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Hollywood's New Foreign Fling: Remakes of Domestic Hits

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(C) 2009Twentieth Century Fox and Fuji Television
"Sideways"

"American hegemony is coming to an end," says one agent as exports slide amid an international remake boom.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It's no secret that the Hollywood studios have gone global in their push to appeal to audiences worldwide. As domestic box-office growth slows, Hollywood is looking to the exploding markets in Asia, South America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East to make up the difference. That's why James Bond conveniently stops by Shanghai in Skyfall, why Optimus Prime touched down in Moscow for Transformers: Dark of the Moon and why Tom Cruise climbed a portion of the 163-floor Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai for Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol.

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Now producers inside the studios and out are taking the next step: going local. Instead of just adding a few foreign locations to the next American-made tentpole, filmmakers increasingly are making foreign-language versions of U.S. properties. A Chinese version of the Mel Gibson romantic comedy What Women Want bowed in the past year, starring Andy Lau and Gong Li.

Paramount in India this year released Players, a Bollywood take on the classic heist film The Italian Job. In Japan, Warner Bros. is in production on a Japanese makeover of Clint Eastwood's best picture Oscar winner Unforgiven.

Independents also are getting into the foreign-adaptation business. Best-selling romance author Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook, Dear John) has begun talks with producers in several territories to do local-language versions of his work. Sparks says the first to enter production will be a German take on The Rescue, which Berlin-based Senator Film will produce with Sparks and his longtime literary agent and producing partner, Theresa Park.

Sparks is in negotiations for a Brazilian adaptation based on the same book and tells THR that he is seeking to jointly produce local-language adaptations of his work "in countries as diverse as Brazil, Italy, the Spanish-speaking world, China … and beyond."

For the U.S. rights owner, a foreign remake usually means a fat licensing check and potential residuals if the new version performs at the box office. For studio properties, a foreign remake can mean a healthy bonus for a property that has finished its run. Warner Bros.' Chinese-language translation of the thriller Cellular, for example, earned a respectable $6.5 million locally.

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The bulk of these foreign-language adaptations have been in the East. In 2009, Fox International teamed with Japan's Fuji TV for a "reimagining" of Sideways, featuring Japanese tourists exploring Napa Valley vineyards. In the same year, Oscar-nominated director Zhang Yimou transported the Coen brothers' noir classic Blood Simple to rural China in the early 20th century for A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop.

In India, unauthorized remakes of Hollywood films once were rampant. But as U.S. producers have begun enforcing their intellectual property rights, India's remake industry is going legit. The latest is a version of the Cruise-Cameron Diaz action film Knight and Day, which Fox's Star Studios India will produce. According to Fox Filmed Entertainment CEO Jim Gianopulos, the local version will be pure Bollywood, with plenty of "drama, songs and emotion … the premise is that the source material, story and the nature of the film have to be local."

Accommodating local sensibilities is key to remaking Hollywood overseas. Japanese filmmakers dropped the Merlot-bashing in their Sideways, fearing it wouldn't suit that country's polite, deferential culture. India's Players opted for a typical Bollywood happy ending instead of the legendary cliffhanger of the 1969 original.

For the German Rescue, producer Park says the principals are prepared to make adjustments to the characters and plot of Sparks' original novel. "The hero in the original is a firefighter, but our German partners Senator told us firemen don't have the same heroic status there, so we'll probably change that," Park tells THR.

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Indeed, U.S. producers are realizing that, in an increasingly global world, continuing with an American one-size-fits-all approach is no longer an option.

Says Park: "The era of American hegemony is coming to an end. The people who are going to succeed in this new world order are the ones who are the smartest about what the local-language territories want."