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Are Spin-Offs the New Sequels?

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.

Think of the Gross, baby!

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?

Wolverine and Deadpool decide which of them gets the next spin-off movie...

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.

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20 Responses

  1. I dread the Les Grossman movie. I hate it when they take something good, and wring it until it’s useless. Good piece, anyway.

    • Thanks. I kinda wish I didn’t know as much about Hollywood as I do, so i could be surprised and impressed and amazed by stuff like this. Knowing how cynical all this is kinda makes me sad I’m a film nerd. Just a little.

  2. This is horrible. I liked the small bit of Grossman in the TT, but this is overkill.

    • Yep. He really only works as a supporting character – I don’t think that there’s enough there to elevate him to a lead, to be honest.

  3. @Simon/Ripley Interesting ‘rag-wringing’ analogy, sums up my feelings on this kind of money making Hollywood movie manufacturing malarky. I never saw The Chronicles of Riddick but it made sense to me when I heard they were giving Pitch black’s most memorable character his own feature. However, like Darren astutely points out, ‘why flood the market when you can produce a direct sequel?’, so I’m not sure the spin-off thing has a long-term viable future, unless we’re talking exclusively about the comic genre,which by nature is virtually inexhaustive.

    • Yep, but I think that comedies as well – by virtue of featuring quirky supporting characters who catch on like internet memes – are also ripe for this approach. Action movies less so, because… well, who wants to watch a sidekick?

  4. Like others here, I find the idea of a Grossman movie to be sort of useless. Grossman is the kind of character that works best when he’s able to slide into a scene (though he’s not quite that subtle) and steal the limelight with an abrasive and forceful personality. It’s a dose of the comically over-the-top. Basing an entire movie around him– PG-13 is what’s being sought, from what I understand– just doesn’t work.

    Unless you place him in opposition to an equally rough, crude, and obnoxious personality. A friend suggested making him the protagonist in a movie where he’s competing with a rival mega-producer played by Christian Bale. Which would be genius, so it’ll never happen.

    To answer the query of the post– totally. Sequels are commonplace today. They’re practically cliche. Studios are going to turn to reboots (see: Spider-Man and X-Men franchises), and with the Wolverine movie doing well worldwide and with Get Him to the Greek on track to making decent bank as well, the spin-off could easily become a new trend as well. I don’t know that I necessarily mind the idea of spin-offs coming into vogue; while Wolverine was awful, and while I’ve already made my feelings on a Grossman movie clear, Greek works really well, and if the right characters are given the right movies then I think I’ll be happy. Again, who knows if that’ll happen.

    The real reason I’m posting here: I had an idea for a tag-team article that I wanted to present to you, but I don’t have an email address for you. If the idea of such an article intrigues you, shoot me a message. My email can be found in my Introduction page.
    ~Andrew

  5. A movie for Les Grossman! My wildest dreams have come true.

    • Really? I thought he was great for those scenes, but I’m not sure I could spend two hours with him.

  6. Tom Cruise in his own comedy, I’ll watch it. But it does speak to the laziness of Hollywood.

    • Yep. I think the possibility of Tom Cruise as a lead in a screwball comedy is the most interesting facet of all this. He’s an under-rated actor, in my opinion, as a result of all the craziness.

  7. You might be right Darren. When a movie like Anchorman 2 doesn’t get made but Les Grossman gets a movie??!!?!

    • Still disappointed about Paramount nixing that deal.

    • Yep, there was another sequel that was also canned, if I recall? I though Anchorman would never happen because of the cast and crew going their separate ways, not because of the bloody studio. Seriously, can you imagine the DVD sales on that bad boy? (Though, I suppose the fee for all the leads has increased substantially.)

  8. Great article, Darren! Heh, spin-offs rarely make for a compelling movie IMO, Wolverine included, though I like the character when it’s part of the X-Men series. I echo everyone about that Grossman spin-off, disgusting! I really hope it’ll fail in monstrous level, that’ll teach the greedy & delusional megastar who wants it made.

    It’s not movies, but the only spin-off I do love is Frasier Crane from Cheers, now they can even have another spin-off with Niles. That was a darn good TV show.

    • Thanks Ruth. Niles was great. I think Cheers was so richly populated that it could do this perpetually. On the other hands, I think the characters in friends ended up so shallow that Joey could never have work.

  9. So tired of spin-offs, so tired of sequels, is it really so much to ask for original movies anymore? Drives me crazy.

  10. I agree that Tom Cruise is underrated, and I would love to see him doing more comedy, but that character is way too limited. No doubt they’ll hammer the dance routine until you stop laughing.

    Still, better a spin-off than a remake. It’s the glut of remakes from classic (or foreign) movies that really sends me into a foaming rage these days.

    • Yep, but they aren’t going to stop. Isn’t All Quiet on the Western Front coming soon? I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new Citizen Kane planned.

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