On Remakes And Profiteering

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
It is an entirely predictable response, one that has played out so many times at this point that it has almost entirely lost its meaning in some quarters while in others it is accepted blindly as fact because, hell, if it's been repeated so many times it must be true. It goes like this. News breaks in one of the trades the Producer X has set up an American remake of Movie Y. Moments later there are literally hundreds of comments popping up on film sites and across social media decrying the move as a 'cash grab', nothing but shallow profiteering, and therefore inevitably doomed to artistic irrelevance and worthy of nothing but scorn.

Yes, a very good number of remakes have earned that scorn but is the reason for that profiteering? Let's put aside for the moment the very simple - and painfully obvious - reality that outside of gallery pieces such as those made by Matthew Barney and overt propaganda - either wartime or religious - there's hardly a film in existence from anywhere in the world that doesn't include potential profit as a prime reason for existing, including both the original films being remade by Hollywood and every film you ever loved as a child that made you into the film geek you are today, meaning that if you're going to base an argument on profit motivation being somehow degraded you'd best be prepared to write off virtually every movie you've ever loved on that exact same basis if you care about being logically consistent. Let's just put that away and ask ourselves before we even get to the 'is profit motivation bad' bit of the criticism and start a step earlier and ask whether the assumption that these films are even cash grabs at all is accurate in any way. Are these movies being made because they're seen as a quick, easy, and / or somehow less risky path to profit?

To answer that question you first have to ask what the mechanism is that any other movie would be made by. What does it look like when an original script is brought from page to screen by a major studio? It's fairly simple, in theory at least. If it's an already completed script then that script is purchased from the writer. If the concept is being bought based on a pitch then the idea is optioned and the writer is hired and paid to actually write the script. So, step one, writer gets paid. Step two, producer is brought on if one isn't already attached. That producer takes a base fee and shares in the revenues generated by the film when it is released. the film is actually produced at whatever budget is judged reasonable. The studio pays for an advertising campaign, which for a small film would be in the $15 - 20 million dollar range and frequently range much, much higher than that. And then when the film is actually released, assuming it performs well, the profits are split between the studio and producers according to their predetermined deal with the writer and director also participating according to the rules laid out by their respective unions.

So, with original content, the studio bears one hundred percent of the financial risk in terms of development, financing the picture and the actual cost of advertising and physical release while splitting the profits with producers, writer and director.

Now, what does this look like in a remake scenario? It's fairly similar but with a few key wrinkles.

The process towards remake begins in earnest when a studio options the rights to a foreign property. In typical circumstances that means paying a nominal fee up front to initially secure the rights with a significantly larger payment - typically based on some percentage of the overall production budget - then paid out to the original creators when the remake actually launches into principal photography. In other words, a little bit up front, then a block more when the film actually gets made. Rights secured, the studio then hires and pays the writer to develop the US script. Then you've got your producers to take care of, the physical production costs, the advertising spend, and then your movie is in the theaters. Should the film turn a profit then it is much as described in the original content scenario with the exception that the producers of the original material would typically also share in any profits.

Remember, we're talking here about the idea that remakes are some sort of cash grab on the part of the major studios. Now compare the work flow of original content versus remake content. Original content is cheaper to develop. There are no rights fees on an original script beyond what you pay the writer to buy it. You've still got to pay the writer in a remake scenario, but you also have to buy rights to the source material. Remakes engender more up front costs to the studio, and more cost actually means more risk, not less. And at the end of the day the remake scenario leaves you with more mouths to feed, more stakeholders who each take a share. Meaning the studio actually risks more for the chance to make a profit and then, if they do, that profit is divided amongst more people leaving a smaller amount for all. If the goal is cheap, easy, low risk profit, then adopting a model that involves more cost for less reward seems an odd way to go about it.

This is typically where the 'brand awareness' argument would kick in. It goes like this: The studios are hoping to capitalize on a pre-existing audience by selling them a new version of a movie that they already like. As you may have guessed from the choice of artwork above, I'm going to be using Oldboy as a prime example here so, with that in mind, the argument would go, "The original Oldboy was so popular that the studios are planning to cash in on that audience."

