Why remakes aren't flooding the big screen this year

Remakes are a common part of Hollywood releases, as they're usually easy moneymakers with relatively low risk. But this year, the film industry will make fewer of them than any time in the last 15 years.

There are only four remakes with set release dates for 2015—"The Loft," "Badlapur," "Poltergeist" and "Point Break"—that's the slowest annual churn since 1997, Rentrak data show. Industry experts believe the slowing rate seems to be consistent with studios making fewer films, but more big-budget titles.

John Rose, a media and entertainment expert and senior partner at The Boston Consulting Group, said this could be a sign that moviegoers are growing tired of the concept.

According to Rose, a typical pattern cycle in Hollywood usually takes about three to five years before it wears itself out. He sees the current remake cycle dying out in about two years or so.

When a format appears to be working "there's a desire to produce more of them, but then it stops being differentiated from other films," Rose said. "We might see upswings here and there, but at some point the marginal return starts to look less attractive."

Remakes go back almost to the dawn of the film industry. In fact, the oldest remake on record is 1921's "Orphans of the Storm." But the concept began to pick up steam within the last decade.

The idea hit its peak between 2005 and 2006 when a record 43 remakes were released, including blockbusters like Paramount's "War of the Worlds," which grossed $234 million domestically, Warner Bros.' "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," which made $206 million domestically and Warner Bros.' "Superman Returns," which garnered a little more than $200 million in the U.S.

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However, the industry has struggled to recreate the success of those years. With the exception of "Godzilla," which grossed $201 million in U.S. theaters last year, no remake has managed to cross the $200 million mark since 2006.

Timothy Dirks, senior editor and film historian at AMC Networks, said Hollywood is in a place right now where it simply clones and reboot whatever works.

"It's like we've got to a point where scriptwriters got tired of and decided to rehash all the old classics. They started to lack creativity," Dirks said. "It's just unbelievable ... many of these remakes are inferior to the original and totally unnecessary."

Dirks said there are ways to capitalize on prebranded content, pointing to Disney's recent focus on live-action animation, an area he called a bright spot in the revamp space.

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Disney's "Alice and Wonderland" (2010) and "Maleficent" (2014) are examples of a growing trend—capped off by this year's release of "Cinderella," according to Dirks.

Image from the 2006 movie "Superman Returns."
Source: Warner Brothers

"Disney is going back to its vaults and redoing some of their classic animation fairy tales as live-action fantasies, musicals [and] dramas. It will probably continue," Dirks said. "They have the rights to the story and they don't want to give it up that easily."

Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak, said live-action animation films present more franchise opportunities. "They take various forms, but at the end of the day they are all based on branded content and that's what it's really about," he said. "There's a treasure trove of content available, but the trick is to crack the code on what audiences are interested in."

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Releasing the right remake at the right time can be a gold mine for a studio.

For example, Fox's remake of the 1968 film "Planet of the Apes" grossed $180 million domestically in 2001. It went on to spawn two sequels, which grossed $177 million and $209 million, valuing the entire franchise at more than $550 million. What's more is there's buzz about a fourth installment that's expected in 2017.

Still, the repackaging of old concepts isn't dead. Dergarabedian said there are at least 10 remakes scheduled for release between 2015 and 2017, including Universal's remake of "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," Warner Bros.'"Tarzan" and Disney's "Doctor Strange."

"Studios are under a lot of pressure and tapping into built-in audiences from existing franchises is a major way to reduce risks," said Tuna Amobi, a media analyst at S&P Capital IQ. "The industry is capitalizing on a number of technologies that weren't around when the films first came out."

He pointed to 3-D technology, social media and electronic sell-through as possible tail winds for the remake concept.

"Social media allows them to do much more with the film," Amobi said. "They can generate buzz, inexpensively, through word-of-mouth and get valuable audience feedback."