The arrival of Downton Abbey: A New Era serves as a reminder of the enduring popularity of theatrical movies adapted from TV shows. Throughout the history of Hollywood, the small screen has been the launchpad for properties that hit a new level of popularity going to movie theaters. The likes of Star Trek or Mission: Impossible didn’t just launch a successful feature adaptation, but sagas that ran in theaters for decades. It is true that today popular TV show brands are more frequently exploited through streaming revivals rather than big-screen adaptations. However, A New Era shows this style of translation is far from out of style.
Even given the enduring popularity of bringing beloved TV programs to the big screen, though, not every proposed adaptation in this vein has gone to become a completed film. In fact, over the years, there have been several instances of Hollywood trying to jumpstart movie extensions of an extremely popular piece of small-screen programming only for that proposed film to sputter out. Some of these would have maintained the original casts of the initial programs, others would’ve taken a cue from Mission: Impossible and had new actors inhabit familiar characters. Whatever creative direction they would have gone, these seven unmade movies based on TV shows demonstrate that not every small screen property has as successful of a time making the jump to movie theaters as Downton Abbey.
Alf isn’t exactly something that’s always dominating the headlines but given the initial popularity of this show and how that fuzzy alien does keep showing up in major pop culture properties like Mr. Robot, it’s surprising a modern-day reboot hasn’t emerged. We almost got one back in 2012, though, through Sony Pictures Animation. This studio was working with original Alf performer Paul Fusco on a project that would’ve been told through a mixture of live-action and CG animation, with the titular alien from the planet Melmac presumably getting realized through digital means rather than puppetry.
The timing of this news came just a year after Sony Pictures Animation launched a massive hit with The Smurfs, another live action/CG Combo movie based on a popular 1980s nostalgia property. It’s not hard to imagine that Sony saw Alf as its ticket to making the next Smurfs, though the studio never got to find out if there was that much residual goodwill for the property. The Alf film never made it off the ground, with no further developments ever emerging on the project. Its demise would be reinforced years later in 2018 when Fusco attempted to get another Alf reboot, this time a TV show, off the ground. It too would end up going nowhere.
One of the biggest shows to ever air on CBS was also one of the longest-running live-action American TV programs ever, Gunsmoke. This Western was an influential program and, at one point, seemed destined to extend that influence into the 21st-century through a modern film adaptation. This project was announced in May 2009 as one of the first productions commissioned by then-new studio CBS Films. The thinking here seemed to be that if other classic CBS shows like Star Trek and Mission: Impossible could spawn modern-day moneymakers, why couldn’t Gunsmoke?
Though Gregory Poirier was hired to write a screenplay for the prospective adaptation, a Gunsmoke movie never went further than that. It’s unknown why a Gunsmoke film stalled out, but it probably had something to do with the dwindling fortunes of CBS Films. By 2011, the studio ha already experienced several flops and switched over from producing titles in-house, as Gunsmoke was planned to be created, to acquiring projects for theatrical release. This shift in trajectory left a Gunsmoke movie as entirely out of place in the CBS Films game plan and put an end to a feature adaptation of one of the most iconic TV shows ever.
Phineas and Ferb
With all those days of summer vacation to exploit, the titular lead characters of Phineas and Ferb were bound to eventually have an adventure too big to stay on television. This inevitability seemed to come to pass when Disney scheduled a July 26, 2013 release date for a theatrical Phineas and Ferb movie. The project had a screenplay penned by Michael Arndt and would be a live action/animation hybrid title. All signs appeared good for Phineas and Ferb to launch onto the big screen, but then Disney bumped the film to an unknown 2014 date.
Though that didn’t immediately spell doom for the production, the Phineas and Ferb movie would eventually get removed from Disney’s slate of upcoming theatrical titles. One of the show’s creators, Jeff “Swampy” Marsh, would clarify in August 2013 that the feature was being put on the back burner rather than canceled, but no further word ever emerged on this big-screen endeavor. Some summer plans are just never meant to come to fruition.
