Note: Sorry it took that long, but this article turned out a bigger beast to tame than I originally expected… and it is quite a long read.
That Hollywood has been having a violent case of noncreativitis – we’ve known for a while now and many movies (including last week’s “Oblivion”) can testify to that without a doubt. However, within the last decade or so, a trend of remaking, rebooting, sequelizing, prequelizing, re-releasing and rehashing old films has grown to sizable proportions and – in my opinion (and many others’ as well) – can now be considered a major problem. I have already written a little bit on the subject trying to understand and emphasize the magnitude of the problem, though the topic is far from properly investigated.
Only last week I have been alerted to the fact that Hollywood big shots are not done getting richer and are as keen as ever before to remake classic movies like “Point Break”, “Escape From New York”, “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and “Weird Science” in order to do so. If you add to that the “Evil Dead” ravaging the theaters now, a remake of “Carrie” planned for later this year, a new “Godzilla” remake being shot as we speak, or “Oldboy”, “Robocop”, “The Crow” and “Wargames” being seriously discussed – I think you can notice the problem too.
With the slew of remakes literally flooding the cinemas and consequently the pop-culture in general, it became of interest to me, whether one might find any degree of predictability in the way the movies are brought back from the brink of oblivion (I can’t really call it history, because the younger generations tend not to care about anything that happened more than 10 minutes ago, nor they intend to look back in time and acquaint themselves with something older than them). Some say that pop-culture life cycle lasts 20 years, which would apparently be the perfect age for a movie to be rehashed. My keen scientific nature could not let me go on with my life unless I had a closer look at this phenomenon.
Without much more hesitation I proceeded to do so and – through the use of the omniscient and all powerful internet (mostly Wikipedia), I managed to find and compile some data on 468 movies (both American and foreign) that had been remade at least once. Adding the movies remade multiple times I arrived at a whopping 548 entries to work with (379 American and 168 non-American). Now, before I get into the nitty gritty, I’d like to say that it is more than likely I omitted a lot. Nevertheless, for my analysis to be completely wrong I would have to have been extremely unlucky, so what I found should still stand and help to depict the patterns (if any) of repeatability in cinema. Fortunately enough, I managed to isolate certain trends and I can hopefully arrive at some coherent conclusions at the end of this rant, so I hope I was not too far off with my way of thinking. In case of raging errors on my part – please give me a shout!
The range of films that served as templates for remakes at a later date span the entire 20th century (creeping into the 21st obviously, but I shall address that further on). It appears that the earliest film to be remade – that I could find – was “Hoodman Blind” from 1913, remade in 1923. The earliest remake on the other hand was “The Squaw Man” (remade in 1918 and 1931, based on a 1914 original). However, “The Squaw Man” was a film that I considered ‘a selfie’ – a film remade by the same director. I would like to assume that ‘selfies’ most often entailed foreign movies remade by original directors in English and low-budget pieces redone with better money, also by the same director. In total, ‘selfies’ amounted to 43 (nearly 10% of all the films included in my study). The first ‘non-selfie’ remake on record was “Marked Men”, remade in 1919, based “The Three Godfathers” from 1916.
Some additional fun facts would include “The cabinet of dr Caligari” as the film that waited the longest to be remade – 85 years (released in 1920, remade in 2005)! On the other end of the spectrum one can find “Autograph” – an Indian production released in 2004 and remade immediately the same year (and once more in 2006). It seems to be somewhat natural for Indian blockbusters to be remade very quickly and multiple times, though I would explain this phenomenon partially by the fact that India sports many languages and most often the subsequent rapid remakes are basically translations of the original work, but I’m no expert on Bollywood cinema, so don’t quote me on that. Or maybe the Indian audience has the shortest attention span of all, I don’t know. In fact, the Indian 1978 movie “Don” holds the record for the most remakes in the history of everything ever with 6 remakes to date. On the subject of records, Alfred Hitchcock’s and Akira Kurosawa’s filmographies seemed to have become the most popular remake destination; however, I don’t have the numbers on it. I simply felt like I kept stumbling across their names the most when assembling the data for this article.
