Studio executives have grown more than a little remake-happy in recent years. In 2019 alone, remakes of films including “Shaft, “ “Dumbo,” “The Upside” and “Aladdin” have all arrived in theaters, with the live-action remake of “The Lion King” set to arrive next week.
The executives’ logic has been simple: in a world of content overload, consumers turn out for the familiarity of a remake. While critics don’t tend to be terribly fond of these new takes, consumers supposedly like them. And studios are in the business of giving consumers what they want.
Fully one-third of Disney’s 2019 releases are devoted to live-action remakes of animated features. And many more remakes are in the development pipeline, from “Clue” (Disney’s Fox unit) to “Clueless" (Paramount).
But a new study suggests audiences don’t really like remakes either. Or, at least, an overwhelming number of people prefer the original.
The study quantifies an aspect of Hollywood — remake sentiment — that is often talked about only in nebulous terms. In the process it has implications for studios, which may be greenlighting movies their audiences will embrace only tepidly.
And, soon enough, maybe not at all. The studios might be setting themselves up for fatigue and a box-office backlash.
“We may be hitting a peak with remakes. And I suspect we may [soon] hit a decline,” said Bruce Nash, a box-office expert with the site The Numbers.
Spearheaded by researcher James Barnes of the company Verve Search (it helps companies boost search) and backed by online betting site Casumo, the survey found that audiences compared the remake unfavorably to the original more than 90 percent of the time. That’s more often than even critics, who are famously remake-averse.
To conduct the study, researchers looked at the percentage of positive assessments from audience members on the movie-and-television site IMDB for more than 100 remakes. They took those scores, then compared them to the same measure for the original, noting the swing up or down.(IMDB users can rate movies both old and new.)
The researchers then did the same for Metacritic scores, regarded as the most reliable indicator of how reviewers felt about a movie. (You can see the full results here.)
The study found that fully 91 percent of remakes drew a less positive audience score than the original. Among critics, the remakes received a lower Metacritic score just slightly less frequently -— 87 percent of the time.
One of the biggest dips between the remake and the original was for a film that just came out: “Dumbo,” Disney’s live-action remake of the animated classic about a circus elephant with ears big enough he can fly. The new version received just a 51 Metacritic score, compared to 96 for the 1941 original. Average audiences liked it less, too: 66 percent positive from IMDB for the remake versus 73 percent for the original.
The recent Will Smith version of “Aladdin,” a Disney live-action remake of the 1992 animated feature, similarly lost ground with critics, from 86 to 53, and was down six percent with audiences too, from 80 percent positive to 74 percent.
Overall, horror remakes were some of the biggest losers — the remakes of “The House on Sorority Row” and “Cabin Fever” each dropped more than 40 points with critics; Gus van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho, the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock classic, dropped 39 points with audiences. (Critics matter, of course, because they signal the reception in the awards and tastemaker communities — a factor studios consider when making movies.)
Not all films lost shine in their new versions. One of the best-received remakes in recent years was 2018′s “A Star Is Born” – the Bradley Cooper-Lady Gaga film ticked up from 76 to 79 among audiences and 77 to 88 with critics compared to the first version, in 1937. But it was far and away the exception.
The data may be the result of a kind of confirmation bias. The nature of nostalgia is such that viewers can’t help thinking an original film was better, but that doesn’t mean they won’t pay to see the new one. Call it a grumble gap: audiences complain, then take out their wallets.
Indeed, “Dumbo" was a modest performer, taking in $114 million domestically and an additional $237 million worldwide, a relatively small number for an enterprise that large. But “Aladdin” has been a bona fide smash — the highest-grossing non-Marvel movie so far in 2019 in the U.S. and a $900 million-plus grosser worldwide.
“What Men Want,” the remake of Mel Gibson’s 2000 comedy “What Women Want,” took in a tidy $55 million on a budget of around $20 million despite audiences on IMDB not really liking what they saw. (They gave it a mere 50 percent positive rating; the original received a 64 percent.)
And the live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast," which dropped 30 points among critics and eight points with audiences, still took in $1.26 billion around the world.
The Disney movies may be a bit of an anomaly, though. “I think it’s fair to suggest that the familiarity of the characters has shielded [Disney] from any box office travesties,” Barnes said. (“The Lion King” is projected to be a hit too, according to pre-release surveys.)
Nash, though, noted that even new takes on animated hits were vulnerable. Such remakes worked a little extra magic, he noted, because they appealed to parents who care less about originality than introducing their kids to barely changed versions of childhood favorites.
But these films can eventually run their course too.
“I think Disney needs to be careful coming off ‘Dumbo’ and ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Lion King’ and now the trailer for ‘Mulan’" he said. "It can seem like overkill to audiences.”