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John Farr

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The Dirtiest Word in Hollywood

Posted: 03/07/2011 4:34 pm

You'll never guess. It's "originality".

But perhaps I should explain.

A few weeks back, I read an announcement that the now white hot Colin Firth might be signing on for a re-make of "My Fair Lady".

Not since Steve Martin decided to put a new spin on "The Pink Panther" have I been so moved to ask, "Why?"

Will a remake of this venerable 1964 musical, even one featuring Mr. Firth, really improve on Rex Harrison's definitive performance, one he originated on Broadway?

Flush with success, does Mr. Firth really think he can bring something new and fresh to Rex's immortal rendition of "Why Can't A Woman Be More Like A Man?"

I for one doubt it.

The truth is, if you span the course of movie-making history, it becomes abundantly clear that remakes and sequels tend not to improve on the originals.

Recognizing this, the actor Michael Caine, who knows a thing or two about the industry, once suggested that it would be more logical for Hollywood to remake mediocre movies rather than acknowledged classics.

(This is why the new "True Grit" worked out so well in my opinion...the original was never really all that good, even with the Duke on-board.)

But the Hollywood suits who took Marketing 101 know better. You remake past successes because that's where the name recognition lies. From purely a sales standpoint- that is, getting butts in movie seats, it gives you a big head start on piquing the audience's interest, or so the thinking goes.

In the advertising business (my first career), we were taught the same principle: it's a lot easier to market a line extension of an existing brand- let's say, "Ivory Creamy Soap" than a whole new brand simply called "Creamy Soap".

Boy, have the movie executives taken this lesson to heart. Those of you who have access to IMDB-Pro need only scan the roster of feature films in development to discern that the overwhelming majority are either remakes or sequels.

Here's a sobering partial list: for re-makes: The Crow, Westworld, Robocop, Frankenstein, Dune, and When Worlds Collide; for sequels: The Expendables-2, Avatar-2, Zombieland-2, Kill Bill-3, Iron Man-3, National Treasure-3, Ghostbusters-3, Halloween-3, Austin Powers-4, Terminator-5, Indiana Jones-5, and Scary Movie-5.

Help- I'm drowning!

Business imperatives aside, the potential of movies to move and excite us sets it apart from the near-commodity plane of package good products like soap. Surely there's something more at stake here: A society whose popular culture is fed a continual diet of retreads will languish in the long run, no? Yes.

The cynics among us will doubtless chime in with comments along the lines of "This is nothing new" or "So what?" Fine. On the other hand, I think it's a troubling sign that some of the best original feature films, even from the fairly recent past (think "American Beauty" from 1999), would have virtually no prayer of being made today.

That said, there is a glimmer of sun peeking through these clouds: Lots of young filmmakers are still inspired and empowered to make original films because technology advances actually make it easier and more affordable for them to do so- without Hollywood's help, thank you very much.

And this progress is not just confined to production. The growth of streaming on the internet means that increasingly many self-financed, independent films will have significant opportunities to discover and build their audience online via sheer merit (and the viral word-of-mouth it creates), rather than having to rely on traditional marketing hype whose control lies mainly in the hands of glorified bean counters. Perversely enough, too often these are people who really don't know or get great movies...crazy but true.

Soon enough we'll all benefit from these emerging trends with easy access to more original, intelligent, human-scale movies. And the vitality and prestige of the movie business will be enhanced, along with the profits.

Now wouldn't it be a truly visionary move if those currently running the industry were somehow embracing and nurturing this new direction, rather than competing against it by pursuing business as usual: pushing mindless, formula entertainment that's all been done before...and better?

"Visionary"-it seems that's another dirty word in Hollywood.


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