It seems that year-on-year, the cinemas are flooded with sequels to banal action movies. This year we have Iron Man 2, Shrek 4, Predators and Sex and the City 2, among others. It’s been that way for years. If you summer blockbuster isn’t an adaptation (of television show, novel, comic book, earlier film or even video game), chances are that it is a sequel (or a prequel). It makes shrewd business sense. Given the huge amount of money spent on these tentpoles ($150m for just the production budget, let alone other costs), so it feels somewhat safer to spend it on a known quantity. Franchises have built in fanbases, more merchandise, already had several DVD releases (which means more people are aware of it than casual cinema goers), which means a bigger audience, more awareness and more money. It can be quite exhausting, however, from a cinema goer prospective. However, Hollywood likes to innovate in its own insanely boring way. Much as they redefined cinema by bringing back a gimmick from the fifties, and turned the glut of sequels into prequels, it appears Hollywood has found a new way of generating money from established properties: the spin-off.
The concept is inherently simple. You take a well-loved character from an existing franchise and give them their own movie. It’s concept that has worked in other media quite well, for example in television. Fraiser, for example, spun off from Cheers. Mork and Mindy, for example, spun off from Happy Days. That means the audience is already familiar with the characters, and will presumably follow them. Movie characters have been historically slower to get spin-offs. Possibly because supporting characters on television naturally get less screentime than those on television, which is less time to make an impression. Or maybe it’s because… well, why flood the market when you can produce a direct sequel?
However, it appears that movie studios are gradually accepting the idea of a spin-off centred around a previously supporting character – sometimes ahead of direct sequels. It was recently announced that Les Grossman, the rather wonderfully psychotic Hollywood producer from Tropic Thunder (and who provided the best bits of this year’s MTV Movie Awards), will likely be getting his own movie. Get Him to the Greek features a spin-off character (the rocker Aldous Snow, played by Russell Brand) from Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Fox have a slate of “spin-off” character centric films from the original X-Men trilogy (of which only X-Men Origins: Wolverine has made it to the screen, but X-Men Origins: Deadpool and X-Men: First Class are planned).
In fairness, the appeal of a spin-off is relatively straightforward, particularly when compared to a sequel. In the case of the X-Men movies, for example, it was very clearly a cost issue – not just in terms of special effects, but in terms of cast. Many of the ensemble (Halle Berry being perhaps the most notable example, but Hugh Jackman and Ian McKellen probably also count) had seen their stars rise significantly since being cast. And by “stars”, I mean “salary demands”. Why keep all of these big names together in an expensive film when you can give each their own smaller film, without have to worry about the big ensemble?
There’s also the fact that there’s less stigma in starting a spin-off without the involvement of key behind-the-scenes talent than continuing an existing franchise. So, for example, I imagine a Les Grossman spin-off with minimal input from Ben Stiller (who is a busy man) will provoke less ire from fans than rolling ahead with a direct sequel without his direct involvement. Similarly, the lack of involvement by Bryan Singer on the X-Men spin-offs is less of a shock or disappointment than his failure to round off his original trilogy.
Part of me really wishes that the studios would find the courage to tell more original stories, and put some money behind them. Not even “mega-blockbuster” money, just a relatively respectable amount of money. Of course, this is a recession, so that isn’t going to happen. Do I feel any better or worse about sequels than spin-offs? I honestly don’t know if I care that much.
Years ago, before summer became the home of sequels and knock-offs, I probably would have favoured spin-offs, with some twisted variation on the logic that a spin-off, even if it is terrible, has less of a chance of ruining a classic film’s legacy than a sequel. it’s easier to pretend that it doesn’t exist. And part of me gets a giddy little thrill out of the weird sort of ‘fictional universe’ thing – the idea that characters in the original movie can have so much life in them that it spills over into their own story – they coexist even in stories which are not theirs. I should concede that only really works if the spin-off isn’t particularly terrible to begin with. No amount of geek excitement and metafiction pondering layoured on top will make a bad film any more enjoyable. I won’t bother patronising you with the suggestion that at least spin-offs have to be relatively original in their execution, because we both know that’s a lie.
Well… at least the sheer variety of ways that Hollywood can milk a profit from a successful franchise is increasing.