What this argument overlooks is the fact that the original Oldboy - one of the most successful and notorious foreign language titles of the recent past - is not popular at all in the overall scheme of things. Certainly not popular enough for the existing audience to matter one iota one way or the other on the financial well being of a mass market studio release. Here are the actual facts:

According to Videoscan - the third party reporting system that monitors video sales throughout the USA - the original Korean Oldboy has logged roughly eighty thousand units sold in the USA. Now, Videoscan doesn't log sales made at Walmart, which can often account for up to fifty percent of sales for any given title, so in interests of fairness let's assume that the Park Chan-wook Oldboy has sold 160k units in the US. That's a big number for a foreign language title, one that would absolutely count as a major success in the marketplace. It is also a whopping 0.05% of the total US population. Let's contrast those numbers to the needs and expectations on the US version.

The Spike Lee Oldboy has a reported US production budget of $30 million. On top of that you need to factor in the advertising costs which for a release on this scale would be somewhere in the $15 to $20 million dollar range. So call that $45 million in costs that need to be recouped to get into profit. If we assume that the backers of the Lee Oldboy were counting on everyone who bought a copy of the Park Oldboy buying a ticket as their path to success ... well, they'd still be about $43.5 million dollars short.

The idea that the original audience for a foreign language film being remade in the US is at all a factor in the financial viability of the US version is wildly and completely false. There just aren't enough original audience members to matter in either direction. If they all boycott or if they all come out, it doesn't make a jot of difference in the overall viability of the project. The 'brand awareness' argument doesn't hold - and never has - because there have never been enough people aware of the brand in the first place. The studios know this perfectly well and the reality is that the remade film will need to succeed on its own strengths within a brand new US audience completely unaware of the original film if it is to have any chance of success.

So, from the US perspective, the costs of remaking are higher, the profits (when there are any) need to be split more ways, and the pre-existing audience is statistically insignificant. Does this still sound like a model for easy profits to you? Whatever is going on here - and I do have my theories, though this is already getting very long - easy profiteering for the studios is not it.

But surely someone, somewhere must be making some money here, right? Well, yeah. there very definitely is some easy, zero risk money to be made from a US remake. But it's not for the studios. It's for the original rights holders. Look back up at that workflow above. It's easy money for the makers of the original films. They don't need to do any heavy lifting on development. They don't have to pay for anything. They just take their small fee up front, a bigger one if the remake goes into production, and then share in the profits if / when the remade version of their film goes into profit. And is this a bad thing?

Here's a reality of the way the international film industry now works. In the last year in my role at XYZ Films I have personally been involved with a pair of international projects where potential remake rights have had a huge impact on the original films being made in the first place. Both are edgy, challenging films of the sort seldom made in their countries of origin. In one case when we met with the eventual investors who put the money into the film that let it be made we were told flat out they would only invest if we believed there was the opportunity for a remake sale. No remake, no investment, no movie at all. In the other case it appeared for a time as though the US 'remake' would actually go into production prior to the 'original' with the US money directly funding the foreign language version. That didn't ultimately happen - the 'original' now is actually the original - but the interest overseas was a major factor in the investment coming together. Both of these films ended up premiering in major international festivals and have opened major opportunities for their creators. Neither would exist at all without US remake interest.

Potential remake sales are now factored directly into the business plans of international producers and that potential revenue gives them the freedom - or at least the boldness - to challenge the home audience with risky material knowing that they have a financial base broader than their home audience to work from. The results of a remake can vary wildly from the US perspective - some have been hugely profitable while others have bled cash, some have been creatively interesting while others have been bland and boring - but the results from the overseas perspective are always positive. It's literally a no-loss scenario that in the worst possible case - i.e. a small option fee is paid with the film never going into production - still puts at least a few bucks into the pockets of overseas producers who can then put that money into more local productions. Or just take a vacation. And while I had no interest at all in seeing the US version of Oldboy - and along with the vast majority of people, did not - it has not in any way affected my enjoyment of the original Korean film while also financially rewarding those who created it in the first place.
Around the Internet:
  • Jon Williams

    I fell asleep...

    Somebody please remake this article and add more explosions and boobs

  • Nicholas I

    sYnthYte: : "anyone who is a minority would disagree 100% with the idea that Hollywood doesn't need to be reformed " ?? But Hollywood has always been owned and run by a minority.

  • Congratulations, I have no idea what you're talking about. Please elaborate so I may engage in a discussion with you, which is, as I recall, the purpose of these "comment" sections beneath internet journalism articles.

