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Why film studios really like movie remakes

Audiences did not fall for "Ben-Hur" this weekend. The remake of the 1959 Academy Award best-picture winner grossed only $11.4 million at the box office. (Philippe Antonello/Paramount Pictures via Associated Press)

After 11 Academy Awards, the 1959 swords-and-sandals epic “Ben-Hur” may have seemed a sure bet as a remake. But this past weekend, American audiences did not respond kindly to it.

The remake, starring Jack Huston and Morgan Freeman, grossed $11.4 million in domestic ticket sales in its opening weekend, or $4 million less than it cost to produce the film 57 years ago.

It’s another of countless movie remakes and sequels that have flopped at the box office, but studios will keep pushing them into theaters, film industry analysts say.

Other summer remakes and sequels such as “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “Ghostbusters” and “The Legend of Tarzan” have yet to break even based on domestic ticket sales, but foreign sales should goose their earnings enough to keep producers from shying away from future remakes.

“We’re playing a global box office game now, and North America alone isn't the say-all, end-all in the total global picture of box office sales,” said Daniel Loria, editorial director of Boxoffice Media. “Many times what will decide if a sequel happens if a film flops in North America is how strong it does overseas.”

The North American market makes up only about a third of global box office revenue, according to industry estimates. It's still the world's largest film market but by no means the ultimate arbiter of ticket sales success.

“Independence Day: Resurgence,” for example, did $383 million in worldwide sales. More than $280 million of those sales came in foreign markets, $75 million of which came from China and $6 million from Russia.

The 1996 version of the film was not screened in those countries.

Less than 20 percent of “Ghostbusters’” revenue came from foreign viewers in 1984. More than 40 percent of the 2016 version’s ticket sales have been foreign, and $6 million of those sales came from Russia. Neither version of the film was screened in China.

Remakes that might seem stale in North America are fresh to audiences in other countries that haven't seen the original.

Domestically, remakes are known entities. They have inborn marketing advantages, and what’s more, they’re relatively cheap, analysts say. You don’t have to pay a team of writers to start from scratch if you’re working on yet another version of “Spider-Man.”

“There is a reference point. There is a concept already built in,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at market research firm ComScore. “There is a way to describe the movie very quickly, and that is the easy allure of a remake. That’s why a lot of sequels get greenlit as well. On paper at least, you’re kind of ahead of the game theoretically.”

But that doesn’t mean they always work. Studios pick remakes because the original movie brands are popular. What if a new version feels phony to dedicated followers? There’s a lot of room to screw up movies some people consider iconic.

Studios walk a fine line, analysts say, between enticing viewers with something they haven’t seen before and ruining the nostalgia that keeps certain film franchises alive.

The perfect example: “Jurassic World,” although film aficionados often go to the mat over whether the movie is truly a remake.

The 2015 thriller did $1.67 billion in ticket sales and spawned a new hype for toys, T-shirts and Chris Pratt action figures. It did so well, Universal Pictures has a sequel planned for the summer of 2018. And if that does well, analysts say, there could be a third movie.

Think about it this way: A second and third film based on a remake of a 20-year-old movie property exist based on the success of an existing brand. They’ll all do well at the box office because of that brand and will displace other movies that may have been made because of that brand.

Film studios look at that formula and decide pretty quickly that remakes are smart business, said Bruce Nash, founder and publisher of the Numbers, a box office tracking and film industry analysis website. It’s like producing one film for the price of three, if you factor in all the advertising the first movie does for the rest of the series.

And if a remake bombs — and they often do: just look at “Ben-Hur” or 2011’s “Conan the Barbarian” — studios write them off, scrap the rest of the series and pick up another script.

Remakes and reboots make those second, third and fourth films a safer bet, analysts say, but you still have to make a good movie or audiences won’t show up.

And sure, viewers will grumble as they watch trailers that nothing new is coming out of Hollywood, but they’ll also spend money on tickets to the next installment of “Star Wars.”

That’s hundreds of millions of dollars coming pretty easily to studios. They’ll take that deal, analysts say, even if it looks eerily familiar.