Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Film Courage Plus: Remake Mistakes!

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me, around 36 (or more) segments total. That's almost a year's worth of material! So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?

Hollywood loves remakes and reboots and sequels and adaptations. As a screenwriter, you probably hate this because you have written a bunch of great original screenplays and just want to see *your* stories on screen. You poured your heart and soul into these original screenplays, but Hollywood is remaking some Adam Sandler movie starring some new kid from Saturday Night Live, or is making FAST & FURIOUS 12 or adapting a trashy novel written by a book agent under a pseudonym or remaking a Stephen King novel for the third time or has decided it’s time to reboot IRON MAN or make THE MASK 3 with both Jim Carrey and Eric Stoltz (or to reboot that joke so that people in their 30s understand it). They only buy around 100 original screenplays a year, and only make a fraction of those! How is a screenwriter supposed to make a living if they keep making all of these remakes and sequels and adaptations?

Well, somebody still has to write those.

And that somebody might be you.

Most of a screenwriter’s income comes from assignments - those remakes and adaptations and reboots and sequels. It’s not uncommon to hire new writers to do the “grunt work” of writing the first drafts for remakes and reboots and adaptations, then hire a big name writer to do the rewrite and give it that “Barton Fink feeling”. I know a bunch of writers whose first jobs were working on some remake or adaptation, and doing several different drafts until they had found the very best way to tell the story... and then it was handed off to a big name writer. The new writer doing several drafts to “break the story” was much cheaper than the rewrite from the name writer. So it often makes sense to hire new talent to work on those remakes and reboots, etc. They have done this with sequels, too - a big hit series at Warner Bros once hired three different new writers to come up with a sequel, and then picked the best one. That’s frowned upon, because the real money is when the film gets made (production bonus) but even the writers who “lost” had a screenplay for a big hit franchise on their resume.

I have written a remake, adapted a New York Times Best Selling novel, been in the running for a bunch of sequels, and had a bunch of assignments where I wrote a screenplay to fit a production company’s specific needs (from my pitch, or sometimes from their idea). Early in my career I was in the running to adapt a big best selling novel (some other new writer got the job). So instead of seeing these endless remakes and sequels and reboots and adaptations as bad things, look at them as possible jobs in your future!


You may wonder why Hollywood is obsessed with remakes and sequels and reboots and adaptations, but it’s just basic business. Last time they released the numbers (probably a decade ago) the *average* film cost $107 million by the time it hit the screen, and these days people only buy tickets to see blockbusters - which often cost $250 million. That’s a lot of money to gamble on a single film, so they tend to look for “sure things”... like movies that have previously been hits or novels that have been huge best sellers. If they liked it before, they will probably like it again! And for the most part that theory works.

When people complain about remakes, I usually point out that the version of THE WIZARD OF OZ that they love is a remake of a remake of a remake of a remake. Hollywood has ALWAYS made remakes... the famous Humphrey Bogart version of THE MALTESE FALCON was the third version made in ten years! Some movies in the 1930s and 1940s were remakes of a film made the year before! One of my favorite private eye movies MURDER MY SWEET was the remake of a movie in the FALCON series made the year before (to be fair, both were adaptations of the same novel that the production company bought the rights to). Back then, there was no TV or video - the only place you could see a movie was in the cinema, so once a movie played in cinemas... it often went onto a shelf in a warehouse somewhere. Making it again a year or two later was a way to have a NEW movie with a story that had been popular before... and that’s still the plan and the plan usually works. Which is why they keep doing it.

And “franchises” have also always been part of Hollywood - there were 12 films in THE FALCON series, and I lost count when trying to count up the CHARLIE CHAN movies. In the 1930s and 1940s there were franchises and spin offs and reboots (with a different cast - Charlie Chan did that) and all of the things that people complain about today. If one film is a big hit, they make a sequel... if the sequel is a big hit, they think of it as a franchise. As I write this there’s a SAW reboot in cinemas starring Chris Rock. Sequels and franchises and reboots are good business decisions...

And this is a business.