  • Zeto

    As Todd has said, not every remake is a success... even when every remake is a copy of a successfull movie (by foreigh films standards). So it is not that Hollywood producers are interested in making (in Oldboy's case) Park Chan-wook famous remaking his film, but "oscure" him even more. Making it irrelevant to want to know his work. "Don't bother. We already remade it." Maybe the intention is only try to replicate the success of the movie. "If a korean movie of a director we can't even pronounce his name have make such a huge splash on world cinema, surely if *WE* do it will make gazillions dollars!!!". Well. The problem is that while the original movies were extremely good, the remakes are mainly, you know, pretty bad. I think that part of the reason of the producers is that, while people on the US haven't saw the movie, maybe they heard / overheard of it. That's way they make a Batman film instead of a Luc Orient film (Who? Exactly!). Or, trying to gain from the fuss that the remake will generate on critics and cinephiles, and waiting that that fuss propagate on common folks.

  • Ah, yes, the 'remakes damage the original' argument. I love this one, which gets trotted out very nearly as often as the cash grab argument, despite having even less basis in actual fact.

    Despite being told over and over and over again that remakes are hurtful to the original films and filmmakers I have never once in my life had my copy of an original film self destruct because someone remade it. Nor have I found it any more difficult to find the original nor less pleasant to watch it in any way. Nor is there ANY demonstrable damage of ANY sort in ANY case. DVDs don't get pulled from store shelves, their print runs don't get discontinued, they don't get pulled from Netflix or other services. In fact, it's the exact opposite.

    If you talk to the distributors of foreign language films about this issue - and I have, with many of them, about this exact issue - they will all tell you the same thing: The remake of a film leads directly to a bump in the sales of the original film. They ALL say this. EVERY time. And the result is the same whether the remake is any good or not.

    The reason for this is pretty self evident: When a studio remakes a film they spend, assuming the lower end of a studio theatrical release such as what Oldboy received, in the 15 - 20 million dollar range advertising their film. This leads to hundreds upon hundreds of reviews and articles across the US and around the world talking about the film, the vast majority of which talk explicitly about how it is a remake of Film X by Director Y. Which means that the millions of dollars spent advertising the remake are also effectively advertising the remake to a very large audience, the vast majority of which had never heard of the original before this, some of whom then go and seek out the original. Hell, the basic laws of human stupidity mean that if nothing else a decent number of people will pick up the original film thinking they're getting the remake and be exposed to it that way.

    Remakes leading to a jump in sales of the original film is a universal, unassailable, easily quantified fact. It happens. Every time. Any distributor will tell you this. A remake is nothing but a lot of free advertising for the original.

  • Johan Forsberg

    Wow, you sound exactly as those defense lawyers for pirates. You are right that the remakes are not stealing the physical copies of the originals. They are damaging the Intellectual Property of the original. I cannot start a shoe making company and call it Nike, even though i promise not to burn down Nike's stores or blow up their factories. Weird huh? What Zeto is saying is that remakes will make people less interested in seeking out the original movies.

  • Except that is factually not true, which is DEAD SIMPLE to demonstrate. As stated, remakes lead directly to a bump in sales / viewership for the original film. Every time. Even when the remakes are bad. Interest INCREASES. Every time. Every single distributor who handles films that have been remade will tell you this. So will Videoscan. So where's the damage? How has interest been lessened? The original films are still there. More people seek them out. Gimme some facts, not a knee jerk "I don't like it so it must be bad for the original."

  • Christopher Webster

    I think great content and scripts are so rare that it makes sense for a producer to pick up the rights to a story that has already been put through development and plays well. It's not so much about profiteering as a quick-win for a producer looking to get a film financed or greenlit.

  • As an exercise in journalism, this is an awesome article and I wish everyone approached their anti-Hollywood attitudes (or any attitude about art) with this much critical analysis. But the article definitely didn't make me feel any better about the Hollywood system. I hope Todd's just playing devil's advocate here, because anyone who is a minority would disagree 100% with the idea that Hollywood doesn't need to be reformed and that their aversion to original ideas isn't a part of the problem.

  • I'm not trying to make anybody feel better. But if you're going to criticize it, you should criticize it for what it actually is rather than setting up pointless and factually untrue straw man arguments to knock down.

    If there's a positive here I would say that positive is that the international community has realized that this is the way Hollywood operates and that they have an opportunity to leverage Hollywood's own predilictions to their own advantage.

