Play It Again, Sam. Play It Again: The Hollywood Remake Machine

BlogHer Original Post

In the summer of 1996, I sat in an art house theater watching Emma, and about halfway through, some girl half-whispers to her friend, “They’re totally copying Clueless.” I was eighteen, heading off to college with dreams of being a screenwriter and I realized that this was going to be my audience.

While it may be true that every story has already been told, this writer knows there are great scripts waiting for their chance to make best original screenplay history. Hilarious, tragic, beautiful, entirely made up stories just waiting for their day in the sun.

Only 40% of films made in 2010 were original material.

Most Hollywood fare are sequels, prequels, remakes, series or something based on a NY Times bestseller. And 2011 sets the records for sequels. Going to the movies is like déjà vu.

Just three of the ten best pic noms for the Oscar last year were original stories. Films that did not fall into one of the above categories. All writing is hard work, but c’mon Hollywood. Three out of ten?

There’s a reason for this trend. And I use the term trend loosely because Hollywood has always had a mix of original and adapted material. A mix is good. What happened to the mix?

Once upon a time, the development of an idea from story to screenplay was nurtured by the studios; by entire departments devoted to the task. If a studio liked a writer, they were hired to develop new projects. Projects that might not ever get made. But the writers were paid to see where their imaginations could take them.

Now? Not so much.

Studio marketing departments have a huge influence on what projects are greenlit. Taking a story people already love and bringing it to a theater near you means there’s already an audience for it. That makes business sense. There’s less risk. And in the years following the strikes and labor disputes of ’07-08, there’s been a lot less room for risk. Or for new ideas.

This is isn’t best news for writers. But it’s a challenge. We have to work that much harder to produce the best original material we can in order to fight the studio’s sure things.

I don’t believe the best material has to be original material. One of my favorite movies of all time is The Philadelphia Story, first a play by the same name, and then, just a few years later remade into the musical High Society. And there are so many foreign films that American audiences would have never known without their brilliant adaptations. I like the mix. I do. (Jane Austen and Charles Dickens productions don’t count. Somehow the BBC, Merchant Ivory, et al, made it possible to make them good again and again.)

This year’s highly anticipated remakes include Arthur, Footloose, and Conan the Barbarian. Seeing the new Arthur just made me miss Dudley Moore and John Geilgud. Timing is everything. The idea of rich playboy Arthur was totally 80s. Not quite as charming in a post-financial collapse world. And I don’t know what I think about the 21st century Footloose either. The story seems best told in a pre-Internet Age. Or maybe I’m just partial to Kevin Bacon. 

Enter the nostalgia factor. It’s what drives remakes, for better or worse. It’s why 1980s remakes are huge right now, as this British newspaper article explains better than I can.

Some upcoming remakes actually have me excited. Like Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby. Personally, I’ve yet to see Lurhmann’s twist on a classic not work. I loved Redford in the original, and the book, but there is something about the glitter of a Luhrmann production that already has me excited for his take on Gatsby glam. (I wonder what the budget for glitter is on a BL film? The stuff is everywhere.)

On a personal level, I’ve been disappointed when films made by or starring people I know and love have been remade or reworked in ways that just pale in comparison. But then I know people who’ve made sequels and remakes that made great contributions to film history. Remakes are not all good or all bad. It’s a mix.

But that talk about Oliver Stone remaking Citizen Kane? Um, not so sure about that one.


Father of the Bride, Oceans Eleven, The Birdcage and The Talented Mr. Ripley…I know there are more great remakes I’m not remembering.

Tell me, are there any remakes you love as much as, or even more than, the original? Any that you wish had never made it past pre-production? Anything you’re dying to see remade?


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