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What… No Ad Break?

Distribution experts Mick Southworth and Martin McCabe examine the trend of adapting TV shows for the cinema—and why it’s nothing new…

One noticeable trend to emerge from this year’s American Film Market (2010) is the renewed enthusiasm for new film products that can be developed quickly and relatively cheaply, but have instant audience recognition and could spawn a successful box office franchise. And given the new burdens of economy that are squeezing our industry, it’s not hard to see why so many successful TV shows continue to be adapted for the big screen. Especially when you consider that the studios own so much of the original material already.

Paramount, Disney, Universal, Fox, Warners and Sony have all been hard at it and the many adaptations—good, bad and indifferent—keep on coming. But for every big screen reversioning of an old TV series that hits box office pay dirt, such as The FugitiveStar TrekMission: ImpossibleGet Smart or Sex and the City there are any number of properties that fail to connect with either a new theatrical audience or the established fan base. It seems to be a truism that the further you move away from the tone of the source material, the lower the box office returns; Starsky and HutchThe A-TeamMiami ViceLost in SpaceThunderbirds and The Avengers are just some examples of how nascent big screen franchises can be effectively strangled at birth without proper care and attention.

The industry’s enthusiasm for these TV-to-film translations seems to have been reinvigorated of late and it now seems that any show, historical or current, is ripe for a big screen make over. Warners are currently cooking up Buffy The Vampire Slayer while Steven Soderbergh is preparing The Man From U.N.C.L.E. with George Clooney currently being eyed as a potential Napoleon Solo. Gerry Anderson’s ’70’s alien invasion series U.F.O is nearing production, and The Sweeney is due to start shooting in mid-2011 with Ray Winstone stepping into the shoes of the late John Thaw.

Much as the smart guys in studio board rooms would like to claim ownership of this booming production centre, the truth is that it is far from an original thought. In the Sixties and Seventies there were some tentative steps made in the US, with big screen versions of popular TV shows such asBatmanThe Munsters and the aforementioned Man From U.N.C.L.E. But it was Britain leading the way with such children’s favourites such as Dr WhoThunderbirds and The Magic Roundabout.

Indeed, at one stage it was a large growth area for British production players such as EMI and Rank, who joyfully churned out some of the most terrible big screen adaptations of TV situation comedies to ever be created. On the Buses was then followed by the equally gruesome Holiday on the Buses(which managed to outgross The Godfather on its first UK release!). Then the likes of Please Sir,Rising DampDads ArmyThe Boys in Blue and Cannon and Ball painfully inflicted themselves on the big screen; picking your favourite is like choosing your favourite form of root canal work. It spread to established sitcom stars trying their hands on the bigger canvas, and even the wonderful Morecambe and Wise managed to render themselves deeply unfunny in The Intelligence Men and That Riviera Touch. As for Tony Hancock’s celluloid suicide attempts The Rebel and The Punch and Judy Man, let’s just pretend they never happened…

The interesting thing about these projects is that barely any of them made any effort to broaden themselves out to be anything other than extended situation comedies. They simply did not bother to use the big screen format and they looked deeply uncomfortable up on it. There are a few exceptions; the two Sweeney spin-offs did at least utilise the scope of the big screen and both still stand up as effective movie cop dramas.

The flip side is that the TV markets have spotted the opportunity to adapt this business plan in reverse with the likes of NikitaParenthood and Sherlock Holmes making the trip in the other direction. The literary icon Sherlock Holmes first became successful on the big screen with Basil Rathbone before migrating to the small screen with Douglas Wilmer, Peter Cushing and most noticeably Jeremy Brett. And only last year the character spawned Guy Ritchie’s big screen hit and the truly superb BBC TV mini-series directed by Paul McGuigan.

The soon-to-be-produced small screen adaptation of the seminal British gangster flick The Long Good Friday is a show which looks destined to find audiences in an abundance courtesy of its cult film status. Handmade Films executive and seasoned film and TV sales professional and producer Mike Ryan explains why:

“Having started my career with Lew Grade at ITC, who produced the best of those shows such asThe SaintThe Persuaders, Danger ManThe Prisoner, Randall and Hopkirk, the list goes on, it became obvious that making these into features was a science that no one understood. With a few notable exceptions this still holds true. Perhaps the other way round is the way to go. Using classic features that perhaps had their best market performances in their own territories and were well regarded but not widely seen in the rest of the world may be the way to re invigorate our own TV audiences.”

Ryan continues, “The reputation of these classic titles, whether they are English, French, German or Swedish, a la Wallander, is enough to pique the interest of the production executives who are crying out for something commercial and local to produce for themselves. They are, once again, believing that the eight-to-ten million viewership is possible with local, home grown product. The rest of the world is there to accept these new, fresh productions and to programme them as an alternative to the never ending stream of US product, lead very capably by series such as The Sopranos but followed, inevitably, by cheaper imitations.”

OK, so let’s look at the opportunity realistically. As ever, the studios do have the biggest and best of the commercial projects to farm. But there really is a serious gap here for the smaller player to exploit. Clearly it is encouraging that a small catalogue company can find a potentially lucrative way of re-versioning their catalogue, and this may well start to emerge as very important commercial area for the independent UK production sector to take an interest in. As long as some desperate TV executive doesn’t try to save his miserable hide by producing a big-budget sequel to Holiday on the Buses, we should all, as paying customers at least, be relatively safe to visit our local cinema in late 2011.

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 20 (January/February 2011)

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