  • Johan Forsberg

    Hmm...I am one of these people who often complain about remakes. I complain because although Im not a big fan of Hollywood anymore...I know the potential when things are done right. But I think you got a couple of things wrong Todd. First if all, its not so black and white about the money. Everybody know you need to make money to make pictures (at least unless they are government funded as in some countries). Same goes for every other job on the planet. If you dont make money you dont work. BUT, saying that both an original and a remake wants to make money therefore they are in the same boat is not correct imo. There is still a huge difference in the artistic integrity where one creates something new compared to a repackaging and promotion action. Lets say I own a restaurant, and I go on a vacation to San Sebastian in Spain. They make this amazing food called pinxtos. If I want to introduce a new dish at my restaurant, I can either be creative and make something new...or I could just take the pintxos, repack them and sell them as a "new" product. There is a huge difference there in the artistic sense. People (myself included) who love Oldboy are fully aware the movie is not a huge international success by hollywood standards. We dont think that Hollywood said "oh here is a financial successful movie, lets remake it"...but they take a movie which they recognize are good and has a potential for success if it reached a broader audience and then repack it hollywood-style and hope the original creativity combined with a hollywood-format that will speak to a broader audience will make their money's worth...INSTEAD of making a new movie. Even if these remakes would be as good as the originals I wouldnt be happy. I've usually seen the original already, and if not...its usually available one way or the other. I dont need 2 movies of the same script and concept. I understand that the general audience not aware of these originals have no problem with a remake...and I understand that hollywood believes this is a good way of making money (which ofc is their aim...and should be)...but you questioned us "cinephiles" why we complain? Well...speaking for myself...I will always prefer 2 original good movies over 1 original and 1 copy.

  • Are you suggesting then, Johan, that the only way anyone should ever be able to experience pintxos is to travel to San Sebastian and eat them there? That the San Sebastian pintxos are the only valid iteration of that particular food? That they could never, under any circumstances by appreciated by people in other lands or possibly be improved by being fused with influences from other parts of the world? Your analogy is deeply flawed.

  • Johan Forsberg

    It is flawed...if you focus on the logistics of food distribution, which makes it impossible to experience without physical import and export. Movies are a digital media though and can be imported and exported all over the world in an instant. They key of the analogy is not they way of distribution but rather the choice to use a pre-existing entity (be it food or film) instead of creating something new. Im sure you got that part.

  • Of course it is not about brand, the article is right in this regard,
    those brands are not known for the U.S. audience. However, it is still
    the exact same thinking: the movie has proven itself, it was popular
    among moviegoers and critics alike, it made money, so of course it will
    make money again before a different audience. Safer than doing something
    original, something "unproven". So the cash grab argument is still
    valid, I think.

  • Todd Harrington

    I agree with Todd: "cash grab" is a complete misnomer and, as he points out, the failure rate for remakes is at a similar rate to, well, just about any sub-group you want to break out.

    What it has going for it is, as I post below, a way for a studio system to -- ostensibly -- minimize its risk by literally "seeing" how the story plays out in a cinematic arena before "making" it themselves. The fact that the breakage would be the same as original content is off-set by the ability to point to the pre-existing film as a piece of quantitative data in your green-lighting process.

    Twenty years ago, it was hiring a million-dollar writer to CYA. Today, it is pre-awareness penetration.

    None of it makes a difference in the hit/miss ratios, but no one is going to sop doing it regardless.

  • You're overlooking that remakes HAVEN'T proven themselves safer. The success:failure ratio isn't significantly different from that of content taken from any other source. This is a baseless argument as well.

  • Haven't they? Compared to what? To other endeavors that often fall into the "cash grab" category, like remakes of american movies, sequels, adaptations etc.? Or to original movies? Because I do think that studios consider the risks to be lower in case of remake-s of foreign movies than original projects. The spectacular failure of Olboy is kind of an anomaly, most of its ilk usually do nicely.

  • Nope, they really really haven't. The ratio of successful fully original scripts to successful adapted scripts to successful sequels to successful franchise films to successful remakes does not vary by any appreciable amount. If it did then the sort of film at the high end of that spectrum would be the only sort of film anyone ever invested in. A small handful of each succeed wildly. A core group cover costs. A small handful fails wildly. And on and on it goes.

