Remaking the Past

The film industry has realized a vast bonanza from its historical archives, simply through ownership of material that is timeless and universal in its core appeal. This helps explain why old TV shows are constantly being made into new movies, sometimes with great (The Addams Family) or limited (Miami Vice) success, and vice versa, as in every TV science fiction series ever invented. Throw in video games, music videos, and non-fiction documentaries, and the past is constantly recycling before our very eyes in a continually speeded-up process.

There is a depressingly simple way to put a quick end to idle fantasies when watching a great old movie on Turner Classic Movies and think how wonderful George Clooney would be in the remake:

Owning the rights is everything.

Studios get propositioned constantly for remake rights to the content that is bulging out of their vaults: decades of feature films, cartoons, newsreels, TV shows, newscasts. Most copyright owners have wised up and no longer make long-term licensing deals, and in an era of vertically-reintegrating multinational entertainment conglomerates, those rights will be kept in-house.

If a producer is lucky enough to have an important personage’s ear, then by all means, he or she should suggest the remake idea that’s been fermenting in his or her imagination since that first screening as a 14-year-old. But don’t expect an easy road to remaking any property, particularly a previously successful one.
John Huston once said that he was amazed how many writers approached him about getting the remake rights to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. “I did a pretty good job on that one,” said the immodestly modest Huston. “Why don’t they remake one of the scripts I messed up?”

His point is well-taken. It is exceedingly difficult to do a good remake of a good movie, since it is rare to do it well once, let alone twice. There are great premises that have failed in their initial filmization, and are well worth the effort that updating and contemporizing will bring to their potential commerciality in today’s marketplace. But most producers don’t look for past failures – they want to remake successful films, of course, and that quest is both challenging and expensive.

Broadway, Off-and Off-Off-Broadway, television of all kinds and increasingly original and innovative digital and Internet content are wonderful places to look for fresh and inexpensive writing and acting talent. But the process of translating a success in one medium to another is both complicated and often expensive.

The Art of the Pitch

Whether writer, producer, or just a supporter, at some point the story of the movie will have to be pitched.

It actually provides a good exercise, because the pitch forces the writer/speaker to boil the story down to its essence, to the reason it should be seen, the part of the human condition (comedy or drama) that it illuminates.

The better the story is known and understood on all its levels and permutations, the easier it will be to sell it. As mentioned earlier, passion is infectious, and the more intimate the connection to the story, the more convincing the pitch.

Plot is important, but detail is not, a simple rule that few remember. Most pitches should not exceed 10 minutes (of talking about the story), not including the idle chitchat that precedes and decamp the pitch opportunity. Energy within the story and its presentation is often one key ingredient in a successful pitch, and poise is another.

Unless a parody of the story discussions in Robert Altman’s The Player, it’s best not to describe any new idea as a blend of two previous movies. It’s also more effective to not cast the entire movie in the pitch, particularly with actors with no initial chance of attaching to the material. Let the story speak for itself.

That doesn’t mean reading parts of the script aloud, or going in with scripted patter. Outline cards, if they have to be used for reference, should be handled discretely and whisked out of sight the moment they are no longer needed, rather than being kneaded in the poor writer’s sweaty palms.

There are individuals who pride themselves on their ability to say no, along with the cell phone or secretarial interruptions (yes, sometimes they are planned and rehearsed) and the mid-pitch objections to lack of realism or too much realism.

There’s a whole separate art to being the buyer and learning the correct etiquette for politely receiving a pitch that both buyer and seller know will probably be rejected. But since most of us spend much more of our lives as sellers than buyers, I will only caution that polite interest is not a synonym for serious interest, and that most feedback offered in a pitch discussion is rarely constructive and mostly just critical.

There are few actual instances where a writer blithely strolls into an office, becomes intensely and effectively verbal for 10 or 15 minutes, and walks out with a deal for a new movie s/he’ll start writing the next day. It just doesn’t work like that, and practicing for a studio pitch is just another way of wasting time that would be better spent working on another screenplay revision or a bigger list of potential financiers.

The Bottom Line

Always follow up a pitch with an emailed thanks for the time and consideration, and don’t expect a response. Few pitches actually sell in the room, or are bought when they are initially pitched, and most pitches, of all kinds to many people for many reasons, are passed upon. Rejection is just the first of many feelings a producer must be accustomed to.