And that means that these are jobs that you might be hired for.

So if you get hired for AMERICAN PIE 27: SENIOR CENTER what are the things to think about as a writer? How do you write that?


By now some of you are excited because you have a great idea for the next SILVER SURFER movie or MISSION IMPOSSIBLE movie or maybe you have read a novel that you think would make a fantastic film or you have an amazing idea for SLINKY: THE MOTION PICTURE! (The exclamation point is part of the title) or you want to reboot some old TV show that was your favorite when you were a kid, and now want to know what to do after you have written the screenplay?

Well, that’s not how it works.

All of those reboots and remakes and novel adaptations and sequels like AMERICAN PIE 27: SENIOR CENTER are *assignments*. You don’t call them, they call you. Some production company or studio *owns the rights* to those movies that you might have a reboot or remake or sequel idea for - and they hire writers to write those screenplays. They don’t buy spec scripts for those. They own the characters and worlds and all of the rest of the stuff from the original film, so you can not legally write a spec sequel or remake or reboot or re-imagining or whatever. They own the Intellectual Property.

Think of that property like a car - they own the car. You might think that it would look great if it were painted bright orange and have a spoiler on the back and not just have white wall tires but 100% white rubber tires. But taking the car that belongs to them is probably not a good idea. Painting it orange and adding the spoiler and the all white tires? Really not a good idea. Trying to sell the car that already belongs to them back to them after you have painted it some color that they might hate and welded a spoiler to the back and added those all white tires that they think look silly and then trying to sell it back to them? That probably is going to land you in prison.

How it works: Someone at the studio thinks that it’s time for a new SILVER SURFER movie. They make a list of writers who they think would do a great job writing a new SILVER SURFER movie, call their agents or managers and bring the writers in to “pitch their take” - explain how they would write a new SILVER SURFER movie. They listen to all of the pitches and then pick one (or sometimes more) and hire the writer to write a treatment or screenplay... but often they want the writer's "take" plus the production company's ideas, and sometimes it’s just the production company's ideas (they don't want your ideas, just your writing skills). Often they have a plan for the SILVER SURFER that isn’t anything like what the writer pitched them - you see, they eventually want to do a SILVER SURFER/VENOM team up film, and have come up with a path for the SILVER SURFER to take to reach that eventual film. So they hire the writer to write the screenplay that THEY WANT. It isn’t orange and doesn’t have a spoiler or solid white tires!

They call you.

How do you get on that list?

I’ve been on some of those lists. You write a bunch of great ORIGINAL screenplays that use YOUR characters and YOUR worlds and YOUR everything else. Great ones. And they read one or two or three of those ORIGINAL screenplays and think that you are the person who should write the new SILVER SURFER movie. On a remake job that I had, the producer was looking for a writer and the head of production had read one of my scripts while working for another producer and suggested me. So they requested a more recent screenplay by me in that genre, and I sent it to them. They liked it! So they ask to read ANOTHER screenplay in that genre, just to make sure that the first one (well, second one) wasn’t a fluke. They liked that screenplay, too! They had me come in for a meeting to pitch my take on the remake (the original was made before cell phones and the prevalence of computers - how could I make the story work in today’s world?). Now, I have no idea how many other writers they called in to pitch their take. I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one. But whatever I said or did, I was the one who they hired...

And even though they loved my take on the remake... they had their own ideas, and I was hired to write their idea of what the remake should be. Not my idea.

Because they own the Intellectual Property.

Adapting a book or anything that you do not own the rights to is a complete waste of time. You can never show it to anyone (it’s like trying to sell that stolen car you have painted orange) and in the case of a book - there’s a very good chance that a studio or production company owns the rights to that book and has already hired writers to adapt it. Usually, any book worth buying the film rights to has already sold those rights when the book was in “galleys” - before it was published. Basically a studio or producer is buying the AUDIENCE for the book - the millions of readers when it becomes a Best Seller. If a publisher is doing a huge print run and spending a ton on advertizing on the book, then it’s likely to be a best seller even before it’s published. A book that wasn’t a best seller? Well, why would Hollywood want to buy a small audience? So adapting a book that you haven’t bought the rights to is a waste of time. Again - they call you. I have adapted a NYT Best Seller and a couple of other books, and turned some jobs down and just didn’t get other book adaptation jobs. Someone else had a better take. They called me because they had read multiple ORIGINAL screenplays by me that they liked. They want to be able to judge MY WRITING, not my adaptation of someone else’s writing. So they want to read my original screenplays... and they’ll want to read your original screenplays before hiring you.