    If you want to talk about a production model that actual does fit into the cash grab mold, though, I'd suggest looking at the Blumhouse system. That is literally a financial model that says if we produce enough films at low enough cost with x number of marketable elements in them then at least one or two per year will have enough punch to be released widely and push the overall slate into massive profit. The Blumhouse model functions devoid of quality considerations, accepting from the outset that anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of the films they make will be of such low quality that they will be unreleasable on any format, even straight to VOD. And yet they keep pumping them out because if even one in ten ends up being Paranormal Activity then they make hundreds of millions of dollars. Any system that starts from a position that says "I'm fine with half the stuff I make being utter crap because if I throw enough at the wall eventually something will stick" is far more callous than anything being talked about here.

  • Thinking about the last 10 years of remakes of foreign language films, I do not believe that you are right. I am convincible with actual statitistics though.
    But even if you are right about these kind of movies not being less of a risk than original ones, I still think that the proven vs unproven argument is valid from the perspective of studios. There are flops among book adaptations and remakes of american movies too, but they are still doing them - working with proven material is just too deeply rooted in their thinking.

  • I'd have to go through a release calendar to make a comprehensive list and don't have time for that now but for every Departed there are a couple of The Eye's or One Missed Call's or My Sassy Girl's and a bunch of stuff like Dragon Tattoo that just ekes over break even.

    And, yeah, the studios will always go with concepts that they think are a relatively safe bet but that's no different than them preferring to hire screenwriters with proven track records. That's risk mitigation. It's not even remotely something you could term a cash grab unless you're talking about an extreme low risk, low effort scenario, which this is not.

  • Zeto

    They are just that... cash grabs. Or worst, a form of cultural colonialism. Some kind of protectionism on american film industry, in a world of "free" trade.

  • Hiroaki Johnson

    Doesn't every territory do remakes? I don't get your point about American films if it's a common thing the world over and has been for a long time.

  • They absolutely do but people only moan about it when Americans do it.

  • Johan Forsberg

    Really? And your conclusion of that is based on what? I think it's as stupid when japanese remake american films...or when koreans remake japanese films. It is not too easy to discuss these matters with koreans or japanese since A. They don't speak english very well and B. They are usually on some domestic chat program/site like Naver in Korea etc. But maybe your intel is better than mine?

  • It's based on many, many conversations had here. Look at the reaction to the Japanese remake of Unforgiven, for example, which was overwhelmingly positive, including from a very good number of the same people who consistently scream about Americans remaking Japanese films. That's one of dozens of examples.

  • Hoping if you just repeat it enough times you won't have to engage with actual fact?

  • Zeto

    What fact? What you say is a fact and what I say is a lie? Because you told so? I can say the same to you; If you repeat it enough times that remakes are good........ I'm still not going to believe you. ;-)

  • Niels Matthijs

    I don't get it. This is a weird article to write for someone who argues that it's always "money money money" first when films get made. The real question here seems to be "why do these remakes get made if they pose higher risks and mean less money for the makers" but somehow that's the part you leave out?

    As for valuing remakes as part of the audience, I think it's not so much the money-grab but the overall laziness that bothers people. Plus the fact that the original is usually better and gets swamped by the bigger Hollywood project. There's a lingering feeling of injustice that the original should receive more credit.

  • Todd Harrington

    Ooo, boy. Felt this one buildin' up in Todd B's comments the other day...

    Niels, the "why" is actually pretty easy to explain, but it starts with asking a question: what does Hollywood do?

    "It butchers international cinema!!"

    Maybe. But not what I mean. What Hollywood does is sell visual stories to people in order to make money, money for the people making those stories and money for the people investing in the studios (ie, shareholders). We're storytellers, first, last, always.

    But to tell these stories this way takes a LOT of money. When you are in the position of deciding what to put into the pipeline, what you want to do is minimize your risks. Nobody wants to be the executive who sank a studio.

    So, how do you do THAT? You start with the basics: find a GOOD STORY. And not JUST a good story, but a good story that can be re-told visually (and, yes, ALL movies are re-told stories of one form or another).

    One of the ways Hollywood has always -- always-always-always -- done this is to find a GOOD STORY that has already been told (a lot) that people like. When cinema began, it was the Bible. The Euro Gothics (Frankenstein, Dracula, etc). Shakespeare. And once a body of visual work began building up, Hollywood began repeating itself -- even THE MALTESE FALCON is a remake of an earlier MALTESE FALCON adapted from the book!

