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Revenge of the epic movie flops

They've tried remaking hits from the past – now Hollywood studios are planing to revisit the films that failed. Arifa Akbar reports on a plot so bizarre it might just work

When Overboard – a dubious 1987 comedy about the antics of a rich woman who suffers from amnesia after falling from her yacht – was released, not even a stellar cast featuring Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn could stop it from sinking at the box office. Then there was Dune, the lavish 1984 science fiction odyssey directed by the ultra-hip David Lynch, starring the acclaimed Francesca Annis and Sting, which cost $40m to make. It pulled in a grand total of $29.7m at the box office.

Then there was The Shadow, 1994's offering about a masked vigilante, with Alec Baldwin in the title role. The film was meant to be a summer blockbuster and the starting point for a new franchise with toys and clothing lines to boot. Critics and fans did not agree, and it flopped.

These films not only have failure in common. With a rafter of other screen turkeys, they are all to be remade as part of a growing trend in Hollywood to look to the past for big budget failures in the hope of transforming them into success stories.

The next "big idea" in America's studio-led film industry is to copy the old "big idea" that went wrong, according to insiders who have noticed an increasing number of former flops currently slated for re-makes or in development.

For some, the trend is mystifying. Although Overboard experienced a healthy second life on cable television in America, it had an ignominious initial run. It was critically lambasted and floundered at the box office, making only $26.7m when it was expected to gross much more. Now, more than 20 years after its unmitigated failure, it is to be remade for modern audiences with Jennifer Lopez – not an actress who always celebrated for her comedic skills – rumoured to be in the starring role. In its new incarnation, Lopez is said to be playing the role of the spoiled heiress who learns that money is not everything after falling overboard her yacht, and experiencing not just a bout of amnesia but also a brush with the "other side" in her encounter with a working-class family.

When it was released, during the height of Hawn's fame, The Washington Post described Overboard as having "one-dimensional characters" and its distinguishing factors being "a good long look at Hawn's buttocks and lots of pathetic sex jokes". That judgement has not stopped Sony and Overbrook Pictures from putting together a remake.

Dune, meanwhile, was considered such an embarrassment when it was first released that even Lynch distanced himself from it. Now,the respected director Pierre Morel hopes to improve on Lynch's effort with a big budget remake for Paramount Pictures. Sam Raimi, the American director and actor, is said to be leading a new version of The Shadow. The Black Hole, a 1979 Disney film that was billed as the studio's answer to Star Wars and the most expensive movie of its time, is also being rehashed. While the original did turn a profit, it suffered a critical panning.

There is even a remake of a remake in the pipeline; Godzilla, a second version of the Japanese film of the same name, was co-written and directed by Roland Emmerich (director of Independence Day) in 1998, but failed to fire the public's imagination on release. A third version is now underway.

One theory for this reliance on rehashed ideas is that Hollywood studios, overwhelmingly owned by multinational companies seeking profit, are fearful of original concepts that may be seen as too high risk to make. Revisiting bad ideas in hope to turn them into good ones are seen as a safer bet.

Leo Barraclough, a British correspondent at Variety magazine, suggested that a film tainted by box office disappointment still boasted some name recognition. "They (the studios) do look to work with something that is a known quantity. It doesn't necessarily need to be a remake – it can be based on a bestselling book or some kind of intellectual property that is a known quantity.

"The stakes for Hollywood films are higher (because of the money involved) so they can't take the creative risks that the independent film sector can. The Hollywood studios can't afford to be cavalier on what risks they take," he said.

The key to a successful remake, he suggested, was to add something novel. "The key is not just to slavishly remake the film but to do something new with it, connect it to the world in which the audiences live," he said.

A remaking trend that he had noticed was the mining of old French films being adapted for Hollywood audiences. Films based on French originals which are understood to be in development include the 2008 hit, LOL (Laugh Out Loud), starring Sophie Marceau, Dinner for Schmucks, about a group of rich people who invite the dimmest person they know for a dinner party once a year, and Welcome to the Sticks, about the divide between Parisians and countryfolk.

