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Remake Trend: Is Hollywood Losing The Plot?

Jay Maidment
Emily Blunt plays the proper and prim magical au pair in "Mary Poppins Returns."

Remake is a word with power in Hollywood. 

A glance at what’s playing at your local multiplex shows that everything old is new again as Hollywood’s close, personal relationship with remakes is stronger than ever. Audiences line up to see remakes and reboots of treasured favorites, like “Mary Poppins,” “Batman” and “Ocean’s Eleven.” Even recent failures like “Ben Hur” and “Tarzan” haven’t dampened the film industry’s lust for remakes.

A number of things are driving this seemingly unstoppable trend in Hollywood, according to Shari Zeck, interim dean of Milner Library at Illinois State University and GLT’s Culture Maven. Yes, we can blame a certain lack of imagination, Zeck said. But even more so, producers know that remakes have a built-in audience.

“In a way, remakes are kind of a variation on the series film,” Zeck explained.  

So from “Andy Hardy” and “The Thin Man,” the film world has moved toward recycling past successes with an eye to big box office.  

“In general, I think the impulse to remake is, on the one hand, if something was popular and made money once, it can do so again. There’s also the fact that technology changes and attitudes change, and a desire to see if that particular story or the environment will work in a new age, 20, 30, 40 years later. There’s a creative impulse there to want to play with something a little bit. You have a good story? Let’s see how it works in a new environment.”

A Remake Is Born

Case in point: “A Star is Born.” This story of success and failure set amid the entertainment industry has been remade four times, including the most recent version featuring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. 

“It’s a pretty good story,” Zeck said. “It’s a story that holds up. I believe different generations have the urge to see their own stars in good vehicles. And 'A Star is Born' has been a vehicle that has served different generations of stars.” 

The trend for remakes is not driven by audience demands, but producers taek into account what excites audiences and what could possible tempt them into a theater to see a film. “It’s not audience driven so much as the producers, the money people, recognizing that there is an appetite in the audience for particular stars at particular times, for particular stories, particular environments.” 

“And I say environments because of, for example, Star Trek and other sci-fi films. It’s not just the characters and the storylines that we want to see again. We also want to visit that world that’s been created.” 

Audiences can signal their fascination with a particular character, story, or environment through fan fiction. “Fan fiction can continue on far beyond the end of a series or after a movie has played out in a movie theater. Fan fiction certainly gives the money people a belief that there’s still interest out there for particular story.” 

“There’s a lot of factors that make a film a hit. If you’re going to remake something, it had better be a good story. It better have a plot that is compelling, that is adaptable to different time periods and actors. You need to pick the right vehicle that has the right story, and then you need to pick the right actors. Films are built around the stars.”

Remaking Comedies?

The remake trend is bound to continue, so long as remakes have good box office, declared Zeck. But some films will likely not be picked up again and made afresh for a new generation. 

“I think a lot of comedy can’t be remade.” Yes, “Blazing Saddles,” we’re glancing your way. 

“Especially when it’s not a plot driven movie, as 'Blazing Saddles' is. There’s no story that you can just take and transplant. It’s physical humor and verbal humor, and those things don’t translate very well across eras and across generations.” 

Films that are very much of their time are also hard to remake. Zeck points to “The Graduate.” 

“One would think that that would be a serviceable plot for a remake: Young man gets involved with older woman, then young man gets involved with older women’s daughter. But is that really what 'The Graduate' is? That plot is not what makes 'The Graduate' what it is.” 

What makes “The Graduate” a great film is a certain expression of the 60s, it’s Mike Nichols direction. I don’t think the young people of the 2000s care much about the things that make 'The Graduate' great. So if you made a movie, and called it 'The Graduate' and put current actors in it and just kept those bare-bones plot lines, I’m going to tell you it’s not a remake. You used a few elements, but it’s not really a remake because it’s a quite different film.”

GLT Culture Maven discusses the unstoppable remake train from Hollywood.
Shari Zeck talks about what genre of films deserves more remakes, plus names the film she hopes never, never, never, never gets remade. Ever.

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.