Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Déjà view

Do you ever find yourself wondering, as I do, how come every movie I see reminds me of some other movie I’ve seen. And, in fact, some movies I see remind me of a lot of movies I’ve already seen. Wouldn’t it be smart of Hollywood to try coming up with something totally new instead of continually recycling old plots?

Ha! If you are really thinking that, then you are pretty darn naïve. The point is, most people (not discerning, intelligent connoisseurs of art like you and me, but other people) feel more comfortable spending money on movie tickets, parking, babysitters, popcorn, etc. if they have a pretty good idea what they are getting for their money. And Hollywood knows that. So they go to great lengths to make you feel that you are watching something familiar and tried and true—even though it’s “new.” (And, despite being old, it has to be “new” because people don’t exactly like reruns either.)

Here are the main ways the corporate moviemakers give you a “new” movie but with the comfortable sense you have already seen it:

  • Make a sequel. Nothing easier than this, right? Just ask George Lucas, Sylvester Stallone, Mel Gibson, or any other franchise kings. Just make the same movie again but with a bigger budget and, if it’s a teen slasher movie, with a higher body count.

  • Remake an old movie. This, of course, happens all the time. The only issue is whether to credit the original (as when Warren Beatty remade Love Affair) or just steal the plot (as when Nora Ephron made Sleepless in Seattle). Keeping the original title is optional.

  • Remake an old TV series. Is there any old TV show that won’t eventually join Sgt. Bilko, Car 54 Where Are You? and The Brady Bunch on the big screen with a big budget and new actors? How long before we have Cheers: The Movie?

  • Remake a current TV series. This is less common, but it sometimes happens that the studio will cash in on a tie-in to a hit TV series (The Munsters, 1960s Batman, The X-Files) or continue a recently departed one (Twin Peaks, two generations of Star Trek) on the big screen with much or all of the original cast.

  • Adapt a comic book. One sure way to draw in a readymade audience is to bring a character that everyone knows from popular culture to the big screen. It’s worked for Superman and Batman and maybe also this summer for The X-Men. It seems to have worked less well for Mystery Men.

  • Adapt a real book. This, of course, is a time-honored way to get material for a movie. Every tome from The Bible to Ivanhoe to The Cider House Rules has wound up on the big screen. But you can sometimes juice your audience by adapting a cult book with its own fanatical fan base like Interview with the Vampire or Peter Jackson’s upcoming The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Or you can adapt a whole series of popular spy novels and get 87 years of James Bond movies.

  • Name your movie after a song. Studios really do this. If there is no other tie-in to make the movie familiar to audiences, they will give it the same name as the title of a popular song to make it seem familiar. Even if the song has absolutely nothing to do with the movie. Examples: The Book of Love, Sixteen Candles, Addicted to Love, etc.

  • Feature an actor who always plays the same exact character. This is probably the most tried-and-true method to pre-sell a movie. If it stars John Wayne or Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jet Li, what else do you need to know?

    But there is yet another and more insidious way to make you feel that you’ve already seen a brand new movie. And I will be ranting about that next time.

    -S.L., 4 May 2000

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