Seeking to trick out niche properties for broader followings, Hollywood runs into shaky territory
again in extreme risk-averse mode, Hollywood is more enamored than ever with repurposed intellectual property - sequels, prequels and remakes - searching for creative concepts that have already been
commercially tested in the marketplace.
Of course, there's lots of hard data that suggests this conservative strategy works just great - over Memorial Day weekend, for example, each of the top-five box-office earners was an offshoot of some kind, with franchises including Star Trek exploited well into double-digit iterations.
The remake trend is proliferating on TV too, with the CW "reimagining" Melrose Place next fall and ABC working up a new series spin on the alien-invasion themed series V from the 1980s.
Indeed, boiling down the broad general entertainment audience into just one big money-paying focus group for future endeavors has paid off handsomely for movie and TV studios. But there are only so many broadly appealing, market-tested concepts to go around.
More and more, in their search for familiar, safe investments via established brands, entertainment marketers are being pressed to also consider properties that, in their original heyday, appealed to only a small audience segment - but appealed to it in a very intense way. Thus, the cult sensation has been introduced into the realm of the remake. Here, the track record is sketchier.
Though there are notable success stories.
In 2003, the erstwhile Sci Fi Channel commissioned a dark re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica, ABC's short-lived, mega-budgeted space opera from post-Star Wars 1978.
The original series was burdened by a staggering production budget, and the $7 million two-hour pilot had to be released theatrically in Canada just so the network could recoup some of the coin. Because of those overruns, the show wasn't renewed for a second season despite particularly strong ratings.
A couple of years later, ABC tried to adapt the series concept into a more tightly budgeted spin-off, the modern-day-Earth-set Galactica 1980. The hope was to sustain the momentum of the original, while bumping the whole franchise into one that would be robust enough in terms of episode count to sell into syndication. But the show succumbed to viewer apathy after only 10 episodes.
By the time NBC Universal's cable arm got a hold of what was then a 25-year-old Galactica property, it had lapsed into true cult status, with only a small, ragtag fleet of nerdish revelers still giving a frak. But at the time, Sci Fi was all about cult hits, a place where an obscure property like the original V could find a nice, male-skewing niche audience of several hundred thousand viewers.
Featuring stand-out performances (most notably, Edward James Olmos as the galaxy-weary Commander Adama), and imbued with all sorts of relevant, provocative story arcs (creator Ronald Moore received an Emmy nomination for writing in 2007), the new Galactica took Sci Fi to multimillion-sized audience levels that were well beyond the confines of a cult-viewer-catering cable channel.
And earlier this year, as it announced its own Galactica spin-off series, Caprica, the channel trumpeted a broad-scale rebranding and a curious new moniker, "Syfy."
Ostensibly, the change - ridiculed in many media-on-media circles - would allow the channel to issue trademarks in a way a generic term like "sci-fi" would not. Privately, however, network officials were looking to transition their offerings into a broader, more female-friendly mainstream realm. The chicks simply do not dig the sci-fi, they claimed.
Just as the Galactica had led its fictional denizens to the promised land, a cult hit has led Syfy beyond its cult following.
However, the annals of movie and TV profit-generators aren't necessarily filled with properties that started out with rabid niche followings. Sure, moviemakers have had some success of late exploiting obscure graphic novels - the Frank Miller-penned Sin City and 300 achieved genuine blockbuster status.
And hopes were high in March at Warner Bros.' U.S. release of Watchmen, an adaptation of the highly acclaimed comic book series created by writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons and colorist John Higgins.
Certainly, if Miller's stuff translated so well, then one of the most prized possessions of the modern-day comics world, which is cult by nature, should profit handsomely, too. However, Watchmen floundered, earning just under $183 million globally, only about enough to cover its sizable production budget.
While the new Galactica added layers of nuance and complexity to the flimsy characters laid out in the original, delighting purists and drawing in the uninitiated, the cinematic Watchmen wasn't up to the task of even matching the density of its source material.
"A narrative with the texture and complexity of Watchmen demands to be on the page, demands to be read again and again before all its secrets are revealed, and film simply doesn't have the time for that," noted Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan. "What went wrong with Watchmen is not really anyone's fault. It never should have been turned into a film in the first place."
Indeed, if the endgame is transitioning niche properties beyond their original rabid fan base, it's imperative to have the true denizens and critics build word-of-mouth.
And there's no guarantee that the cult will be down for the remake.
Last summer, for example, MTV, in a complicated association with Fox TV Studios, BermanBraun Productions and Europe's Sky Movies, announced the upcoming assemblage of a TV format re-envisioning the ultimate cult hit, 1975's The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which earned nearly $113 million over the course of several decades, mostly catering to the same costume-clad audience members at midnight shows around the country.
Lou Adler - the white-bearded man best known these days for sitting courtside next to Jack Nicholson at Lakers games - would reprise his role as executive producer, and the music would stay the same. Then there were reports all the music would be reimagined. The cast would be announced later.
A new generation, which already embraced operatic productions like High School Musical, would make a nice, broad target market. But who would provide relevance to a brand that had already completed its midnight run before most of these kids were born?
Richard O'Brien, creator of the original Rocky Horror, is adamantly opposed to the remake, and his disciples don't seem pleased, either. "This abortion will be worse than the usual shit they pour down on our throats," wrote the operator of stoptheremake.com. "Prepare for the High School Musical version of Rocky."
MTV and the rest of the remake's backers have been silent regarding the project's status since the announcement more than 10 months ago. Maybe they're listening to the same cult audience that drew their attention in the first place. And that is the essential balancing act (and perhaps paradox) all of these cult properties have faced: How to draw a new mainstream audience without alienating the vocal and perhaps hopelessly devoted following that made the property desirable.