Media Business Strategies

The Blog of David Polakoff

Don’t Tug on Superman’s Cape

Posted by David Polakoff on April 20, 2009

The Windmills of My Immediate Mind

Media Business Strategies – David Polakoff

Don’t Tug on Superman’s Cape

Jim Croce sang, You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger. And you don’t mess around with Jim. I really don’t fully understand Hollywood’s thought process for movie remakes. I support alternate interpretations of non-fictional accounts, leveraging franchises, and building brands; I don’t follow the logic in remaking (already well-done) films – why mess with success?

There were three made-for-tv films about the 1976 Israeli raid in Uganda: Raid on Entebbe, Victory at Entebbe, and Operation Thunderbolt. Numerous theatrical films tell of the 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral, in Tombstone, Arizona (e.g., My Darlin’ Clementine, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Tombstone). These are all reasonable attempts to interpret and/or re-enact historical events. Especially when news cameras could not be present, there is value in producing alternative viewpoints of actual events, especially since one director’s interpretation should not be considered gospel (e.g., Oliver Stone).

When a property is created in a particular medium (Superman, Charlie Brown, Harry Potter, James Bond), there is value in expanding that property into other entertainment forms. When a presumably one-off character or storyline is created (Star Trek, Back to the Future, Star Wars, Jaws; the original Pink Panther films) there is value in extending the character or storyline beyond the original concept. Whether the quality of the original effort is sustained is another matter; there are all too often “jump the shark” editions within these series.

Remaking well-done films, though, is an enigma. Not that there aren’t original films, that with hindsight, could be tweaked, here and there (2001’s remake of Ocean’s Eleven was an improvement over the 1960 version), but for the most part, these original films reached “perfection.” Remake these films: 1979 – The In-Laws, 1972 – The Poseidon Adventure, 1972 – The Heartbreak Kid, 1976 – The Bad News Bears, 1971 – Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? And now I hear that it is the 1980’s turn to be “remade” – Romancing the Stone, Footloose, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Dune, The Karate Kid, Red Dawn, RoboCop, The Big Chill, Arthur, Ghostbusters and The NeverEnding Story.

The production and marketing costs of films are astronomical and while creative risk is often rewarded, the Hollywood and Wall Street machines favor safer paths to high financial returns too often with mediocre storytelling and re-serving audience comfort food. Remakes have been financially successful (2005’s War of the Worlds, and King Kong) but they’re not guaranteed (2004’s Alfie and 2007’s Poseidon Adventure). The argument often made is that 2009’s fifteen year old has no familiarity of Back to the Future so let’s remake and market it as “new and improved.”

A few years ago a friend of mine purchased a DVD box set of Abbott and Costello films and put his tween kids in front of the television to watch Buck Privates and other “classic” fare. The reluctant audience has since been quoting comedic lines from these 1940’s films. While eating carrots, I made a Bugs Bunny reference to my grade school age nieces and they had no idea what I was talking about. There is value in library properties but there’s a failure to develop a strategy to make these properties annuities; Disney is often the exception – they successfully mine their intellectual properties and catalog (and build upon their foundation with current product). The exploitation costs are minimal; the margins are high.

As a strategic consultant, I love companies with original content that can both churn out creatively appealing properties, but I’d also expend (relatively minimal) investment in better leveraging existing libraries for new revenue generating opportunities.

While the Judd Apatows of today create properties for the current generation of teen moviegoers, there’s no reason why that same audience can’t be exposed to the Ivan Reitman, John Landis, and Harold Ramis original teenage fare of past generations.

Hollywood needs to better strategize the exploitation of its library, beyond basic cable channel library and DVD sales, and Hollywood also needs live up to its reputation for producing what inspires, excites, and entertains what the world’s theatrical going audience demands; it’s not the other way around (See – Detroit, Michigan).

One Response to “Don’t Tug on Superman’s Cape”

  1. Andy said

    I love Abbott and Costello. The shame is that most audiences today only know the remakes of films and not the originals. The next distribution stream is video on demand and broadband streaming; we just need better navigation and recommendations to help us find what to watch.

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