Why on earth would television audiences be drawn to a 40-year-old sci-fi Western, a 30-year-old buddy-cop movie or an 11-year-old horror flick?
Hollywood movie titles like Westworld, Lethal Weapon and Wolf Creek have found new life on smaller screens — including the TV — as original scripted series, as TV networks seek out original content that pops in a crowded entertainment marketplace.
While the trend isn’t new — networks have tapped the silver screen over the years to produce such hit series as M*A*S*H, The Odd Couple and In the Heat of the Night — film adaptations have taken on more relevance in a crowded television marketplace that features more than 400 current scripted shows offered by cable, broadcast and digital streaming services.
“There’s an audience for it, and the compelling and complicated characters have already been developed for it, which gives you a much better chance to succeed,” said Ben Mankiewicz, on-air host for Turner Classic Movies. ”If the demographic that you’re seeking is already aware and interested in either the particular franchise or characters, obviously you have an even better chance at success.”
New HBO series Westworld is only one of several debuting shows adapted from theatrical films that have made their way to the “small” screen this year. Others include Fox’s redo of the 1980s movie franchise Lethal Weapon — currently one of the highest-rated freshman series among adults 18-49 on broadcast TV this season — and Pop’s reimagining of the 2005 Australian horror film Wolf Creek, which debuted last month.
SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
“Everyone is looking for any angle that makes their property stand out and that has any familiarity with the audience,” said Mina Lefevre, senior vice president of scripted programming at MTV, which has successfully adapted two horror/ thriller movies into series in Teen Wolf and Scream. “It’s another element that really helps the show.”
The key to adapting a movie franchise for television is to maintain the film’s main themes that appeal to hardcore fans, but to reimagine the story in a way that expands the franchise’s appeal to newer, and hopefully younger, viewers, programming executives said.
“I would be wary of adapting something and then banking on the original [film’s] fans making or breaking the show,” HBO president of programming Casey Bloys said. “I don’t think that’s enough in this competitive world.”
During July’s Television Critics Association press tour, Westworld executive producer Jonathan Nolan told reporters that the original 1973 Michael Crichton film explores an issue that has become even more relevant decades later: the complexities of artificial intelligence.
Westworld executive producers Nolan and Lisa Joy retained the original movie’s Wild West-themed adult amusement park backdrop, where humans interact with lifelike, artificially intelligent beings, but twisted the series’ point of view from human to robot. That allows viewers to explore the series’ moral underpinnings from a different perspective.
“That’s an example of [the producers] taking a movie and embracing its themes, but having their own spin on it,” Bloys said. “They were always very clear that they wanted to switch the protagonists from the humans in the movie to the robots in the TV show.”
So far, that twist has worked. Westworld has averaged 12 million viewers across multiple platforms, according to HBO, while generating positive social media chatter and critical acclaim.
HBO isn’t the only network to create a whole new world based on a successful Hollywood movie while sticking to the source material’s basic premise. A&E successfully reimagined the iconic 1960 Alfred Hitchock film Psycho in Bates Motel, a prequel about the teen years of Norman Bates, Psycho’s likeable-but-sadistic adult villain. It even gave life to Norman’s dead mother, Norma Bates, earning actress Vera Farmiga an Emmy nomination in 2014 for her portrayal of the role.
NEW, FAMILIAR STORIES
“The beauty with doing a show like Bates Motel is that we have adapted the story and made it our own while not alienating the core fans of Psycho,” A&E executive vice president and head of programming Elaine Frontain Bryant said. “It’s a genius idea, because you know how it ends, yet viewers fell in love with Norman. It’s like watching a slow-moving train and you want to say, ‘No, Norman, don’t,’ even though you inevitably know what’s going to happen.”
Bryant said the show’s fifth and final season, premiering next year, will move even closer to the original Psycho film by introducing Marion Crane, the movie’s tragic lead character originally played by Janet Leigh. Pop star Rihanna will take on the role in the series.
On the flip side, Starz’s Ash vs Evil Dead, based on the 1981 horror film The Evil Dead, picks up the story 30 years later, with Bruce Campbell reprising his role as unlikely demon-killing hero Ash Williams. The network was able to capitalize on Evil Dead’s passionate cult following, creating a series that was renewed for its third season just last month, according to Carmi Zlotnik, managing director of Starz.