Hint: When you have an original screenplay go wide and end up on the “water bottle tour” doing a bunch of meetings on studio lots? Find out what movies owned by that studio you might want to remake or reboot or whatever and in your meetings mention that THE GLASS BOTTOMED BOAT is one of your favorite movies and you have an awesome idea of how to remake it for 2021! They might ask you for more - and you pitch your take. Maybe you get on the list of writers when they are calling people in to remake that film!

But what if they say “Yes!”? What if you end up writing a remake of THE GLASS BOTTOMED BOAT or writing AMERICAN PIE 27: SENIOR CENTER?


Which gets into the question in the clip... why do so many sequels and remakes and reboots and adaptations and all of that other stuff *fail*? If you are the writer who wins the competition and gets hired to write a sequel or remake, how can you avoid failing?

I’m so glad you asked.

I think the most important thing is to remember that Hollywood is looking for “The Same But Different” - and the reason why so many sequels fail is that they forget one of those two things. They are either nothing like the original hit film, or too much like the original hit film. Finding that sweet spot between the two is often difficult... but that’s the job!

I think the perfect example of doing it right is ALIEN and ALIENS. The first film was basically a horror movie on a space ship, with a creature relentlessly hunting an attacking the crew - and no way to escape the space ship. When crew members are poking around in the dark space ship where the creature might be hiding, it builds dread and terror... just like a haunted house movie. The sequel is a military action story - the same but different. Our group of tough space marines are going on a rescue mission, with Ripley along as a reluctant expert. The focus is more on action - though we still have all of those dark recesses of the “shake and bake” colony where a *bunch* of aliens might be hiding. But instead of running from the aliens, they are going to exterminate them! Until things go very wrong. “Game over, man!” By taking the basic elements of the story and presenting them in a different genre, we can get that great mix of The Same and Different that delivers the same excitement in a different way.

Because I am writing this soon after the death of Ed Asner, he starred in two TV shows that are another great example of this. On THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW he played Lou Grant, the news editor who was very prickly on the outside but had a big heart hidden deep inside. He was a great character for a situation comedy. Always growling about journalistic integrity in a business that was ratings driven. Their news anchor was an idiot... that the viewers loved and trusted. But LOU GRANT was a drama about a newspaper and a group of investigative reporters overseen by a prickly editor with a big heart hidden deep inside of him. The same character that we love - in a show with a different genre. The same, but different.

The big complaints about HANGOVER 2 was that it was a search and replace sequel. They seemed to just change the locations. To the point that Doug, the misplaced groom from the first film, wasn't part of the search for the misplaced brother in the second film... even though there was no reason for him not to be part of the search party! Too much "the same" and not enough "different". It would be like the Alien in ALIEN just attacking some other ship with some other crew... that Ripley just happened to be part of (you always bring back the star). The thing that made HANGOVER fun was the creative way that the story was told... so what they should have done is find a *different* way to tell the story in the sequel, which was also creative and fun. You can't just leave out the creative way the story is told, then there would be a "hole" in the story. It would be *less* than the original. You need to find a different *creative* way to tell the story. That way, what made the first film special (and made it a hit) would be replaced by something that will make the sequel special... rather than just the same as the first film. You want ALIEN and ALIENS.


The big problem with remakes is often that they charge something that made the original a success, which makes the film different in all the wrong ways. In trying to make the sequel a unique experience, instead of just a carbon copy of the original, they screw it up! This is where you need to be aware of *why* the original was a success.

