This weekend brings the remake of “Flatliners,” Joel Schumacher’s 1990 thriller that starred Julia Roberts. Reviews are universally terrible for this retread of good-looking med-school students who put life-after-death on repeat, but it was a nail-biter for studio Sony Pictures from the outset: They took the risk of making an honest-to-god remake.
A remake sounds like the safest bet there is; isn’t original, untested IP the thing that studios fear most? However, in this market a true remake is what passes for a gamble. They’ve become a box-office rarity.
While none of this year’s top-grossing films are originals, there are very few genuine remakes. Yes, the year’s biggest movie, “Beauty and the Beast,” is a direct remake of the 1991 classic — but it went from animated to live action. (It was not a remake of the multiple live-action films and TV shows that preceded it, which stretch all the way back to 1908.)
“Wonder Woman” was a TV series (and a comic book). “Guardian of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Despicable Me 3,” “Logan,” and “The Fate of the Furious” — all sequels. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a reboot, “The LEGO Batman Movie” a D.C. Comics spinoff from a franchise.
Among wide studio releases this year, “Flatliners” is only the second real live-action remake. The other is Zach Braff’s “Going in Style,” which Warner Bros. drew from its 1979 original. (You could make an argument for “The Beguiled,” but that was an art-house release that went wider to 941 theaters. And, there’s not a lot of resemblance between Clint Eastwood’s 1971 original and Sofia Coppola’s atmospheric, feminist adaptation.)
Why the reluctance? Updating studio IP with new stars is as old as filmmaking itself. It would seem to have the freshness of a new idea, with significantly less risk.
However, the market tells us remakes are an exercise in diminishing returns. Braff’s “Going in Style,” which starred Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin, and Michael Caine, grossed $45 million domestic on a $25 million budget. (In adjusted dollars, the original earned $95 million.) Coppola’s “The Beguiled” scored acclaim and substantial attention at Cannes, but only a $10.5 million gross.
In 2016, the female redo of “Ghostbusters” grossed $128 million domestic and just over $100 million internationally; on a $140-million-plus budget, that’s not even breakeven. Similarly, Paramount’s $100-million “Ben-Hur” grossed just $94 million worldwide. (MGM’s 1959 cinemascope extravaganza grossed $871 million domestic, adjusted.) “The Magnificent Seven” starring Denzel Washington grossed $162 million worldwide on a $90 million budget.
Similarly, the 2015 remakes of “Poltergeist,” “Point Break,” and “Far from the Madding Crowd” were box-office blips. Only “Cinderella” — another live-action Disney remake of an animated classic — found success ($543 million worldwide).
It’s a recent trend. The 21st century saw remake successes in films like “True Grit,” “The Great Gatsby,” “I Am Legend,” “The Longest Yard,” and “Fun With Dick and Jane.” However, a number of factors conspire to make remakes almost as risky as being brave enough to try something new.
None of this bodes well for “Flatliners.” It was a modest hit at $61 million ($129 million adjusted), but the remake would be lucky to match the film’s 1990 numbers: Advance projections have “Flatliners” under $10 million for its opening weekend. (Niels Arden Oplev directs; he also brought us the original Swedish adaptation of “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” in 2009. And original star Keifer Sutherland shows up in a is-he-the-same-character-wink cameo.)
Here’s why remakes suddenly look like risk.
- An American film made before, say, 2000, is a film made for American audiences. That’s not what studios do today.
- Remakes are particularly vulnerable to critical reaction. It’s more difficult for marketing to control the message when they also have to fight the memory of how the studio got it right the first time.
- The idea of a familiar film being safer is an illusion. “Familiar” also means “older,” and younger audiences often have little knowledge of or interest in older films. Even if they are aware of its predecessor, the perception of age could be a drawback.
- A remake is rarely a franchise. They’re usually standalone efforts, which doesn’t fit modern studios’ content strategies.
There is one sub-brand of remake that seems to be alive and kicking: English-language versions of international successes. Hong Kong thriller “Internal Affairs” became Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” we imported “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” and two recent Foreign Language Oscar nominees, “Toni Erdmann” and “A Man Called Ove,” are on their way. Up next: The Weinstein Co. and “The Upside.” The adaptation of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s 2011 “Intouchables” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival to modest reviews; it’s slated for release March 9.