Money for Nothing and Flicks for Free
If the word "sequel" doesn't send your stomach crashing against your rib cage atop waves of disgust then maybe some of these words will: Jaws 3-D, Poltergeist II, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, Friday the Thirteenth II-XX, or how about the recent Terms of Endearment follow-up The Evening Star? The only thing Hollywood likes better than a hit movie, is a hit movie they can franchise.Hey, who could blame them? In the world of movies especially, originality, talent and good ideas are hard to come by. If a studio is fortunate enough to latch onto a shooting star, it'd be foolish not to ride as far as it'll go.So it should surprise no one that one of the more noticeable trends in movies these days is something that could be called the Lazarus Syndrome -- film resurrections. John Waters' classic gross-out Pink Flamingos, Coppola's American epic The Godfather, Scorcese's urban dream in decay Taxi Driver, and Lucas's back-to-back grand slams Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, have all become recent big-screen re-releases.Not sequels, not sad rehashings of successful plots and not remakes but re-releases. The same blockbusters and/or seminal films back in theaters for those who might have missed them the first time, back for those who are fed up with seeing the imposing Death Star six inches tall.Anatomy of a Re-ReleaseToday, hallmark anniversaries of classic movies aren't simply cause for a cast reunion or a special showing on TNT hosted by the director. Now when a movie becomes 20 or 25 years old it gets a dusting off, and a whole new run in first-run theaters. These "reruns" can even be accompanied by big advertising campaigns, marketing strategies, press junkets, gala premiers (re-premiers if you like) and merchandising tie-ins. And it's not just movies, according to Dr. Anne Heineman Batory, Dean of the School of Business, Society and Public Policy at Wilkes University."It is a theme recurring in a lot of marketing, actually. Not just movies. Think about advertising on TV -- bringing back old themes, old songs and old stars. And of course in other areas there are things like album reissues on CD," Batory said.Only a few weeks ago, the last weekend in March, Grease, a 20-year-old movie, was the second highest grossing film at the box office, second only to Titanic. And Titanic was coming off a win for best picture at the Academy Awards the Monday before.Speaking of Titanic, this unprecedented hit became the highest grossing domestic movie of all time this spring, something it would have done much sooner had the second movie on the list, Star Wars, not added an additional hundred million dollars or so last year. At the beginning of 1997, 20 years after its original release, Star Wars and its two follow-ups -- The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi -- were re-released to packed houses across the country, overflowing with a blend of nostalgic 20 and 30-somethings and teens who never got the chance to see the sci-fi spectacle on the big screen.The modern success of re-releases, Batory said, is like a studio executive's fantasy. "There is no up-front investment. They already know it's going to work. If it worked once why won't it work again?"Exorcist Back in Theaters?Another classic slated for re-release is The Exorcist. Warner Brothers, the original distributor, will re-release the film on an undetermined date later this year to commemorate the film's 25th anniversary. Mark Kermode, a film critic for the BBC and the narrator of Fear of God, a documentary currently in production about The Exorcist, said capitalizing on the lost opportunity of the theater experience is a lot of what these re-releases are about."When we were younger, in the 70s, there weren't all of these movies on tape and everyone said wouldn't it be great to have libraries of all the great movies. Then VCR's came around and everyone thought it would be the end of the big screen, but actually it's been anything but. Now there are those libraries. And when some people see these great movies on video, the first thing they want to do is see them on the big screen," he said.Of course, no one would deny the obvious. Nicholas Jones -- the producer of the BBC documentary who visited Wilkes-Barre recently to film an interview with Exorcist star, Jason Miller -- said the reason the studios and theaters are willing to comply is because of the obvious: money. "One clear reason is economics," he said. "And the most successful example of that is Star Wars."As Batory said, studios release these movies with almost no overhead. Star Wars, for instance, spent money on new scenes and effects, yet it was still a tested product almost guaranteed to succeed. And the small amount they spent to update the movie and advertise its release still put a lot less money at risk than if the studio had developed an entirely unfamiliar sci-fi movie for somewhere between $50 and $100 million.The exact same fool-proof economics work for a lot of classic movies, like Grease. "So why not re-release Grease?" Batory asked, after mentioning that she was planning to see it again. "It says the same thing now that it said in the 70s because it was about the 50s."All this wouldn't matter a damn, though, if audiences weren't hungry for the pictures. Jones said most movie fans now admit that watching a movie like The Exorcist at home on TV or video can't compare to the theater experience. "There is a genuine curiosity to see some of these movies on the big screen," he said."There's also something about seeing things with other people," Kermode added. "I still know people who've watched The Exorcist on video and they say, 'You know, I don't really get it.' But that's because they never sat there with a whole group of people just apoplectic with shock."Theater-Going as Hot as EverJones pointed out that the studios have quickly recognized that the unique "event" aspect of going to the theater is as hot as ever and they're tailoring their ads to highlight just such advantages. In the advertisements for the re-release of Star Wars, for instance, the idea that this was a chance to finally see this big movie on a big screen with updated digital sound was the point they led with."One of the coolest things about the re-release of Star Wars, at least in England, was the trailer with the little box in the middle of the screen. And they said 'This is how you've always seen it before' and then -- wham! -- they hit you with this enormous image of explosions and imperial fighters," he said.So what makes a good re-release? Tons of movies have anniversaries, but why do the studios choose the ones they do? Jones said after studying The Exorcist and thinking about the whole re-release phenomenon, the movies that make the best re-releases are ones of rare excellence.On the subject of excellence he said, "I think there is a limit to what the public will endure. I think the public will only accept the right movies. (The Exorcist) is obviously a good choice as was Star Wars. These are films of exceptional quality. But yes, I'd say 99.9 percent of all movies could be happily consigned to the video shelf."And on the subject of rarity he said, "Just look at horror films over the past 25 years since The Exorcist was released. How many have had such great characters, so many mature, intelligent scenarios and such overall depth? Most of them are your adolescent, Scream-ish type movies."Kermode added that some films are so rare that it's a choice between a re-release or nothing at all. A film like The Exorcist, he said, needs to be re-released because a film like The Exorcist probably wouldn't get made today. "Who do you root for?" he asked. "Where's the teen appeal?"Directors Support TrendAlso, anyone who knows anything about flattery and human nature would know big supporters of this trend are the directors. Lucas was behind the Star Wars re-releases saying in press interviews that the added scenes made the films more in tune with his original vision than the first time around.And in the case of The Exorcist, Jones said the director, William Friedkin, was "a major force behind it." Kermode suggested Friedkin especially might want to see his movie re-released because at the time, for a lot of reasons, it probably didn't get all the credit it deserved (Kermode for instance was clear about his belief that it deserved the Best Picture Oscar in '73)."The other thing with The Exorcist is now the dust has settled. It was so controversial at first that some of the controversy got in the way. Now, 25 years later, it's possible to take a step back and give it another look," he said.What movies are next in line for another look? Well this year is also the silver anniversary of a crowd favorite, American Graffiti, and next year is the 25th anniversary of a film-buff's darling, Chinatown. Who knows whether these or any other famous older films will get what Jones called "a spring cleaning" and a re-release, but if movies like Grease and The Exorcist prove as successful at the box office the second time around as the Star Wars trilogy, you can count on it.