Movies can't survive on TV nostalgia alone

Jump to big screen can flop painfully


September 04, 2005|By Joe Neumaier | Joe Neumaier,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

It's hard to imagine now, but when television first came to prominence, Hollywood viewed it as competition for movies.

Now, films made from TV shows are commonplace. But as this summer has shown, what works on the small screen doesn't always work at the multiplex: The Honeymooners and Bewitched both bombed, with the latter causing critics and audiences alike to wonder what exactly Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell were doing in a remake of a musty '60s sitcom. Only The Dukes of Hazzard proved to be a success, updating its '80s good-ol'-boy humor for a new audience.

This fall will see Serenity (the cinematic leap of the failed TV series Firefly), and next year will bring Miami Vice, starring Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx. Also in the works: Get Smart, starring 40-Year-Old Virgin Steve Carell, and I Dream of Jeannie with Jessica Alba in the running for the title role.

While the trend can be traced back to successful transitions like Dragnet (1987), The Untouchables (1987) and The Fugitive (1993), a flop like Bewitched showed the danger of overestimating audience affection for old titles. For every Mission: Impossible and Charlie's Angels, there's a Wild Wild West or The Mod Squad.

"A lot of these shows are badly dated, and though they may have worked in the 1960s or '70s, when they're updated they just seem irrelevant," says Bruce Fretts, senior correspondent for TV Guide. "The thing that seems charming today isn't the plot or the jokes, but the time-capsule quality.

"Plus, people are used to seeing these shows on the small screen. You have to have something really special to justify transplanting them to the movies."

"Movies and television shows are two completely different species," says Frank Spotnitz, an executive producer and writer on The X-Files (both the show and the 1998 movie), whose fall show, The Night Stalker, is an update of a cult early '70s program. "But to movie studios, it's a huge help to have a title everyone knows, to cut through the clutter of the marketplace.

"Yet I think nostalgia of any kind is a double-edged sword," adds Spotnitz. "When people see a TV show title from their youth, they're looking for a piece of that old experience to come back, and the truth is, they'll never recapture it."

One rule of thumb ought to be to avoid sitcoms. While one-hour dramas like Starsky & Hutch can even be movie-fied as a comedy (thanks to Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson), half-hour shows are often deadly, a rule previously established by the movies Leave It to Beaver, The Beverly Hillbillies and My Favorite Martian.

"Sitcoms, which are based on character relationships, build a rapport with audiences over many seasons in a way that movies just can't do," says Tim Brooks, author of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.

"Plus, so much of our television history is on display every night; old sitcoms are never really gone. DVDs of TV shows are now common, and networks like Nick at Nite and TV Land keep old shows alive. That's a major sea change in American entertainment. Everything is so accessible that nostalgia never has a chance to actually become nostalgia."

But in a few years, an end could be in sight: Though a Sex and the City film was ready to roll until co-star Kim Cattrall backed out, most hit sitcoms from the '90s - like Seinfeld, Friends, and The Drew Carey Show - couldn't be movie-fied.

Yet, TV Guide's Fretts says, "I'm sure if you told someone in the 1950s that someday they'd make a Honeymooners movie with someone besides Jackie Gleason, they'd have been shocked. Flash-forward to 2015, and we could be talking about someone else playing Ray Barone in an Everybody Loves Raymond movie.

"It could happen."

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