‘Toni Erdmann’ remake news highlights bizarre remake culture, art clashing with business

An image of a scene from the movie Toni Erdmann.

A scene from “Toni Erdmann.” Photo courtesy of Image.net

“Toni Erdmann” is a nominee in the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Academy Awards, so naturally, it is a newer film. In many markets, it probably has yet to project a single shot on any theater screen, and may never. The film just recently landed in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre, and this city is the third largest(populous-wise) in the country. It was supposed to open in the UK market early this year as well.  I have yet to see it, and aside from some film stills and seeing the theatrical one-sheet(in layman’s terms, movie poster), I have avoided the trailer and any discussion regarding the film. I would like to be surprised when I first sit down to watch it.

The simple synopsis: a man tries to reconnect with his adult daughter through his practical jokes and pranks.  Hence, the image accompanying this post.

One of the big stories to hit the entertainment media in the last few days has been Jack Nicholson’s return to acting. It would be his first film role in about seven years. But there is another story here: the role would be in the already-in-planning-stage U.S. Remake of “Toni Erdmann.”  The rights to the remake are currently being negotiated.

This remake is just another in a long line of ones stemming from the era of ‘Instant Remake, or How Hollywood Has Run Out of Ideas and Learned ToSnags Remake Rights to Interesting Concepts Almost Immediately.” But this is ridiculously quick. The projector bulb hasn’t even cooled off yet on the theatrical run of Maren Ade’s original feature, and U.S. Production companies are already chomping at the bit to redo it. It opened in a limited US market on Christmas Day(read: probably a couple theaters in New York and L.A., especially to qualify for awards season), and originally hit theaters in Germany last July.

Now comes a statement from writer-director Ade herself, and the production company of Komplizen Film. They confirm that rights to the remake of their film are currently being negotiated, but neither the filmmaker nor the production company will have any sort of involvement in the remake. They also ensure that they state they are happy with their film the way it is. This definitely feels a little bit like biting of the tongue and taking the high road, doesn’t it?

It is always frustrating to have one’s moment of glory cut short when others try to mimic your work or take your idea and pass it off as their own. It certainly has happened to all of us in the working world. But in the corporate world, it is not uncommon for a business to claim ownership of everything done within working hours on the business’ equipment(a fancy little term called intellectual property). It is expected, so it is a little easier to brush off when it happens.

Now imagine having a passion project, and spending years of blood, sweat and tears to finally see that project become a reality. And all with the flick of a pen and an electronic funds transfer, another writer, director, and studio will be paid to take your vision and do with it what they will. “Toni Erdmann” is still in the running for an Academy Award, so Ade could very well have an Oscar-winning film on her hands. But before that happens, someone could already be at work remaking her idea in their image.

Unfortunately, this is the nature of the movie business. Whether it is a big-budget blockbuster or small independent film, it is usually the desire of the filmmakers to get their projects in front of the eyeballs of as many people as possible. And for that to happen, you usually need a distributor who can put up the cash to get the movie shipped out to theaters, not to mention marketing the project as well. If you want your film to open in international markets, that usually requires a separate distributor. You could pay to book a theater and screen your film yourself, but that certainly wouldn’t be as effective of an outreach.  And as a filmmaker, you lost your rights to your own film a long time ago, once the production company, distributor or whoever else put up the money to even make the thing a reality.

From the perspective of a film studio, it is certainly a better bet to front your money on a proven concept as opposed to something entirely original, which is what makes remakes(and reboots are really just a fancy way of saying remakes) and sequels so enticing. Even streaming services like Amazon and Netflix are finding it much easier to roll up to a big film festival and drop cash on a word-of-mouth hit as opposed to financing a new production. But in the meantime, it is the movie-loving public that has to suffer the lack of originality. And the original filmmakers have to suffer the spoils of dealing with the devil(or in this case, the distributor. Until studios start prioritizing original concepts, and once again are willing to roll the dice on a fresh script or rookie director, things are going to remain the same. From this side of the multiplex screen, it’s a fun business. But at the end of the day, it is still a business, and the art side of it will sometimes have to ride in the back seat.

And when it comes to buying and hawking remake rights, can we at least be less uncouth about it?  At the minimum, let’s wait until the season is finished before we start seeing how much we money we can squeeze out of a buzz-worthy awards favorite.

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