Why Local-Language Remakes Are Thriving at the Global Box Office

Miss Granny Still - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of CJ Entertainment

With Hollywood focused on churning out tentpoles, international moviegoers are flocking to regional adaptations: “People want to see their own stars and their own stories.”

It’s no secret the film industry is obsessed with sequels and remakes — China’s Monster Hunt 2 smashed local records with a $97 million one-day bow at home and Fifty Shades Freed opened to $137 million worldwide — but a global business is emerging for a different kind of adaptation, in which producers make multiple sequels of the same film, in different languages and aimed at different markets.

German comedy franchise Fack Ju Gohte was turned into No Manches Frida for Mexico and was a hit, scoring some $12 million at the local box office. Going the other way, a French adaptation of Mexican smash Instructions Not Included, titled Demain Tout Commence and featuring French star Omar Sy, repeated the original’s success. South Korean body-switching dramedy Miss Granny (in which an elderly woman is magically transported into the body of her 20-year-old self) earned $55 million in Korea, before being remade as 20 Once Again in China, where it took in $54 million, and as Sweet 20 in Vietnam, where it set a then box-office record of $4.4 million (it was made for a fraction of that). Successful versions soon followed in Japan, Thailand and Indonesia, with more remakes underway for Turkey, North America and Latin America.

Danish comedies All Inclusive and Reunion were remade, respectively, for neighboring Sweden, Finland and Latvia.

“More and more people want to see ‘their’ movies. The only problem is the quality,” says Francis Chung, vp global co-productions at Korean giant CJ E&M, a global studio that produces local content in eight different countries including Korea, U.S., China, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Turkey. Chung says with U.S. studios focusing mainly on blockbuster tentpoles, a gap has opened up for local versions of mid-budget rom-coms, comedies and thrillers with a proven track record.

And as the market share for home-grown films continues to grow around the world, the appeal of these foreign-to-foreign adaptations looks set to follow. Already more than half the box office in China, Japan and Turkey goes to local films. In India, the figure is closer to 90 percent. Even in Europe, traditionally the largest market for American films, local lingo is gaining ground. In 2017, French films accounted for close to 40 percent of local returns, and in Finland around 30 percent.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the studios are now also getting into the foreign adaptation business. Sony Pictures International Productions (SPIP), a local-language division set up in 2015, produces in Spain, Germany and Mexico with operations launching in Argentina and South Korea, among other territories.

Nowhere is the potential upside of local-language filmmaking more apparent than in China, where last year’s Wolf Warrior 2 set a global record for the biggest box-office performance ever in a single market, earning $854 million.

“That’s absolutely incredible, and the margins on that film are astounding,” says SPIP head Laine Kline. “You can see where the trend is going: People want to see their own stars and their own stories and their own culture being exhibited to them. It’s only to get stronger and stronger.”

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 17 daily issue at the Berlin International Film Festival.