Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Can Small Screen Success Translate To Big Box Office?...

With so many long-running series coming to an end of late, it hasn't taken long for the message boards and fansites to buzz with ideas for big screen reunions. With a ton of television shows already greenlit and in various stages of development (The A-Team, Dallas, Knight Rider, and I Dream of Jeannie, to name a few), it doesn't seem too farfetched to assume even more producers are awaiting the opening numbers from this Friday's release of the HBO hit Sex and the City Movie before they offer a firm stance one way or the other. If it's a hit, even four years after the show went off the air, the wheels will undoubtedly start turning for at least a couple of those men and women determined to milk every last cent out of their fans. But before they jump into something prematurely and make some rash story decisions, they need to do a little research on the television shows turned feature films that worked... and those that didn't.

Part of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's success with South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut (Paramount; 1999) came from the fact that the film was released when the show was really finding its popularity. By allowing a big screen version, they were able to get controversial jokes and images past censors that even on the cable television level are too strict. Expanding on gags already touched upon in the show proved to any still skeptical that these guys were not just about potty mouths and fart humor; their once toss-off line about Brian Boitano or what Cartman deems Kyle's mom turned into full-on musical numbers, raising the bar for themselves but also for primetime cartoons everywhere, begging for more wit and creativity. Bigger, Longer, & Uncut was able to reach past the normal Comedy Central audience and bring new butts in the seats, which only led to new eyes to the tube when their next season began, deeming it an even bigger success than could have been initially anticipated.

Another Comedy Central cult favorite, RENO 911! Miami (Robert Ben Garant for 20th Century Fox; 2007), improvs their way through each week's thirty minute installment, but the feature length transition became a more crass, more skin-filled version of a Christopher Guest film. Chock full of "That Guy (and Gal)" cameos, as well as bringing on some past favorites (though some in different roles), RENO 911! Miami took their sexual innuedos and phone-fumbling to new heights and even threw in a low-speed vehicle chase for good measure.

Joss Whedon's cult hit Firefly seemed almost made for a movie from the minute it debuted on-air. Set in space but told in the vein of a western, its characters were involved (dimensionally and with each other), and its dialogue snappy and fun, giving it all of the right parts to be the modern Star Wars (hell, it even had the clunky spaceship!). In 2005 when Universal released it as Serenity and that spaceship crashed into theaters, it was as if it had found its home. Everything could be done bigger-- offering better, flashier special effects, more suspense, and more comic relief. Without worrying about keeping characters fresh and interesting episode after episode, Whedon had more freedom with their arcs... and their lives, offering bigger drama, as well.

Based on these winning examples, perhaps a successful television to film transformation seems to require a few things in its formula, one being that it focuses a good chunk on comedic elements (which, luckily, Sex and the City has going for it), and another being that the show has not been gone too long from our televisions and therefore our consciousnesses. Unfortunately the longer the show is off the air, the more willing producers seem to be to just do a remake rather than come up with a new, original plot to carry their characters through to present time. Perhaps it is because the original cast is often difficult to round up, often being off in different parts of the country (or world), working on new, exciting, and different projects; perhaps it is because they fear the original is too long gone to be remembered, and there is too much time for which to account; or perhaps it is because they simply just get lazy. Whatever the reason, more often than not, parallels to the original can't help but be drawn, and in comparison, despite any technological advancements or tongue-in-cheek humor, the new versions usually just don't work.

The most atrocious example has to be the Will Ferrell/Nicole Kidman helmed Bewitched (Nora Ephron for Columbia; 2005), which took the most post-modern approach to updating a classic possible by poking a self-reflexive stab at the original, and the industry in general, by having a show within a movie about a show. Despite the name talent attached (supporting cast included Michael Caine, Steve Carrell, and Shirley MacLaine) and a few chuckle-worthy one-liners, audiences were mostly just left scratching their heads, not tossing them back in laughter. In a way, this "redoing" of a story that reached across generations just came off as disrespectful and mocking, and audiences immaterialized from theaters as quickly as Endora herself.

Turning the procedural formula (in that, the crimes get solved within the hour) into a two hour feature doomed The Mod Squad (Scott Silver for MGM; 1999) before it was even past the concept and development stage. Instead of a finely-crafted A to B plot exercise, the writers attempted to "update" the 1975 show by filling the script with fakeouts and wrong turns but ended up getting tangled in their own twists, confusing everyone in the process. Never mind the fact that it is completely unfathomable that meek-mannered Claire Danes could be a juvenile delinquent or a toe-to-toe with drug dealers Undercover!

Without the bumble-brained Jessica Simpson leading its cast, The Dukes of Hazzard (Jay Chandrasekhar for Warner Brothers; 2005) might have stood a fighting chance.

Without the bumble-brained Jessica Simpson and the ADD-adrenaline of Johnny Knoxville leading its cast, The Dukes of Hazzard (Jay Chandrasekhar for Warner Brothers; 2005) might have stood a fighting chance.

Without the bumble-brained Jessica Simpson, the ADD-adrenaline of Johnny Knoxville, and the "aw shucks" infancy of Seann William Scott, leading its cast, The Dukes of Hazzard (Jay Chandrasekhar for Warner Brothers; 2005) might have stood a fighting chance. There; that's better. When all three leads are inept, the dialogue teeters on the edge between racist and just plain offensive to intelligence, and the light-hearted, silly, family friendly family turns into a sexualized trio, though, it can't even be a fun, enjoyable fluff piece of a film. Producers and fans of the original are just embarrassed by the display.

So where does this leave some of those aforementioned recently-ended fan favorites like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Gilmore Girls... or even Friends? The Sopranos creator David Chase just signed a deal with Paramount to write, produce, and direct his first feature. Is he getting his feet wet for a big-screen adaptation of his acclaimed drama? Will more follow his lead? Only time (and the box office) will tell…


Amanda said...

I actually saw the South park movie before I ever saw an episode of the show.

Serenity was amazing. Fox is crazy.

DC said...

SATC just made a pretty good dent in the box office, consider the ball rolling :)