The Dirty Secret Of Hollywood’s Remake Craze: They Don’t Work

Mar 13, 2015 at 10:52 AM ET

To a desperate development executive, a classic movie is like a dead horse begging to be beaten. Last year alone saw remakes of AnnieRoboCop, Godzilla, Teenage Mutant Turtles and About Last Night. Updated versions of Point Break, Poltergeist, Vacation (as in, National Lampoon’s) and The Fantastic Four are all slated to premiere in 2015. Cinderella, the ultimate classic, opens as a live-action re-do Friday. But, are remakes really good business?

To definitively say, we analyzed a total of 223 remakes released over the past 20 years (limiting our scope to theatrical releases and English-language versions), measuring budgets, gross revenues, crowd scores and critic ratings. And as it turns out, that low-hanging fruit may be rotten.

Some remakes, of course, are blockbuster successes. Adjusted for inflation, A Star Is Born (1976) improved on the 1937 original’s gross by $260 million; Godzilla (1998) outdid 1954’s Gojira by $180 million; and Ocean’s Eleven (2001) topped the Rat Pack’s 1960 version by $146 million. But many more are financially catastrophic. Take Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho, which grossed $224 million less than Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 original. Guess Who (2005) fell $317 million short of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). And embarrassingly, Poseidon (2006) came in $406 million under 1972’s wildly successful The Poseidon Adventure.

In fact, the early 2000s represented something of a heyday for ill-conceived remakes, with the release of Rollerball (down $107 million from the original gross), Willard (down $103 million) and Alfie (down $121 million).

For the films for which data was available, we found that remakes cost more than three times as much to produce—again, adjusting for inflation—as the original films, and in terms of total gross, remakes bring in just under half of what the originals did. That’s disastrous math no matter how you look at it.

Even more troubling is the fact that nobody seems to like them, either. Compared to the original movies, 87% of remakes perform worse with critics (with an average Metacritic score decrease of 25%) and 92% perform worse with audiences (with an average IMDb score decrease of 12%).

That’s not to say every remake is entirely devoid of value. The 2005 musical adaptation* of Reefer Madness (1936) jumped 3.4 points in crowd score, reinventing the anti-marijuana propaganda film as campy, self-aware satire. Scent of a Woman (based on Italy’s Profumo di donna), True Lies (France’s La totale!) and The Departed (Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs) all managed to outperform their originals in terms of audience approval, but only slightly—by a point or less on IMDb.

But, as a general rule, lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice. Remakes are almost always a lose-lose proposition.

*The Reefer Madness remake aired on Showtime—which technically violates our theatrical-releases-only rule—but considering it premiered at Sundance first, we’re giving it a pass.