As the trailer for the “Footloose” remake teases a whole new generation with the story of young people fighting for the freedom to dance, it’s clear that Hollywood’s fascination with the 1980s is here to stay. According to Variety, there are no fewer than 30 redos on studio dockets, including everything from “Red Dawn” to “Private Benjamin,” “Poltergeist,” and new installments of “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Ghostbusters.”
While familiar material is catnip to studio executives looking to cash in on audience nostalgia, this particular decade hits the sweet spot right now.
“Younger audiences haven’t seen the originals, and older viewers might just be curious enough to buy a ticket to see what the updated version looks like,” says film studies expert Wheeler Winston Dixon.
“There this perfect symbiosis with the 1980s,” says Dwight DeWerth-Pallmeyer, director of communication studies at Widener University in Chester, Penn. “There is enough distance for nostalgia, but not so much that the kids can’t relate,” he says.
A town that clamps down on teen behavior as a result of a tragedy, he adds, can spur conversation for families.
In the original version, starring Kevin Bacon – made in 1984 for only $8 million – the crash that takes the lives of a carload high school students is mentioned but never shown. In the new version, the movie opens with the accident, framing the entire story with a grittier feel, points out Professor DeWerth-Pallmeyer.
Mining earlier eras is an old trick in Hollywood, points out Professor Dixon, editor of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Scanning the list of upcoming titles, including “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and “Police Academy,” he says via email, “Is there a spark of originality in any of these projects? Of course not, but that is the point.” Tapping familiar titles means studios can count on audiences to know what a “Ghostbuster” film is about, he says.
The increasingly corporate Hollywood mindset is always looking for a safe bet, notes Dixon. “An original concept? Risky. A sequel, reboot, or remake? Usually, money in the bank.”
This ultra-commercial approach to narrative material dates back to the dawn of cinema, he points out. Cinematic pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché remade her 1896 hit La Feé Aux Choux in 1900, he notes, when the original negative wore out before public demand for the film.
Word-of-mouth – the Holy Grail of movie marketing – makes only the most pre-sold projects attractive to the major Hollywood studios, he adds.
But more than anything, economics is driving the trend, says Villanova University film Professor John O’Leary. “The powers that be in the film industry are feeling the heat from a bad economy and a changing distribution system,” he points out via email, adding that studios are so afraid of failure that they don’t dare venture into any uncharted waters. “They go to stories that have already been successful with the American public (even if they were in another medium or at another time) and make them again.”
The current popularity of singing and dancing, spurred on by Disney’s High School Musical franchise and Fox’s Glee, helps fan interest in a music-heavy film like “Footloose,” says Hollywood.com box office expert, Paul Dergarabedian. “All that MTV-inspired 1980s stuff is just cool again.”