“There’s a fan base that’s had this pent-up desire to see the continuation of the story and the character that they love,” he said.
FX took the reimagining of a Hollywood film even further in 2014 by turning the Academy Award-winning crime thriller Fargo into an anthology series, with each season set in a different era with a new storyline and cast. The sophomore series, which won an Outstanding Miniseries Emmy Award in 2014, will return for season three in 2017.
“When we developed Fargo, we wanted to make sure it wasn’t an adaptation of the tone of the movie,” Nick Grad, FX’s original programming president, said. “We can do something really different and original with a really strong point of view that happens to have their origins in a movie franchise, but the most important thing for us is quality and originality. We’re pretty reluctant to do an adaptation of something you’ve seen before.”
BUILDING ON BRANDS
For networks looking to break into the scripted series arena, launching with an already branded franchise — as Pop did last month with horror series Wolf Creek — is invaluable in trying to draw and retain viewers.
The series takes the 2005 Wolf Creek movie plot, which follows demented killer Mick Taylor as he murders three backpackers in the Australian outback, and turns it on its head. The series, which premiered last month on the former TV Guide Channel, chronicles the hunting of Taylor by a young American tourist whose family was recently butchered by the Australian killer.
“The content world is more cluttered than ever, so if you can base something on intellectual property that people already are familiar with puts you one step ahead of the competition, especially for a smaller network,” Pop president Brad Schwartz said. “Having some familiarity for a title gives you a bit of a head start, versus all the work you have to do to explain a show that no one has ever heard of before.”
Despite the built-in advantages, some movie adaptations have tanked. CBS in May cancelled its freshman series Rush Hour, based on the Chris Tucker-Jackie Chan film franchise, due to lackluster ratings. In July, ABC pulled the plug on Mike Epps-starrer Uncle Buck, based on the 1989 John Hughes film starring John Candy, after one season.
A&E cancelled its Omen sequel series Damien this past May, after one season. The series followed Damien Thorn, the movie’s devil child, as a 30-year-old photographer unaware of his satanic past.
Despite the marketing and promotional advantage that shows like Damien may have, there’s no guaranteed ticket to success, Bryant said. “It was a franchise that maybe didn’t have the same type of appeal [as Psycho],” she said.
When transitioning a movie franchise to television, TCM’s Mankiewicz said networks must walk a fine line of providing a different take on the familiar plot or characters of that movie without upsetting its core fans.
“You have to make it compelling, but if you do create a compelling story and alter the universe significantly, you’ll get some very angry fan reaction from Twitter,” he said.
Added Starz’s Zlotnik: “As producers and network executives we have to take our Hippocratic oath: ‘Thou shalt do no harm to the property that you’re working with.’ For the fans, you have to meet or exceed their expectations in order to be successful.”
It’s a risk that more network executives are willing to take. Already on the docket for 2017 are scripted series based on Spike Lee’s 1986 independent film She’s Gotta Have It (Netflix) and the dance-based movie franchise Step Up (YouTube).
“There are a lot of these fantastic tit les that have not been explored on television and now they can be,” MTV’s Lefevre said. “We’re really excited to take these properties that have been more specific to the big screen.”
Added TCM’s Mankiewicz: “I’m sure there a lot of writers mining moderately successful movies from the 1970s and 1980s that are right now trying to turn them into TV shows.”
A partial list of movies that have been turned into TV series pilots orwill launch as full-fledged series in 2017:
Show Distributor Status
She’s Gotta Have It . . . . . . . . . . . Netflix . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Series
American Gigolo . . . . . . . . . . . Showtime . . . . . . . . . . . . In Development
First Wives Club . . . . . . . . . . . . . TV Land . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Pilot
Heathers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . TV Land . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Pilot
War of the Worlds . . . . . . . . . . . . MTV . . . . . . . . . . . . . . In Development
Step Up . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . YouTube . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Series
The Machine . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Syfy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Pilot
Get Shorty . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . EPIX . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Series
SOURCE : Multichannel News research