    So, what a foreign film (or even domestic remake) presents is an opportunity to see a visual story that works and minimize the financial risk by seeing the test case and building upon it for a wider audience.

    (The reasons as to why a Hollywood studio version will always attract a wider audience than a native language version, I will leave to the sociologists and economists among us to explain -- I merely choose to operate in the world as it is, not as I wish it would be.)

    As for the artistic questions -- doesn't this stunt creativity coming out of Hollywood, isn't it somehow, just... wrong?? I'll answer the second one first.

    Nobody has a shit-fit when THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is translated into non-Swedish books, but people go ape-shit crazy over Fincher re-making the tele-film. Whatever. Not the same thing, but same ballpark.

    As for the first, doesn't it stunt Hollywood's creativity (not a misnomer or oxymoron), the answer is: maybe. Maybe not. Did the resources poured into a remake of OLDBOY deprive the world of the next PULP FICTION or THRONE OF BLOOD? I doubt it.

    What it can do is make people who never heard of Chan-Wook Park before give the original a shot and, as Todd points out, what it DOES do is give those filmmakers we love a payday that lets them shoot something new tomorrow.

  • davebaxter

    People would definitely have a shit-fit if Penguin or Random House hired an English author to RE-WRITE, in their own vision, from scratch, an English language version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. The fact that this virtually never happens in publishing (I'm sure there are a few rare exceptions, but this is not a common practice) is why no one is going ape-shit there.

    Likewise, no one has a shit-fit when we get a subtitled version of the original GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, though with both books and subtitles if the translation is sloppy or untrue to the original to too much of an extent, there have been outcries about even this, as there was for the subtitles on LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.

    As for the "stunting" of creativity, of course no single thing completely stunts an entire industry. But every remake is the loss of one possible non-remake (millage may vary on how "original" even so-called "originals" are, but the fact that something is not purposefully and out-and-out remake puts the odds for originality in better favor, since the remake cannot by definition be original, however innovative). It can be argued that originality is overrated, and that innovation is more key, but so can the opposite be argued, and it may be this distinction that separates those who accept remakes from those who, in principle, do not.

    There will forever be an honest distinction between stories that are influenced by other stories and those that are direct brand rehashings. The fact that "nothing is truly original" does not mean there is no difference between influence and copying.

    If a company wishes to bank of the popularity and "proven" qualities of a brand, then they also have to risk the direct comparisons and the potential backlash due to brand loyalty to the original - the very brand loyalty they're banking on! There is no logical argument that there should only be a positive side to this brand loyalty, that it shouldn't backfire or be a minefield. If a company decides to bank on the positive side effects of a known brand (built-in fanbase, recognizable title, proven past popularity) then it goes to reason they must also suffer the completely natural negative side effects that can also arise.

    Do we currently live in a world where American remakes still get more eyeballs, even when they "bomb", than native language versions? Yes, but if we ever want that to change, the game is to keep fighting for what we want, vocally, let it become more and more of an international discourse. Maybe it never changes, but it certainly will never change if we're silent about it.

    As for remakes where language isn't even an issue (a la Robocop, Total Recall, etc.) there seems to already be a bit of box office attrition occurring here. Not an incredible amount yet, but could be the beginning of a reverse trend.

  • The why would be the question that arises from this, yes. I haven't addressed it because that's a subsequent issue and not the primary issue that I'm addressing here and this was already running on to a very high word count.

    The short answer is supply in demand in that the mass market distributors have a set number of release slots that must be filled every year if they are to maintain their cashflow and keep the lights on. And the supplies of that new content are drying up domestically. There used to be a lower tier of product - first the B movie / drive in circuit, then the home video producers - that provided a steady flow of new talents and ideas. The Corman factory alone produced Coppola, Dante, Cameron, Sayles, etc. That no longer exists, those talents no longer are coming up to be poached to the bigger leagues. But the holes still need to be filled so the big players look overseas to do it.

  • Guy

    Do you know a reason why this "lower tier of product" you are talking about no longer exist and why "those talents" are no longer coming up? What happened? I'm curious.

