you ever really looked at all the new films coming out? Like, really looked? How many of the listings at your local Vue or Odeon have you seen somewhere before? And no, I’m not talking about the fact you’ve been to see Infinity War seven times already. An older version of a film was about in the 70s, or this is a sequel to a 90s cult classic? It’s more than you might think.

From the Marvel franchise to Jurassic World, remakes and sequels are everywhere. And we all remember Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s breakout film The Scorpion King, which broke the physics of the sequel or remake continuum, being a spinoff of a prequel to the remake of a 1932 film. Surely that’s going too far?

We spoke to Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at American market research company comScore. He also happens to be a big old film buff. We asked him what he thinks make people look back at old films so fondly.

“Older classic movies, like old classic songs, evoke strong emotions, create nostalgic feelings and give us a warm and fuzzy feeling that is indescribable and addictive.”

The recycling of popular older movies seems to be a shortcut to success

Film companies can easily evoke and tap into these fuzzy feelings of nostalgia and happiness when creating new films by bringing out a sequel or a remake of the old film. Jurassic World took over $1.6bn at the box office, plus god knows how much more in merchandise, lunchboxes, Lego, and Chris Pratt action figures. How much of this success would this film have had without the previous instalments? It’s hard to say.

“The recycling of popular older movies, through the resurrection of classic characters and plotlines seems to be a shortcut to success; the idea being that an established idea gives the filmmakers and studios a leg up so to speak.”

We found out the 10 highest grossing films of each decade from the 1960s to the 2010s via filmsite.org, and assessed whether or not they were original films, or remakes or sequels, to see how many filmmakers took this shortcut, and how the films went down with cinemagoers.

A graph showing the number of films that are remakes and/or sequels

Now obviously the highest grossing films aren’t representative of all films being made, but they are representative of what audiences paid to see. While not all of the original films are completely original (many are based on comics, for instance), this was the first time they had been made into a feature film. Anything included in the Marvel Cinematic Universe counts as a sequel because all 18 films in the universe are linked to each other, even if not directly a sequel.

What is obvious from this graph is that the number of high grossing films that are remakes and/or sequels is rising every year, and rising so much that not one of the top 10 highest grossing films in the 2010s has been an original film. With at least one Star Wars film planned to be released every year for EVER, and Marvel hoping that Infinity War rises to become one of the highest grossing films of all time, this trend doesn’t look like it’s stopping.

Spiderman in Infinity War Part 1
In the past 16 years, there have been six standalone Spiderman films, and he has appeared in at least two others 📸 Marvel Studios

Ali Plumb, film critic and reviewer for BBC Radio 1 believes that remakes are a win-win; a cheap way for big companies and studios to make some easy money, but are also a way for audiences to know that they are going to watch something that they know they’ll enjoy.

“Remakes and pseudo-remakes (that are also sequels of a fashion, like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) are so often made by the big Hollywood studios to save on marketing. When you are making a remake, or a sequel, A LOT of the groundwork establishing the film’s characters and scenarios has been done for you.”

It’s true, the hype surrounding the sequel to Pixar’s family superhero flick The Incredibles was astonishing after nothing more than a poster was released. If you can harness this excitement for a film with barely any work, then it makes sense to do so.

“As a cinemagoer, you’ll know pretty much what you’ll be getting into when you walk into a Jumanji movie, but if it were called, say, Lost in the Console, no-one’s got a clue, and no-one is discussing how much they fondly remember the original, or saying it’s ‘sacrilege’ to do another one, or talking about it in any way.”

The Incredibles 2
The Incredibles 2 is coming later this year 📸 Disney Pixar

The safety net of a popular brand or franchise is something for companies to fall back on. If a remake doesn’t go down well with audiences — see the 2016 remake of Ben-Hur — the studio can just turn its back on it. However, if it goes well and audiences enjoy it, you can make it into a series of remade sequels — see Jurassic World 2. Plumb thinks that popular franchises or household names can also help to attract audiences.

“Cinema tickets are so expensive these days, audiences want to walk into a movie confident it will be good, and remakes and sequels really help with that. It’s like buying Fairy washing up liquid instead of the unknown homebrand – why risk it?”

However, this seems like a low-risk, low-reward strategy. Very few sequels or remakes end up winning many Oscars, for instance. The last sequel to do really well at the Oscars was 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, which took home six of the technical awards at the 88th ceremony.

Whether or not the Oscars define what a “good” film is irrelevant, but they do seem to highlight and reward new and original films. For instance, this year’s big winners The Shape of Water, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Get Out, are all original stories and concepts. But when these three films grossed a combined total of $606 million at the box office, less than half that of Jurassic World, which films would you say audiences and cinemagoers are enjoying more?

British film director Sacha Bennett believes that popular franchise blockbusters can be victims of their own successes, however.

“The current climate of superhero movies is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Do audiences want to only watch superhero movies now? Some, of course, but if the only films that are being placed in cinemas is that genre, then the audience has no choice and turns up anyway.

Personally, I’d much rather take a gamble on a film like A Quiet Place than go and see the new Transformers movie

“If you’re spending £15 on a ticket, you want to feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. A film that cost $150k versus a $200m budget is going to make people think, ‘I’ll watch the low budget one when it lands on Netflix’ and head into watch two hours of CG characters smashing each other around a city.

“Sometimes, they come out of that experience and say ‘Well, that was crap’. But, if they’d gone into the low budget movie, they might have found an absolute gem. Personally, I’d much rather take a gamble on a ‘low’ budget film like A Quiet Place than go and see the new Transformers movie. Ironically, they’re both produced by Michael Bay.”

Bennett also offered a perspective from the other side of the camera.

“In the ’70s you had studio heads who would back the talent, and script, on a hunch or gut feeling. I can’t see Paramount these days giving a relatively new director so much money and control as they did with Coppola on The Godfather.”

Annihilation is a Netflix original film 📸 Netflix

However, Bennett finds that sequels can be an exciting opportunity for directors.

“By ending the sequel in Los Angeles, I was going to make the third one international, and really open up their world. For a writer/director, that’s exciting and allows you to build backstory and relations with each film.

 Would I direct a sequel to someone else’s film? Depends on the franchise…

“I don’t think you should do sequels just to make money. There have to be stories that need to be told, and you have a duty to the audience to open the ‘universe’ up and not simply re-tread the same story with no layers being added to the characters.”

But when is it time to stop making spinoffs? Star Wars is currently filming a prequel Han Solo film, its 10th feature to date, with the potential to develop that into a franchise of its own. Whatever reason they’re being made, expect a lot more sequels and remakes in the foreseeable future, and expect many of them to be box office hits.

Bennett adds: “Would I direct a sequel to someone else’s film? Depends on the franchise. Mission: Impossible, count me in. James Bond, I’ve been waiting 40 years to direct one of those!”

28th April 2018