After almost three decades collecting dust, Hammer Films is being resurrected. Here, Exquisite speaks with CEO Simon Oakes, to discuss his long-term plans for the studio.
It was back in 2006 that Simon Oakes first seriously contemplated taking on Hammer for a reboot. The much-loved studio had not operated as a film company since the seventies, effectively becoming a library, and, as such, what was needed was a business-orientated leader: a CEO with a strategy and sound financial outlook, as opposed to just a rabid fan of the films of old.
Oakes’ background having always been in media, as a prime-time television producer and head of the content division for John Malone’s Liberty Global, would appear to stand him in good stead. “I made the decision to try and effectively buy the company, because I knew the owners were basically sitting on it and not doing anything, and at the same time come up with a strategy to reinvigorate it,” he explains. “I wanted to be part of trying to rebuild a relevant and financially successful — when I say financial I mean enough to survive — British film company. That’s what was the drive. To do that you need to do more than just have a couple of mates in a room in Soho; you need to bring in people, partners [with] long histories of success in the film industry. Which is what I did, bringing in Nigel [Sinclair] and Guy [East], and a very smart financial guy from Liberty. We set about building a company. To me it was a wonderful part of our culture that needed to be revived.”
The timing is impeccable. Regardless of what is likely an urban myth about horror faring particularly well in times of austerity, the influx of remakes of the past few years means fans of said genre — and of a storyline — are hungry for more. “There was this period from the beginning of the Saw and Hostel franchises, which sort of usurped the genre and made it pretty visceral,” says Oakes. “Torture porn type of films. They’re great, but they’re not for me. I don’t think they’re for Hammer either. They were very financially successful, but ultimately they’ll be a footnote in the genre, compared to other filmmakers.”
Of course a good part of the affection for Hammer was down to its quintessential Britishness; in order for a successful reestablishment of the name to be achieved, it would surely be logical to bear this in mind. “You maintain a certain element of Britishness, it’s important, I think,” agrees Oakes. “Hammer must always make sure its output has a British slant. On the other hand, film’s a global medium; to be specifically British is a mistake. If a property comes along and we think it can work under the Hammer ethos, you’d be crazy not to do things.” Hence why the output thus far is — and will continue to be — a mixed bag, two titles, The Resident and Let Me In (a review of which may be read here), being American productions. “[The Resident] was our attempt at the Hammer mini-Hitchcock period between ’58 and ’63 when they made films like Scream of Fear [and] Fanatic. It didn’t quite work actually,” he admits.
Included as part of Oakes’ business strategy is the establishment of the name as a cross-media brand. In the pipeline is a television division, and an imprint with heavyweight publisher Random House will see eight books a year, some of which will be reworkings of old catalogue titles, some novelisations of the films, alongside two brand-new novels. To complement all of the above will be the Hammer Theatre of Horror, Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House to be the first show. Again, perhaps great timing, considering the popularity of Ghost Stories, but of course The Woman in Black as a theatre production has enjoyed great success over the years, fans of the aforementioned Britishness of Hammer surely pleased at the news of the novel’s acquisition for adaptation by Jane Goldman. The film is currently in post-production, for release in 2012.
Rumours of the resurrection of old titles Oakes confirms, but largely keeps his cards close to his chest, aside from revealing that The Quatermass Experiment will be one. However, old-school fans may not be too thrilled to know that there is little intention of revisiting the Hammer of yesteryear; the emphasis is on reboot as opposed to remake, with a modern-day take on the old storylines. “Like any of the great characters, whether it be Dr Who, Sherlock, Bourne, Batman, you recalibrate them for how an audience responds now,” says Oakes. “If you spend your time trying to keep the old fans happy, all you’re going to do is make films like they did in 1973. That’s what basically did it for Hammer; they didn’t move with the times. The Omen and The Exorcist were coming out, and they were still making films with girls with heaving breasts and velvet capes. If you pastiche it, you make comedy horror, and that’s a big mistake. Ergo Lesbian Vampire Killers.”
Indeed Oakes’ policy in general is very much future-facing, the CEO expressing surprise at being questioned on VOD. “The windows have been crushed to the extent that DVD will be a thing of the past in three years,” is his belief. Another obvious question, the studio so keen to move with the times, is whether Hammer will be dipping its toes into the third dimension. “My feeling about 3D is that it should only be deployed when a story is enhanced by it. I don’t see the point of it when it’s a gimmick. Conversion qualities are poor, and therefore it ends up being detrimental. You have to be extremely careful.”
The outlook for the company is difficult to predict; certainly the all-encompassing approach seems ambitious. However, what’s been generally positive feedback thus far, is a good position from which to begin. And, any traditionalists appalled at our preciously British name heading out of the UK should bear in mind that, “if you think about Hammer, Hammer is very British, but a lot of the films it made were supposedly in Transylvania!” A good point indeed.
First published in movieScope 23