FRANK SWERTLOW

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."

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