There are some notable examples of remakes of flops that have worked in recent cinema history, most famously Ridley Scott's box office smash, Gladiator, which was essentially a remake of the little-known 1964 swords and sandals saga, The Fall of the Roman Empire. The new version starring Russell Crowe and victorious at the Oscars with a best picture statuette, raked in $457.6m worldwide in 2000.

Jonathan Kuntz, a professor of film studies at the University of California, told TheWrap.com website that while remakes were not a new phenomenon, Hollywood studios were more in the habit of turning to old films that had been hits the first time around.

Barry Norman, the veteran film critic, was dismissive about remakes of classics such as Get Carter, Alfie, The Pink Panther, Breathless and The Italian Job, branding them "cowardly" – and other pundits agreed, declaring them inferior to the originals.

But making good films out of former flops, on the other hand, was no bad thing, said Mr Norman. "It is a cautious and cowardly way of making film if you just do remakes but I'm wholly in favour of remaking films that didn't work the first time round but could work if they were made again," he said. "It makes much more sense if you have an intrinsically good idea that wasn't pulled off but could be done better. There is no sense in taking a film like Casablanca or Citizen Kane and remaking it, because it can't be improved upon."

He did however express reservations at the overall culture of remakes, sequels and prequels in which Hollywood had become immersed – a far cry from the roots of the studio system on which it was founded in the 1930s and 40s. "Men like Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B Mayer who established the studio system really loved films. They really pushed the boundaries. Nowadays, there is no equivalent. The bottom line now is the dollar. The studios are run by accountants who are interested only in making money. Making films is seen as to be based on a formula that works, like making baked beans," he said.

He also pointed out that while these remakes may well make a profit, the films that had been scooping the most Oscars in the past two years were innovative, independently made ones including Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire and Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker.

Others, however, have speculated that successful remakes of past flops may be aided by special effects which were simply unavailable to movie makers the right the first time. Now, with the dramatic advances in 3D and CGI, a remake of Dune, for example, may be breathtaking for its special effects alone. The advent of computer graphics and 3D technology could mean that dated action films could be modernised for new generations of film enthusiasts. The old, in this way, may just be rendered thrillingly new.

Second time lucky? Films awaiting remakes

The Shadow The 1994 film starred Alec Baldwin as an ex-American soldier. The modern version will be made by Sam Raimi

Red Sonja The 1985 original grossed only $6.9m, but Hollywood hopes that by casting Megan Fox, box office disaster can be averted.

The Black Hole The 1979 original was Disney's answer to Star Wars and the most expensive film of its time. Disney wants Joseph Kosinski to oversee a remake.

Overboard Goldie Hawn starred in the 1987 comedy. Sony's remake will star Jennifer Lopez.

Dune David Lynch's 1984 space odyssey made $29.7m, but cost $40m. From Paris With Love director Pierre Morel will take over.

Real Genius The Val Kilmer comedy grossed only $12m in 1985, but Imagine and Columbia believe that the Cold War satire can be a success.

Red Dawn The war film set in an alternate 1980s was a $40m hit, but doesn't it seem like the expiration date has passed on its politics.

Godzilla Legendary Pictures is hoping to improve on Roland Emmerich's critically panned 1998 version

Classic reproductions: Success stories

Among the slew of disappointing remakes, there have been some shining successes that have taken critics by surprise. The seemingly untouchable cinematic classic 1962 version of Cape Fear, starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, and directed by J. Lee Thompson, was followed up by a remake that arguably outdid the first version. The second, made by Martin Scorsese in 1991, earned Oscar nominations for actors, Robert De Niro and Juliette Lewis. They were also nominated for Golden Globes. Peck and Mitchum, who had taken the starring roles in the original, appeared in this version in lesser roles. The film critic, Barry Norman, argues that this film was better than the original, bar its "Hollywood ending".

Another remake that many critics felt had outshone the original was Ocean's Eleven, starring George Clooney and directed by the acclaimed Steven Soderbergh. Made in 2001, it was based faithfully on the first version but many praised it for its technical excellence as well as the quality of the acting by a collection of A-list stars including Brad Pitt, Clooney and Casey Affleck. The original was made in 1960 and starred Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jnr, among others.

Despite the star wattage of its lead actors, the film was criticised as being self-indulgent and over-reliant on the reputations of its actors rather than their actual performance in the film.