Dallas got to come back in a big way in the 21st-century with a TV revival on TNT that even brought back old cast members from the original program. But back in the mid-2000s, 20th Century Fox was well on its way to making a new feature adaptation of this property. Originally set to start filming in various parts of Texas for certain scenes in 2006, the project had John Travolta signed on to play J.R. Erwing, Gurinder Chadha directing, and other cast members like Luke Wilson ready to portray other members of the Erwing family. On paper, this sounded like a concept that could make for a nostalgia-fueled hit, especially with Travolta around to further mine people’s affection for the past.
But the production hit a speed bump in 2007. This is when the Dallas movie got overhauled with the arrival of new director Betty Thomas. Having already done a pair of satirical Brady Bunch movies in the 1990s, the hope now was for her to helm a Dallas feature that was more in the mold of her Brady films, a straight-up comedy poking fun at the original TV show. Travolta was still onboard to star, the budget was set to be less than its original $65 million pricetag, and a January 2008 start date was being eyeballed. However, this version of the film would never go farther than this, with the adaptation sputtering out shortly after and focus on the Dallas franchise shifting to a TNT TV show reboot.
While the original version of Arrested Development only lasted three seasons on the FOX network, there were originally hopes that the saga of the Bluth family, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together, could continue on the big screen. In 2008, Jason Bateman divulged to The New York Post that an Arrested Development film was on its way to start shooting in 2009. The following year, reports emerged that Michael Cera had signed on to reprise his role as George Michael in the film while executive producer/narrator Ron Howard said principal photography could begin by the end of the year.
This is around the time when the Arrested Development film became an object on the distant horizon, something that the original shows key creative participants could always see, but never quite reach. The 2009 filming start date came and went, with the focus eventually shifting to a new Netflix season that launched in 2013. Even while promoting this season, though, the movie adaptation still lingered in the air, with Bateman saying that the proposed film would pay off unanswered questions from the fourth season. However, this also never came to pass, with several subsequent factors eventually making it unlikely the movie would ever exist.
For one thing, main cast member Portia de Rossi retired from acting and only sporadically appeared in the show’s fifth season. For another, fellow main cast member Jeffrey Tambor was accused of extensive misbehavior on the show’s set. With two of the principal performers out of the game, it’s no wonder David Cross eventually said in 2020 that Arrested Development would never return, not even for a long-discussed movie.
The enduring appeal of Friends decades after it went off the air speaks to its fervent fanbase, a demographic that would likely show up in droves for a theatrical movie based on the property. Though there’s never been word on a Friends movie being put in development, Jennifer Aniston told Variety in October 2019 that the cast has often had the enthusiasm to will such a project into existence thanks to the passion of the program’s fanbase. However, the producers of Friends nixed the idea of a movie adaptation back when the show was producing new episodes for reasons Aniston did not disclose.
Talking to The Sun, fellow Friends cast member Lisa Kudrow revealed a potential reason for why this production never happened. Noting that any revival of the program, whether on TV or in film, would be solely up to the show’s creators, Kudrow noted these individuals had no interest in doing further adventures n the Friends universe because they were satisfied with the series final of the program. This satisfaction appears to be the primary reason a Friends TV show will not be there for devotees to this pop culture property.
During a 2013 San Diego Comic-Con panel for American Dad!, the show’s co-creator, Mike Barker, started talking about a film adaptation of the series. Specifically, Barker went into how such a project would focus on the home planet of the show’s resident extra-terrestrial, Roger. Though he didn’t come out and say such a project was on the horizon, Barker did express enthusiasm for the concept and danced around the idea that some amount of a screenplay had been penned for it.
Nearly a decade after these teases, no American Dad! movie has ever seen the light of day. No reason’s ever been given for the production failing to come to fruition, but it may have something to do with how, a few months after this panel, Barker would depart American Dad! entirely. Clearly someone with passion for getting this movie made, losing Barker could’ve derailed the proposed film adaptation. Meanwhile, a shift from the FOX network to TBS in 2014 lowered the shows profile and may have made giving it a film adaptation less of a priority for parent company 20th Century Fox Television.
9 Best Episodes of ‘Downton Abbey’ to Watch Before ‘A New Era’