Five years ago, Hong Kong film director and producer Peter Chan got an intriguing call from Warner Brothers: would he be interested in remaking The Bridges of Madison County with Chow Yun-Fat reprising Clint Eastwood’s role and Chinese actress Gong Li stepping in for Meryl Streep? Chan thought transposing the action to China would work, but he couldn’t spend the time on development, so nothing happened.
Today it’s a different story. Inspired by the rise in box-office receipts in Asia—especially China—directors and producers are remaking a growing number of Hollywood hits for Asian audiences. Last year Cellular, the 2004 kidnaping thriller starring Kim Basinger, became the first Chinese remake of a Hollywood film. At this year’s Berlin Film Festival, veteran filmmaker Zhang Yimou presented A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, his retelling of the Coen brothers’ neo-noir thriller Blood Simple, with the action transported from small-town America to the desert landscapes of northwestern China. In June, production started on a remake of the 2000 romantic comedy What Women Want, with Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau and Gong Li filling the roles played by Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt.
While these remakes are driven by local producers, Hollywood studios are also joining the fray. Having remade a number of Asian films for American audiences over the past two decades—including The Ring, The Departed, and The Lake House—some American studios are now looking into their vaults and “adapting” movies for new audiences in the East. This summer, Disney is releasing a Chinese-language version of its High School Musical franchise, in a coproduction with two local partners. Paramount Pictures Japan and Shochiku Co. just started filming a remake of the 1990 supernatural movie Ghost with Japan’s Nanako Matsushima and Korean actor Seung-heon Song taking over the roles played by Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze. “Certain themes are universal, and this is why remakes work,” says Dede Nickerson, the producer of What Women Want. “Studios are more than happy to exploit their existing intellectual property as well.”
Hollywood has always gone to great lengths to tailor movies for local audiences. Back in the early 1930s, Hollywood studios often produced foreign-language versions of their films using the same sets and costumes. Before the advent of dubbing, Laurel and Hardy would shoot in French, Spanish, German, or Italian, reading words written phonetically on blackboards just off camera. Two separate crews worked on the set of the 1931 Dracula: Tod Browning directed Bela Lugosi by day while George Melford directed actor Carlos Villarias at night for the Spanish version.
But for all its might, Hollywood has been losing market share in recent years to domestic films around the world. Audiences are more inclined to seek out films that mirror their own cultural values and feature stars they can easily relate to. Back in 2002, foreign films dominated Japan’s movie theaters, taking in 73 percent of box-office returns; last year that share fell to 43 percent. “Today’s young Japanese are not as inspired by Western culture as they used to be,” says Paramount Japan marketing director Hisamichi Kinomoto.
A foreign film adapted for a local audience can perform better than the original. Last year, Fuji TV remade Sideways, the 2004 Alexander Payne film about two friends road-tripping through California’s wine country. While the original film grossed around $960,000 in Japan, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, the Japanese remake—featuring two Japanese pals in Napa—raked in $1.5 million. Many studios eager to increase their local distribution are looking to develop new coproductions with local partners on the ground. This is particularly true in China, where box-office receipts have grown more than 25 percent a year over the past five years, and Hollywood studios face distribution quotas—currently limited to 20 a year. Furthermore, coproductions can earn up to 43 percent of box-office revenue, while foreign productions usually get only a smaller, flat share.
Remaking a successful existing film can be an easy way to begin a conversation with a local producer. But given the cost, the ultimate goal is to create original content for the local market. “We’re seeing the value of local films, both from a market-share perspective and from a storytelling perspective,” says Sanford Panitch, head of Fox International Productions. “In India, 90 percent of the market is local, so we want to participate in that. Remaking a library film made in Hollywood is one way. In our case, we focus more on original material.” It seems clear that localized original productions are the ticket to success: Japan’s 10 biggest-grossing movies last year included only four Hollywood films, and none was a remake.