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
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.