Marketing a Hollywood Remake

By Ilkka Ojansivu and Luke Devenish

Remaking a cult classic — a marketing dream or the rocky road to mediocrity?

No matter how much you just love Jackie Chan, could there really ever be a new Mr Miyagi? Colombia Pictures thought so when they reimagined the beloved characters from The Karate Kid, with Chan as the lead. This 2010 remake brought in over $178 million —somewhat shy of the original Eighties’ cult classic, but nonetheless a box office hit. Considering the rising cost of cinema tickets you could argue that this wasn’t a clear-cut financial success, but there are many factors that make the Hollywood remake an obvious choice for film execs.

The formula is simple: take a popular, often critically acclaimed film, add some young new talent, update it all with CGI effects, and take the movie to new heights. The beauty is that you’re tapping into an existing market; tapping into ready-made product affinity and an audience ready to talk about your movie even before the first trailer has aired.

The ‘tried and tested’ brings with it comfort and stability. In theory, at least, audiences connect immediately, underpinned by generations marketing. Suddenly, our audience is growing before our very eyes. Sparked by their memories of the original, parents and grandparents can be more excited than their children, thus bridging the demographic gaps. But this is just the theory. In practice, remakes aren’t always the reliable geese laying golden eggs that the studios hope they’ll be.

KarateKid_StarTrek
Source: CineMaterial.com

When Poltergeist, penned and produced by Steven Spielberg, hit the cinemas back in 1982, his hallowed Hollywood name was already enough to put plenty of bums on seats. Spielberg spelled box office and millions of teens crammed into cinemas to relish his newest offering. The freaky array of spirit pranksters visited upon the Freeling family made us scream ourselves silly.

Poltergeist was a huge hit around the world that year, earning its money back in spades and forever cementing itself into pop culture. Who would ever, or could ever, forget what the ghosts did with the Freelings’ kitchen chairs?  And what about poor little Carole Anne getting sucked inside the telly? And what of riveting Zelda Rubinstein’s turn as the pint-sized Southern medium (“Don’t go into the light!”)? It was gold. And Hollywood was surely anticipating pots more of that shiny stuff when it was remade just last year.

Poltergeist 2015 no doubt looked great on paper. But what we got was decidedly sad and sorry. What made the original so effective was the Freeling family’s initial sunny suburban optimism, living it up in their shiny new dream house before the spooks showed up. Some of the best chill moments happened in sun-drenched domestic banality. It was all about the contrast. Every teenager in the 1982 audience was thinking — that lounge room looks just like my lounge room; that kitchen could be my mum’s; if ghosts could show up at the Freelings’ house so easily, then ghosts could show up at my house. This was Poltergeist’s true genius. Cue nightmares for weeks.

Tragically, Poltergeist 2015’s Bowen family had no idea what optimism even was. Bruised and beaten by souring times and forced to shack up in a dump they despised as much as they seem to despise each other, the sulky and silly brood as good as invited the spooks to take them out — and when they did we felt like joining in.

On paper, Poltergeist 2015 was no doubt intended to build on the spine-tingling chill of the original, capturing the imaginations of Gen Xers as well as their Millennial offspring. It was an obvious choice for the studio execs, but the execution failed to do anything by shifting the setting and delivering scares that could best be described as CGI 101.

“If we lose at the box office, we’ll make up for it in merchandise sales,” you can almost hear them say as each new remake script is signed off.  It’s far easier to sell merchandise for well-established brands, and brand extension is far more cost-effective than introducing an entirely new brand. Just look at Pokemon Go.

Poltergeist_GhostBusters
Source: CineMaterial.com

Mattel reported that sales of the new range of Ghostbusters toys for the 2016 Paul Feig remake “exceeded expectations”. Ghostbusters did more than change the location or era, it altered the gender of the characters, tapping into popular debates about female on-screen representation and gender stereotypes. The new cast presented strong female role models that parents wanted their children — boys and girls — to aspire to. And Mattel delivered product offering and placement to meet this demand.  The film itself presented a strong mix of new material with just enough references to the original, ranging from cameos to carefully placed props, leaving older viewers feeling quietly accomplished for noticing. Ghostbusters 2016 offered a different experience across generations.

Movies like this promote old schemas for the audience — they bring back fond childhood memories, but offer just enough difference to buck the trend. Perhaps this is because they’re not really remakes at all, but that slightly less emotionally loaded thing, the reboot. The remake has a map it must follow thanks to the original, and therein lies a trap. While sticking to the well-trodden path it can never achieve the freshness of the original. Every step taken can do no more than echo the trailblazer. The reboot, however, has no map at all; what it has instead are ingredients. Used well, good ingredients deliver something fresh every time.

This is what happened when Star Trek was given a reboot by J.J. Abrams in 2009.  Much to the audience’s relief, the characters were as we had always known them, albeit with younger faces. But even more pleasingly, the story was wholly new. And it was a good story, too, one that rewarded those with memories stretching back to the original, while hooking anew those who had never boldly gone before.

When Abrams presented the image of two Mr Spocks together on screen, one old, one young, all thanks to the miracles of sci-fi, cinemas were filled with quiet gratitude and audiences were hooked. So much so that they forked out for not one, but two sequels (so far!).

The reboot has the safety net of the tried and tested and the freedom of an entirely new idea. It can ignite old memories while inspiring new audiences, and tap into ready-made revenue streams of an existing brand. It can create anew in a way that the remake cannot.

  • Author Note:

    Ilkka Ojansivu is a Lecturer in marketing, specialising in business relationships and networks, projects and temporary organising at the Faculty of Business and Economics, the University of Melbourne.
  • Luke Devenish is a Lecturer in film and television and Coordinator of the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Screenwriting) at the Victorian College of the Arts, the University of Melbourne.

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