When you put the release dates together both for the originals and remakes and sort them by year, there’s not much you can notice straight off the bat. First of all, it would seem that film makers have their favorite decades they like to borrow from with 1930’s, 1950’s and 1970’s clearly standing out , so the overall trend as a result looks sinusoidal. It would only be natural for me to look for a similar trend in the remakes (but translated by a vector), which would prove inadvertently the existence of ‘the perfect age of a movie’ for remaking. Sadly, a trend of that sort was nowhere to be found. True, the graph illustrating the amount of released remakes by year corresponded really well in trend with the one for the originals. That would point towards something completely unrelated as responsible. I could probably guess that the economic well-being of the movie industry had more to do with the way the trends were forming, with most films being produced in times of economic prosperity. However, the vaguely sinusoidal trend in remake production (red) breaks down completely as we approach the 1990’s and 2000’s where it assumes exponential characteristics. Interestingly, 2012 and 2011 incurred a sudden drop in the remake department, easily explained by a sudden surge in sequel production (simple, what was remade once, gets continued). Other than that, those numbers don’t tell much more.
Next, I decided to examine how the length of time between the original release and a remake is distributed; this is where the fun really begins, as you can quickly notice two sharp spikes in the data – one in the region of 0-5 years from initial release and the other one 28-30 years after. That in my book swiftly puts the 20-year theory to bed. However, bear in mind that the noise level for these results is very high (oscillating around 8-9 years). Additionally, averaging these results arithmetically points to 24.25 years as the sweet spot of the whole series. However, I would not take this number too seriously, simply because the data have two maxima (0-5 and 28-30) and consequently should not be treated in a linear fashion.
In order to gain some more information on this trend I decided to break the data down into American and Foreign categories, and analyse them separately. Looking quickly at the number of releases by year, the trends visible previously have vanished and (both remakes and originals) assume exponential character. Simply put, foreign films are becoming more and more popular remake subjects nowadays. However, when I looked at the distribution of the time from release, I was pleasantly surprised by the way it looked. It would seem that the vast majority of foreign films get remade in the first 5 years from its original release and past that mark, the number of remakes drops significantly.
On the other hand, when I put the American productions through the same paces, patterns emerged. First of all, the sinusoidal trend in original productions was clearly visible (with the same maxima in 1930’s, 50s’ and 70’s) together with the sinusoidal-to-exponential trend in remakes – exactly as it was seen in the general picture – but less noisy. In case of the years-from-release distribution, only one maximum was seen in 28-30 bracket with noise kept at the level of 4-5. In fact, maybe even the whole bracket of 28-41 can be considered here, but nevertheless, 28-30 sticks out rather noticeably and an arithmetical average amounts to 28.5 years as the sweet spot for the age of film to be remade.
So, there you have it. If you look back again at the first graphs, you can now identify the two maxima as ‘foreign sweet spot’ (0-5 years from release) and ‘Hollywood sweet spot’ (28-30 years from release, leeching into 30-35). These results correlate rather well with what we already know about the trends in Hollywood. It’s no surprise to see a foreign hit (like “The Ring”) swiftly remade for the American market, very often with the original director on board. Could I explain it by the inability of western viewership to read the bloody subtitles? I don’t know. Could it be the Hollywoodian arrogance of ‘we can do everything better and more shiny’? Probably a mixture of both.
Right, I think I’ve done enough. But – is it any useful? Can we use these results to possibly predict what Hollywood has in store for us? I hope that to some degree we can do that, but we shouldn’t treat any statistics as gospel, really. What the numbers really say is that a Hollywood film stands better chance of remaking 28-30 years after its release than 15. There’s multitude of factors that influence what films get remade or not, like social and historical significance, current climate in film making and many others.
But let’s take a look at the remakes I mentioned at the beginning of my now overly long rant:
“Point Break” (released in 1991, 22 years ago)
“Escape from New York” (released in 1981, 32 years ago)
“Oldboy” (released in 2003, 10 years ago)
“National Lampoon’s Vacation” (released in 1983, 30 years ago)
“Robocop” (released in 1987, 26 years ago)
“Carrie” (released in 1976, 37 years ago)
“Wargames” (released in 1983, 30 years ago)
“The Crow” (released in 1994, 19 years ago)
“Weird science” (released in 1985, 28 years ago)
“Evil Dead” (Released in 1982, 31 years ago)
As you can see on my semi-professional target board approach, the bullet holes left by the remakes in question are fairly accurate (or they would be had they been released this year). Of course, a terrible outlier that “Oldboy” turned out to be can be discarded, due to its foreign origin and those, as I have already shown average much earlier (ca. 14 years after release) and in that regard “Oldboy” looks rather well.
Before I wrap things up I’d like to say that if these numbers hold up, me might expect films like “The Breakfast Club”, “Back to the Future”, “Spies like us”, “American Ninja” (Jason Statham much?), “Commando”, “Police Academy”, or “Red Sonja” to be resurrected. And that makes me a sad panda, because I really liked the originals…