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Remaking Scifi Films: The Economic Argument

A couple of weeks ago I made the observation, regarding The Thing, that the new versions of popular horror films don’t tend to come anywhere close to the success of the films they’re drawing from — in this case, the 1982 version of The Thing (which was in itself something of a box office disappointment at the time). This resulted in a friend asking me whether the same held true for straight-ahead science fiction films: How did their remakes and reboots do, relative to the originals?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is: It depends. For some films, it’s hard to
say, simply because the way movie companies collect data is different
now: For example, the 2008 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still had
a domestic box office of $79.3 million, while the 1951 version of the
took in $1.85 million in rentals. What are rentals? What it sounds
like: Cinemas would rent a film for a fee from the studios. Today the
studios take a direct cut of the exhibitor’s ticket prices.

roughly speaking, today’s box office is a gross figure, while rentals
are a net figure, which from an economic point of view is comparing
apples to oranges. We have the same problem for a number of remakes of popular ’50s and ’60s science fiction films, including War of the Worlds, I Am Legend (remade from 1964’s The Last Man on Earth), and The Fly.

to the films we have box office information for, the answer is all over
the board. To illustrate that, here are some salient examples. To keep
everything simple, I am a) using domestic box office grosses noted by Box Office Mojo, and b) using the site’s inflation adjuster to put everything into 2011 numbers.

1. Star Trek (2009): The first Star Trek film, 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture,
grossed $82.26 million back in the day, which comes to $260.8 million
adjusted to today’s dollars. The 2009 version topped out at $257.7
million, which with a couple of years inflation tacked on comes to $275
million. This puts the two films within 5% of each others’ grosses —
the 2009 version squeaks past, but fundamentally this is a pretty even

2. Planet of the Apes (2001): The original 1968
made $32.6 million at the box office — or $198 million in
today’s dollars. The 2001 version by Tim Burton made $180 million, which
a decade on adjusts to $253 million. So despite the fact that Burton’s
version is generally considered something of an artistic and critical
failure (it’s arguably Burton’s least interesting film), financially
speaking it’s the alpha male of the pack.

Interestingly, this year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is something close to a reboot of 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which features a chimp named Caesar leading an ape revolution. The modern version outstrips the original here, too, with Rise’s $176.5 million handily outstripping Conquest’s adjusted gross of $42.3 million. Time has been kind to the apes.

3. The Invasion (2007): This Daniel Craig-Nicole Kidman film was yet another take on The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,
which was first essayed in film in 1956. If you have a hard time
remembering the Craig-Kidman film, it’s probably because it grossed just
$15 million in the theaters, which is $17.4 million adjusted to today’s
dollars. The good news for The Invasion is that this tops the box office of Body Snatchers,
director Abel Ferrara’s 1994 version of the film, which didn’t crack a
million dollars, even adjusted for inflation. The bad news is its $17.4
million adjusted gross doesn’t come close to the famous 1978 version‘s unadjusted gross of $25 million — which in today’s dollars comes to $84.8 million.

4. Vanilla Sky (2001), 12 Monkeys (1995), Solaris (2002): Didn’t know these films were remakes? That’s because they’re remakes of foreign films (Abre los ojos, Le jatee, and Solaris, respectively), which didn’t receive anything approaching a wide release in the U.S. (La jatee is
a short, which makes it even less financially viable). Unsurprisingly,
these films wildly outgrossed their originals — even the 2002 Solaris, which brought in just $15 million ($20.5 million, adjusted).

again: All over the board in terms of results, which suggests that
science fiction remakes are as much a crap shoot as anything else out
there these days. However, there is one additional factor today which I
haven’t discussed: the international market, which can dwarf the
domestic gross of a film, especially in a field like science fiction —
for example, Rise of the Planet of the Apes adds another $300
million to its domestic gross when the rest of the world is added in.
You can believe that’s something filmmakers are thinking about when
they look at science fiction to remake or reboot. 

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