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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Done to death?

Cinemimi [Sunday, April 01, 2012]
Daniel Craig in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Daniel Craig in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

English-language remakes of foreign films seem to be bombing at the box office.

WHEN producer Scott Rudin optioned the English-language rights on Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books in early 2010, he'd be forgiven for anticipating a slam-dunk hit. He had a global bestseller and two lead characters likely to attract A-list actors. The only snag was that the material had already yielded film versions in the original Swedish. But these had yet to open in the key English-speaking markets, which would surely be more excited about a version starring Daniel Craig (pictured) and directed by David Fincher. Right?

Fast-forward two years, and the film's main backer, MGM, disclosed to its investors that box office for Fincher's film was ''below our expectations and we booked a modest loss''. The result follows a damp squib return for Let Me In, the US version of Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In. (The remake starred young Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee.) Worldwide cinema gross on the $20 million remake is $22 million - almost certainly a loss-making venture for its backers, after costs. The original Let the Right One In, by contrast, with an $11 million cinema gross and a $4 million production budget, looks highly profitable.

The question remains: why are these English-language remakes considered necessary in the first place? The boom in Scandinavian crime fiction has primed audiences to embrace big-screen versions of global bestsellers - and they'd already proved their ability to read, so subtitles shouldn't be a problem.
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This week, blackly comic Norwegian crime thriller Headhunters, adapted from a novel by popular local author Jo Nesbo, opens on 80 British screens. It opened in Australia last month. With support from multiplexes and key independent cinemas and a 100 per cent Fresh critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the planets look aligned for another Scandi genre hit. Inevitably, an English-language version is in the works, due for release in 2014, courtesy of Twilight producers Summit, with Mark Wahlberg reportedly eyeing the lead role.

Producer Kris Thykier, whose 2011 release The Debt was based on an Israeli film that barely played beyond its borders, agrees that his film benefited from the original's negligible profile. ''The Debt was a brilliant small film which cost around $800,000, that - not only because of its scale, but also because of its language - was very unlikely to get a broad audience,'' he says.

Following the success of the television series Homeland, also based on an Israeli property (Hatufim, aka Prisoners of War), the lesson would seem to be: take care over where you go looking for properties to remake; and the Middle East might be a good place to start.

Or maybe Iceland. While Contraband, the remake of little-seen smuggling thriller Reykjavik-Rotterdam, isn't exactly setting the box office on fire, it is producer Working Title's biggest ever US opener, and North American box office alone is a nifty $68 million.

As savvy producers such as Thykier know, the danger with remakes is that the foreign original will suddenly achieve unexpected global penetration. ''With Dragon Tattoo,'' he says, ''the timing of the original films' release was perfect in terms of the momentum around the books; you saw a success beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Personally I would say that Fincher made a better film, but clearly it does suffer from the fact that people had seen the first one quite recently before.''

In fairness to Fincher, the global gross of his film stands at a not-too-shabby $232 million, overcoming the challenges of restrictive certificates and a Christmas-holiday release date that didn't chime well with the grisly content. Had the film not been budgeted at an extravagant $90 million, this could have been a profitable endeavour. MGM remains interested in co-financing sequels with Sony, ''assuming we can achieve better economics''.

Let Me In was more responsibly budgeted, but faced a different challenge: the two lead characters are children, so it's just not possible to cast it with major stars. No lesson had been learnt from the remaking of Argentinian hit Nine Queens as Criminal, with John C. Reilly and Diego Luna - a Hollywood-indie cast likely to appeal to the same audience that saw the original, and hardly anyone else.

Headhunters producer Marianne Gray, from Sweden's Yellow Bird Films (makers of the Dragon Tattoo movies), is right when she says: ''Everything is getting more global, and audiences are more and more accepting of subtitles.'' But the increasing penetration of genre films into the traditional foreign-language space is also about something else. The films are succeeding because of their foreignness, not in spite of it.

Italy's Gomorrah and Brazil's City of God offered genre fans flavours that were unique and authentic. Even Fincher set his Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in Sweden, eschewing the usual remake tactic of transplanting the action to the US. It felt authentic, as long as you overlook the fact the characters are speaking English.

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