TOTAL RECALL is a good example of this - the co-writer of the original, Ronny Shusett, was on a panel with me once and talked about the struggle they had coming up with a big ending... And then figuring out giving oxygen to Mars which was saving the world in an unusual way. That big ending - and the idea that this might all still be a planted memory rather than reality - is what made the original work... So the remake removed them. And didn't add anything to take their place. Leaving two big holes in the story! Which is why the remake doesn't work.

If you remove something from a story for the remake, you need to replace it with something even better!

The great 40s thriller THE BIG CLOCK was about a magazine reporter falsely accused of murder and trapped in the publishing company's NYC skyscraper. He must find the real killer and the evidence before the police catch him. Sort of THE FUGITIVE in a building. Great film! The 80s remake is just as great - the same but different - instead of a magazine reporter it's a Navy officer, and instead of a NYC skyscraper it's the Pentagon. And in addition to murder - there's possible espionage! A Russian mole deep inside the USA government! The story is still an innocent man trapped in a building trying to find the real killer and avoid being caught and arrested, still has all of the twists and turns of the original. But changing it from magazine publishing to the Pentagon (and the world of government and spies) was that "something even better" replacement. NO WAY OUT and BIG CLOCK can be watched back to back and both films hold up! Both are great!

The problem with "something even better" is that finding that idea isn't easy! It's like finding a second high concept that connects to the original concept in my sequel assignment (which I will talk about in a minute). You really need to take the time to find something great... and studio remakes don't always do that. So if you are "pitching your take" on a remake - find that amazing "different" element that doesn't screw up the "same" part that everyone loved in the original!

One of the fun things about MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT is that in the past all of the films in the series had a different director who used their own unique style... and this time around they had the same director, Christopher McQuarry, who said that he has to *become a different director* to make the second film. ROGUE is a stylish Hitchcock- influenced thriller, FALLOUT is more gritty and driven by a series of horrible choices that the protagonist must make. They *feel* like they were made by completely different people. The stories unfold differently - ROGUE being a traditional spy thriller and FALLOUT being completely unpredictable due to the choices offered. The stories work differently on a basic level. But both feature Tom Cruise doing his own insane stunts and the same cast playing their endearing (or endangering) characters. Different, but the same!


Over a decade ago, I was hired by a production company who had a deal to make DVD sequels to films in the vault at Sony / Columbia. My job was to find movies that were not on the list for theatrical sequels and come up with amazing and exciting pitches for DVD sequels. I ended up with 80 of them. My theory was to take a back-catalogue movie like SECRET WINDOW or BODY DOUBLE or THE ONE or HARDCORE and find a way to turn it into a franchise (so there could be multiple sequels) and then find a new high concept to marry to the original idea. The new high concept was the different part, and for a movie like SECRET WINDOW (based on a Stephen King story about a vengeful entity in a funny hat who came after artists who have stolen the work of others) I had a Phil Specter-like music producer who may have killed a songwriter or two in the past and stolen their music, who is visited by vengeful John Shooter and his unusual hat. For BODY DOUBLE I took the B movie actor who goes under cover as a porno producer to find a killer in the original movie, and have the FBI use his amazing make-up and acting skills to send him undercover as a terrorist accidentally killed during “enhanced interrogation” at Guantanamo Bay (oops!) when Amnesty International wants to check on him. But instead of being Amnesty International, it’s his old terrorist cell rescuing him - and now our actor is playing the role of a lifetime... if he screws up, it will be the end of his life! My idea was to drop the character from the original film into a story that would work if it wasn’t a sequel. The “different” part being what would attract the audience, the “same” part being kind of a “known brand” that will comfort the audience.

And if none of these 80 sequel ideas worked for this producer? I had all of these cool story ideas that I could use for screenplays that had nothing to do with those back-catalogue Sony / Columbia films! The ideas were interesting on their own.

So think about adding a new cool idea if you end up landing a sequel job!

You always want the story to be the same but different.

- Bill

PS: They never made any of my 80 remake ideas! Welcome to Hollywood!

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