WORLD CINEMA REPORT: Why Studio Remakes Don't Suck; U.S. Versions Rebound Foreign Originals, From Korea to "Insomnia"
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE: 05.06.02) — With its seemingly complete absence of original ideas, it’s no surprise to see Hollywood harvesting scenarios from overseas. After all, there has to come a certain point in time when they’ve exhausted every comic book, video game, TV show, and action movie franchise. This summer alone, reports the New York Times, at least 16 movies fall into the category of sequel, prequel, spinoff, or remake. So in their never-ending search for stories that have already proven themselves, studio execs at companies big and small are now looking to foreign hits. This month, Christopher Nolan makes his studio directing debut with a remake of 1997 Norwegian suspenser “Insomnia.” Even independents got into the act: Samuel Goldwyn‘s English-language, Latin-accented “Tortilla Soup,” a remake of Ang Lee‘s “Eat Drink Man Woman,” grossed a formidable $4.5 million for distribution arm IDP last year.
Recently, Hollywood has looked even further astray, with Korea emerging as a new hotbed of adaptable product. Last year, Miramax opened the floodgates, becoming the first company to purchase the remake rights to a Korean film: Cho Jin-kyu‘s “My Wife Is a Gangster,” a blockbuster about a female gang boss who marries an unsuspecting man. Not to be outdone by the Weinsteins, MGM recently purchased the rights to Kwan Park‘s “Hi, Dharma,” another hit about a group of fleeing gangsters who take refuge in a monastery; Dreamworks acquired Kwak Jae-yong‘s romantic comedy “My Sassy Girl,” to be made by Madonna‘s Maverick Films; and just last month, Warner Brothers acquired the rights to Lee Hyun-seung‘s “Il Mare,” which tells the story of a man and woman living two years apart who are able to communicate with each other through a time-defying mailbox.
While American audiences may never see the originals, the remake craze is helping sustain a Korean film boon. Last year, locally produced films nabbed the top five box office spots. “With the increased interest of Hollywood studios in remaking Korean films, local production companies have discovered a potentially lucrative new source of revenue,” states the Korean Film Commission‘s website.
“It’s better to be sold for a remake than not to be sold at all,” says Kwang Woo Noh, who works for the Korean Film Commission. Noh feels that Korean blockbusters face a double bind: They won’t reach a wide U.S. audience because of Americans’ fear of subtitles, but releasing the films in arthouse theaters won’t work either, because the movies are mainly big-budget popcorn fare. “These Korean films have not been circulated through the U.S. art/foreign cinema market because they are not categorized as ‘art cinema’,” he explains. “If you saw ‘Shiri,'” he continues, referring to the 1999 action-thriller that beat out “Titanic” at the Korean box office, “you might wonder why this film was released through art cinema theaters.” Distributed in the U.S. by IDP, the same company that released “Tortilla Soup,” “Shiri” tanked, grossing less than a $100,000.
So, how to get these stories to U.S. shores? Answer: the studio remake. Like the Korean blockbusters, high concept genre films (without U.S. distribution possibilities) appear to be the number one item on studio’s shopping lists. Universal Pictures recently purchased Hideo Nakata‘s “Kaosu” (Chaos), which involves a kidnapping plot; and two of the Japanese horror director’s other films have also been bought for remakes: “Ringu,” about a videotape which leads to serial deaths, has been revamped by Gore Verbinksi (“The Mexican“), starring Naomi Watts, and another is in the works for “Dark Water,” the director’s latest about a woman who moves into a haunted apartment with her six-year-old daughter. Also in the works is an English version of Hong Kong action guru Johnny To‘s “The Mission,” to be written by Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects“).
But what about those foreign movies that have already distinguished themselves on American soil? French-language action film “La Femme Nikita” broke $5 million in 1991 for Samuel Goldwyn, while the Bridget Fonda remake “Point of No Return” came and went with a modest $30 million for Warner Bros. Meyer Gottlieb, President of Samuel Goldwyn Films, which also released the original “Three Men and a Cradle” (remade as “Three Men a Baby“), says that awareness for the foreign originals increases after a studio remake. “The ancillary values absolutely increase,” he explains. “It increases the value of the film and expands its financial life, especially now with video and DVDs.”
“I definitely think remakes help the originals,” agrees Gary Springer, who represents Norsk Film, the company that sold the Norwegian film “Insomnia” to U.S. indie distributor First Run Features, and then handled the Warner Brothers deal to remake the picture. Springer quotes a recent item in industry magazine, Showbiz Weekly, which read, “If you have yet to see the original ‘Insomnia,’ rent it before the remake comes out; it’s worth your time.” Just look at the reviews of just about any English-language remake and you’ll see the foreign originals held up as high markers of cinematic excellence when compared with their inferior American counterparts. Variety‘s review of 1993’s “The Vanishing,” a Hollywood redo of the 1988 Dutch film, claims, “This is one remake that sacrifices much of what made the original work so well.”
Springer adds, “On the credits of the new movie, I think it even says, ‘based on the screenplay ‘Insomnia’ from Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjaerg‘; that alone gets the awareness out there.” Springer also notes the original is getting renewed life on cable: the Independent Film Channel has scheduled broadcasts of the film all this month. Even distributor First Run was contemplating bringing the original back to theaters for a limited run, according to Springer.
So when Akira Kurosawa‘s classic “The Seven Samurai” is remade yet again by MGM and Miramax, when Britain’s Film Four transplants Lukas Moodysson‘s 2000 Swedish hit “Together” to the United States, when Dreamworks gets around to producing an English version of Francis Veber‘s French comedy “Le Diner de Cons” (currently titled “Dinner for Schmucks”) or when Buena Vista overhauls Juan Carlos Fresnadillo‘s upcoming Spanish-language thriller “Intacto,” it can only help the originals breathe new life. Who cares if the studio remakes suck? It should only give us more reason to seek out the pictures they were inspired by in the first place.