Monday, November 14, 2005

Why so many remakes?

Last Thursday I disputed an attractive but wrong-headed assertion that inexpensive DVDs of great old films will promote more originality in the movie industry.

Adam Leipzig in the New York Times yesterday provides some insight as to why we are seeing more remakes as the DVD market expands, and not less.

The movie business [now] turns on DVD sales. Strong DVD sales are generally propelled by strong theatrical box office. And what propels theatrical box office?

In most cases, nearly half of a movie's total audience turns out in the first week of release, which means there has been very little or no word of mouth motivating most of the audience. In other words, many people go to a movie without any real information about it - without even reading a review. Or, put most cynically: Most of the time, there is no relationship between how good a film is, and how many people turn out to see it.

So what makes people go to a movie? Generally, it is awareness - or now, in Hollywood parlance, "pre-awareness." Since studios cannot spend enough on advertising to buy awareness (there is so much advertising noise in the marketplace these days), there is a tendency to make movies with familiar titles, characters and stories: "The Dukes of Hazzard," "Spider-Man," "War of the Worlds," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." In the past decade, most box-office revenue has come from pre-aware titles, which includes sequels ("X-Men 3," set for a May 2006 release) and remakes ("King Kong," Dec. 14).

In short, the theatrical release of a film now is little more than a commercial for the DVD release, which will follow in four months or less. Leipzig points out that Wal-Mart's inventory tracking systems will have decided whether a DVD is a success or a dud by the time that LA executives are in the office on the morning of a new release date. (Wal-Mart alone, after all, accounts for more than a third of all DVD sales.)

Even all this does not eliminate the possibility of a renaissance of quality filmmaking. It simply means that it is naive to think that DVDs by their existence alone will push us in that direction. Sadly, for the moment, the opposite seems to be true.

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