It’s hard to imagine now, but when television first came to prominence, Hollywood viewed it as competition for movies.
How times change.
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,” he says. “You have to have something really special to justify transplanting them to the movies.”
For movie studios, “it’s a huge help to have a title everyone knows, to cut through the clutter of the marketplace,” 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 an early ‘70s cult program.
“Yet I think nostalgia of any kind is a double-edged sword,” he adds. “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 translated to movie comedies (thanks to Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson), half-hour shows often are 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.”
Though a “Sex and the City” film was ready to roll until co-star Kim Cattrall backed out, most hit sitcoms from the ‘90s – such as “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” and “The Drew Carey Show” – couldn’t easily be brought to the big screen.
Yet TV Guide’s Fretts says “never say never.”
“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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