"Oldboy" Proves a Box Office Maxim: Foreign Thrillers Can Be a Tough Sell

Josh Brolin stars in Spike Lee's remake of South Korean cult film,Oldboy. Source: FilmDistrict.

Remaking a beloved foreign thriller isn't easy. Just ask Spike Lee.

The famed director put his own spin on the 2003 cult hit Oldboy from South Korea's Chan-wook Park only to see audiences and critics pan the final product. Only 42% of critics and 50% of viewers who've seen the film rate it "fresh," according to tracking site Rotten Tomatoes.

When asked what he thought of the final product, Josh Brolin, whose character seeks vengeance for 20 years of torture in captivity, told the L.A. Times that "it's better I bite my tongue." Ouch.

He has a right to be disappointed. Variety estimates Oldboy's Thanksgiving weekend open at just $2 million, a blow to distributor FilmDistrict ahead of its merger with Universal's Focus Features and parent Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA  ) . Still, recent history says we might have seen this coming:

Film
Total Box Office
Production Budget
Breakeven (Estimated)

Contraband

$96,262,212

$25,000,000

$50,000,000

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

$232,617,430

$90,000,000

$180,000,000

The Tourist

$278,346,189

$100,000,000

$200,000,000

Let Me In

$24,145,613

$20,000,000

$40,000,000

Source: Box Office Mojo.

Notice the pattern? Although some of the bigger-name remakes have done well, most would be considered barely profitable after factoring in all marketing, prints, and advertising costs. Americans aren't as interested in foreign remakes as we are homespun fare. Oldboy's limited release (just 583 theaters) further reduces the move's odds of making a profit.

If there's a winner in the suffering -- both on screen and in FilmDistrict's accounting department -- it's Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX  ) , which has rights to stream the original. The nearly 1 million to have rated the film at the site give it 3.8 stars. Talk about irony: Lee and Brolin's Oldboy may be driving viewers to Netflix after the streaming king helped pack theaters for another FilmDistrict thriller, Insidious: Chapter 2.

Does Oldboy's lousy open mean fewer risky bets when Focus Features takes control in January? Not necessarily. Universal has been spending to acquire the rights to a lot of edgy comic book properties I suspect would appeal to those who wanted more from Lee's adaptation. Having built-in access to a broader distribution network should also help boost returns for such films.

Now it's your turn to weigh in. Did you see Oldboy? Do you want Comcast and its subsidiaries funding more indie-style films? Let us know what you think in the comments box below.

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