  • Pretty simple, really. The home video market collapsed. How many major video chains were there ten years ago that don't exist now? Then add in thousands upon thousands of mom and pop shops that are now gone. It used to be that if you made a low budget movie that could land placement in video shops, just stocking those shelves was immediately a few million bucks in sales. That no longer exists, and all those producers went under. That used to be the proving ground, where people learned their craft and how to tell a story, and that's where the studios looked for we talent. In those days it was shockingly unusual for a commercial or music video director to move to features and they were always looked at skeptically because they hadn't proven any narrative skills. Now Hollywood overwhelmingly recruits out of commercials, which is part of why they're desperate for story content from elsewhere.

  • Simon

    A good article, and one which debunks some common internet notions. However, it still seems to start from the assumption that good films need to be remade _at all_.

    The perception in the industry seems to be that a foreign film in a foreign language with a foreign cast can't possibly be commercially successful outside its native region, so it has to be remade in the English language to reach a wide audience. Even though that English remake will then be pushed in markets worldwide, in many where English is also a foreign language. Hmmm.

    I'd love to see the original films get pushed with the same kind of marketing budget the remakes get... after all the reason people want to remake them in the first place is usually that they were pretty damn good. The very few attempts at doing this have been so hesitant and insincere they never really had a chance of success, and their relative failures have reinforced the perception that English language remakes are the only way to bring a good film to a wide audience. I really don't think that's true ... non-English language speaking countries seem to be able to cope with subtitled English releases, so I'd like to think that English speakers could be brought around to the subtitle concept too - enough good subtitled releases that get people to make the effort to see them might just get people to overcome their aversion (and the stigma that subtitled = arty farty).

    The other argument for remaking seems to be 'name recognition' - actors and directors who are superstars in their own country just aren't names that will get audiences into the cinema worldwide... but Hollywood manages to introduce enough new names and faces to the world via its own products in any given year that this is surely just a matter of promotion and exposure.

    I think what offends many cinephiles about Hollywood's default 'remake it' position is not so much that it's profiteering, it's that it is denying awesome films an audience in their own right (and denying audiences many an awesome film). The cynical part of me thinks that the main reason Hollywood remakes good foreign films is actually because they are deathly scared of the original films becoming popular, leading audiences to seek out more, and chipping away at the big studios' effective monopoly on global audiences and mainstream media attention... 'cause if the notion that Hollywood studios were just one player amongst many, and not even one of the better players in many cases, the media might start paying attention to (promoting) the foreign films, distributors might be able to launch global releases without Hollywood getting their slice of the pie at all - and that really would hurt their profits.

  • Ah, the ol' "If they advertised like an English language film then audiences would come out like an English language film" argument. The problem with this is it's just not true. It's been tried over and over and over again and failed spectacularly over and over and over again. It doesn't work.

    In the indie boom of the 90s alone there were probably a dozen companies founded on this basic principal, all of which have gone under. In that same boom every single one of the major studios - and every major distributor on that scale - set up specialty distribution arms based on that principal. All of those went under other than Fox Searchlight - which has retooled and now almost exclusively handles English language film - and Sony Pictures Classics, both of whom use a more limited and scalable releasing model because experience has proven that this is the only way to not bleed yourself out. It's not a coincidence that those two companies are still standing while literally everyone else that has tried what you're describing has gone out of business. Every. Single. One.

    Put it this way: If you were correct there would be a simple, easily accessible stream of content there for the taking with the potential to generate billions of dollars in revenue with no investment required at all in development. Only marketing. That's dead easy money. Do you really, sincerely believe that all these big, well financed companies that exist for the sole purpose of making as much money as they possible can by bringing exactly this sort of content to as many people as possible would choose not to make those billions?

    It'd be lovely if we lived in a world where mass audiences would support foreign language film. We don't. Period.

  • Simon

    >> It'd be lovely if we lived in a world where mass audiences would support foreign language film. We don't. Period.

    Of course we do - Hollywood films frequently do very well in many countries where English is a foreign language.

    Whilst foreign language releases have been tried in the US as well, there has been a tendency to pigeonhole the audience for the films and to pick releases based on that pigeonhole - by and large it has been 'art' films that have been distributed, with the distributors making it very clear that they're taking a big risk by giving the film a chance and don't really expect general audiences to appreciate it. There have been very few examples that I can think of where films which would be considered 'blockbusters' even in their home country have been given anything but limited arthouse releases in the US - Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, perhaps, though I can't remember what sort of distribution and promotion even they got in the end. I seem to remember Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon doing well enough though.

