Staff Reporter

On paper, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's upcoming thriller, "The Mod Squad," sizzles.

The film is based on a highly popular ABC series from the late '60s about three young cops, so it should, the theory goes, bring out nostalgic baby boomers. Plus, it should appeal to teen audiences because it features a group of edgy young cops plumbing the dangerous demimonde and stars such heartthrobs as Claire Danes, Giovanni Ribisi and Omar Epps.

But formulas don't always add up to successes. The Hollywood buzz on "The Mod Squad" isn't promising, although the buzz could still prove wrong when the film opens March 26.

Theatrical films based on popular TV shows have a spotty record. There have been quite a few hits, such as 1996's "Mission: Impossible," which generated $181 million at the box office. But for every such success there is a dismal failure, such as 1994's "Car 54, Where Are You?" which pulled in only $1.2 million.

Given the uneven track record, why does Hollywood keep turning back to the tube? The answer is complex, but some observers say one of the key factors is simple fear.

"It's hard to judge an original screenplay, something that is fresh and unusual and off to the side," said Ron Gottesman, who teaches film at USC. "It has the sense of experimental. That translates to a studio executive as being an unknown. Why take a chance when you have a story that is well known?"

Such tactics also insulate an executive from losing his or her job, Gottesman said. Choosing a film that was on the cutting edge and watching it flop raises too many eyebrows, but a failure based on a successful formula can be blamed on the creative personnel, not the executive who approved the project.

TV remakes have been common throughout the '90s, and there is no sign that the trend is cooling off. Among the films in current release that are based on TV series are Walt Disney Co.'s "My Favorite Martian," and Paramount Pictures' "The Rugrats Movie" and "Star Trek: Insurrection." In the works are remakes of "Charlie's Angels" from Columbia TriStar and "Viva Rock Vegas," a sequel to "The Flintstones" by Universal Pictures.

Given the name-recognition of old TV shows, it's little surprise that Hollywood executives keep returning to that well over and over.

"It's difficult to find projects with marquee value," said David Ladd, executive producer of "The Mod Squad." "This is why John Grisham's novels sell for so much. They have title identification. What we are doing is nothing more than someone buying a best seller and trying to make a movie. 'Mod Squad' is a familiar term, and that means it has marquee value."

Gareth Wigan, co-vice chairman of Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group, said a TV series pre-sells a film to the public. Such TV-based films are well-branded products.

"Success in the movie business very much depends on the opening weekend," he said. "How do you sell a movie and make people aware of it? A movie based on a TV series has an advantage if it is a well-known title.

"People want to know they will have a good time. You know what you will be getting when you see 'Mission: Impossible.' You know what kind of movie, 'The Brady Bunch' will be," he said.

Those are some of the factors that impelled Wigan to move ahead with Columbia TriStar's "Charlie's Angels" remake.

Well-branded formulas save money, especially in an era of soaring marketing costs, according to Marvin Antonowsky, the former head of marketing at Columbia Pictures. "It's cheaper to market a name franchise," he said.

The demographics of today's moviegoing audience also play a big role in TV remakes. Unlike previous graying generations, baby boomers don't stay at home and watch television. They go to the movies, and a film that appeals to their past has an advantage.

"The baby boomers entering their 50s are much more loyal moviegoers than previous generations that didn't go to movies after they reached their 30s," Wigan said. "There are as many boomers going to films as there are 14- to 25-year-olds."

If any conclusions can be made from the uneven record of TV remakes, it's that formulas don't matter as much as execution. The right writers, actors, directors and other personnel are critical no matter how well-known the franchise.

"Mod Squad" producer Ladd believes he has the right elements in place for his remake. Rather than trying to recreate the look of the old show by setting it in the 1960s, he has produced a contemporary thriller with hip young stars.

Whether MGM and the producers made the right decisions remains to be seen. "We saw an opportunity to do something that was honest to a voice of a generation in the same way the old series was honest to that generation," Ladd said.

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