Thursday, August 21, 2014

Originals and Remakes: Who's copying who?

In the previous post ("Are remakes in the producers' interests?"), I compared the IMDB rating of remake movies to that of the original movie. We found that in the very large majority of cases the rating was significantly lower.

One aspect I did not look at was who-copied-whom from a country perspective. Do certain countries export their originals really well to other countries? Do certain countries have little imagination and import remake ideas from oversees movies?

Using the exact same database as for the previous post (approx. 600 pairs of original-remake movies), I created a database which detailed for each country the following metrics:
  • number of original movies it created
  • number of remake movies it created
  • number of original movies it exported (country is listed for the original, not for the remake)
  • number of remake movies it imported (country is not listed for the original, but for the remake)

Top originals
Nothing very surprising with the US claiming the first place for original movies created, with 325 movies for which remakes were made. The next positions are more interesting, with France and India tied for second place with 36, closely followed by Japan with 30.

Top remakes
Again, nothing very surprising with the US claiming the first place again for number of remakes made, with 370. India is again in second position with 38, followed by UK (14) and Japan (10). Surprising to see France (6) in a distant position for this category given it's second place in the previous category.

Top exporters
Who manages to have their originals get picked up abroad the most? The US is in first position again with (49) with France in relatively very close second place with 32. Japan (21) and UK (14) are in third and fourth positions.

Top importers
Who are the biggest copiers? US is way ahead of everyone with 94, with multiple countries tied at 2 (France, UK, Japan...). Recall that UK, Japan and France were all among the top remake countries, the fact that they are low on the import list indicates that these countries tend to do their own in-house remakes instead of looking abroad for inspiration.

It is difficult to look at other metrics , especially in terms of ratios as many countries have 0 for either category. We could filter to only include countries that have at least 10 movies produced, or at least 5 imported and 5 exported, but even so we would be keeping only a handful movies.

France -> US Movie Relationship
France seemed to be an interesting example here given the high number of original movies produced, the fact that many of those were remade abroad and France's tendency of importing very little ideas. I therefore looked at the French-US relationship in matters of movies.
Wikipedia lists 24 original movies made in France for which a US remake was. In 22 cases the remake had a worst rating, and in the other two cases there was some improvement. 2 out of 24 is about 8.3%, somewhat worse than the overall effect for all original-remake pairs where we had seen improvement in 14% of the cases. Similarly, the average decline of 1.35 for IMDB rating is also somewhat worse than the average across all pairs which we had found to be around 1.1.
The worst remake is without a doubt Les Diaboliques, the French classic was Simone Signoret having a rating of 8.2 while the Sharon Stone remake had 5.1. And who would have thought that Arnold Schwarzennegger would have his name associated with the best remake improvement: his 1994 True Lies (7.2) was much better than the original 1991 La Totale! (6.1).

What about the reverse US -> France effect?
Well it turns out that France only made two remakes of US movies which leaves us with little observations for strong extrapolations. However, the huge surprise is that in both cases the French remake had a better IMDB rating than the original american version. 1978 Fingers had 6.9 while the 2005 The Beat that my Heart skipped is currently rated at 7.3. As for Irma la Douce, it jumped from 7.3 to 8.0.
It's hard, if not impossible, to determine if France is better at directing or whether they are better at pre-selecting the right scripts. What makes it even more head-scratching is the fact that out of the 6 remakes France did, the two US originals are the only ones where the remake did better. The other four were already French originals, and in all four cases the remake was worse.

This France-USA re-adaptation dynamics sheds some light as to why the French were extremely disappointed to hear about Danny Boon signing off rights to his record-breaking Bienvenue chez les Chti's to Will Smith for a Welcome to the Sticks remake. But as always, IMDB ratings are not the driving force at work here, and if Bienvenue chez les Chti's broke attendance and revenue records in France, it could prove to be a cash cow in the US without challenging being a big threat at the Oscars.

Should more cross-country adaptation be encouraged?
The France example should make us pause. 6 remakes. 4 original French movies, all rated worse when remade. 2 original US movies, all rated better when remade.
Is this a general trend?
I split the data in two, one subset where the country for the original and remake are the same (~80% of the data), and another subset where they are not (~20% of the data).
Here are the distributions for the rating difference between remake and original:

The two distributions are very similar, but it still seems that the rating drop is not as bad when the country of origin is the one making the remake than when another country takes the remake into its own hands.
Given the proximities in distributions, a quick two-sample t-test was performed on the means and the difference turns out to be borderline significant with a p-value of 0.0542.
Arguments could go both ways as to whether the remake would have higher rating if done by the same country or another one: movies can be very tied to the national culture and only that country would be able to translate the hidden cultural elements into the remake to make it successful. But one could argue that the same country would be tempted to do something too similar which would not appeal to the public. A foreign director might be inspired and want to bring a new twist to the storyline bring a different culture into the picture.

Looking back at France that does much better adapting foreign movies unlike the rest of the world, we have here witnessed another beautiful case of the French exception!


  1. This is a wonderful website, thank you for sharing all this information.
    I'd like to argue about one thing in this article:

    "But one could argue that the same country would be tempted to do something too similar which would not appeal to the public. A foreign director might be inspired and want to bring a new twist to the storyline bring a different culture into the picture."

    This is not right. It's not the twist from the original that will make it better, because a twist could go for better or worse. The truth lies in whether the copy uses the material which already works, and if this is the whole movie, than a copy does not do any bad. But a question might be if it is necessary to make an exact remake when the original is already there. Here, movies differ from painting, as everyone can own and share the same movie, while with a painting this is not possible.
    But the whole point of remakes are that they are produced in the belief that they can do it better than their forrunner, or provide it a different language. This does not imply a twist, but maybe an enhancement in the acting or something else.

    1. My (high-level) argument was that if the remake is very similar to the original, rating will most likely be worse ("why did they feel the need to redo the same thing?"), whereas (as you point out) a twist could go either way, so on average should do better than a simple copy. So it's usually a safer bet to bring a twist (of any nature) to the original.
      And (still very high-level), it's usually easier to bring a twist when adapting a foreign film than one directed by a fellow countryman more subject to similar references, culture, school of thought.

      I believe we're actually making very similar arguments.