    I do think we live in a world where the big Hollywood studios (like the major record labels) have a business model based on dominating the distribution channels and media coverage, promoting the perception that they're really the only game in town. Having lived in Taiwan, where Hollywood films share screen time in roughly equal proportion with Hong Kong, Japanese and Korean films (and a smattering of others), I have to believe that the dominance of Hollywood productions in much of the world is more to do with that business model being successful in manipulating audience perceptions rather than any inherent quality of the audiences themselves.

    I do suspect that the instinctive 'remake it' response is at least partially driven by a desire to preserve the perception that foreign films (well, any non-Hollywood film in fact - independent US films get much the same deal) are inherently niche market. I suspect the fact that studios get a bigger slice of the pie from a remake than they would as distributors of the original is a factor as well (offset, as you observe, by much higher up-front costs)... and that a simple sense of superiority amongst Hollywood producers ("let the professionals show you how its done") accounts for the rest.

  • Jason Gray

    "Of course we do - Hollywood films frequently do very well in many countries where English is a foreign language."

    English language is little to do with it in at least several key territories for Hollywood revenues (not to dismiss the undeniable soft power of Hwd itself). In the current Japanese market, dubbed versions of Hollywood films account for a much higher take than subtitled. Young people don't want to read movies and local stars are hired to dub them, becoming part of promotion (often alongside US stars). Idol duo Kinki Kids recently did the dub of Ron Howard's Rush to attract teens/20 somethings. The dubbing situation has long been true in several European countries (Germany and Italy come to mind). I assume there's still basically zero acceptance of live-action film dubbing in the US, and not a large enough % of audiences are willing to read movies in the cinema. Perhaps if piracy hadn't become ubiquitous there would occasionally be Crouching Tiger or Shall We Dance? breakouts in the US, but it's unlikely.

    It'll be argued over forever, but The Departed was an excellent example of how to do a remake properly (aside from the mishandled "Chinese" scene) and everyone was rewarded for their efforts. At the time fans complained about the lack of credit for the original creators assuming Scorsese and co. conveniently forgot them, but now Andrew Lau is doing an original movie (Revenge of the Green Dragons) with Scorsese producing and it looks like a winner. Original work born out of a decried (by hardcore fans) remake...

    Interesting article and comments thread, anyway.

  • Yeah, in Germany it's enough of a rarity to show films in their original language that the theaters that do so (I know of one in Berlin) advertise clearly as such to prevent people from leaving angry. It's dubs all the way.

  • Crouching Tiger - like Life Is Beautiful - is an anomaly, not the norm, and was not mass marketed initially. It was a limited platform release that spread by word of mouth and didn't reach it's max screen count until week 16, I believe. That model of releasing doesn't work any more, not in an age where piracy hits so hard and so fast.

    If you want a more accurate comparison, look at the job Miramax did on Hero. That was a broad scale release heavily backed by marketing dollars of a film featuring stars already very well known in the west with a massive celebrity endorsement from Quentin Tarantino on the marketing. It was a perfect storm and a scenario with the best possible chance of success. But when you crunch the actual numbers Miramax covered their ad spend only. They broke even. They had the most successful release of a foreign film ever using that model and they could only manage break even. And when the ceiling for a model is break even, that's not a viable business model.

    And this is what Miramax (who have gone under) along with literally dozens of other companies who have also gone under attempting this have learned: Spending a ton of money will increase the audience numbers but it will not increase it enough to cover even the cost of the advertising. And that's why they've ALL GONE UNDER. Again, literally, every single one.

    This has been tried over and over and over and it has failed spectacularly every single time. It's not a lack of trying. It's not an act of collusion to prevent content from screens. Big companies in the business of distributing films who do it very well have pumped time and energy and massive amounts of money into trying to make this work and every single one of them has failed to the point that all but two who have ever tried are now bankrupt and out of business with those two surviving only by changing their business model. This is reality and born out by a huge amount of hard data. If there was a way of making foreign language stuff popular and successful in the US then they'd have done it. Does this say something about the US being more xenophobic than Europe or Asia? Yep, probably.

  • Yatchabatta

    Was my comment deleted?

  • Certainly not by me. Disqus may have hiccuped, though. I got notifications for a couple comments I don't see here.

  • Yatchabatta

    .

  • Simon

    Fair enough :-)

  • Matt Saracen

    Great article.

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