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Sequel Query: Hollywood’s Fascination With Sequels…

Can you remember a year when the summer wasn’t dominated by sequels or spin-offs or reboots or prequels? If you can, most of them were probably adaptations. There’s been a lot of back-and-forth recently about the abundance of such films in the summer lineups, so I thought it might be worth a little exploration into the history of the sequel and of Hollywood blockbusters, and also worth considering the suggestion that has been mooted a lot recently: are movie-goers tiring of sequels?  

Even death couldn’t keep Spock out of the next Star Trek movie…

 The notion of a sequel isn’t a new invention – it long predates film, what with sequential storytelling and so forth, but the cinematic sequel dates back to 1916 (yes, the film sequel is almost 100 years old!), with Fall of a Nation. Those film buffs in the audience will likely correctly deduce that this was a sequel to Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, one of those iconic films of the silent era (although the relatively high amount of racism involved tends to overshadow the work a bit). Apparently it was thrown together when Thomas Dixon, author of The Clansmen (a book which heavily influenced Birth of a Nation – and gives you an idea of the racist content), was a bit ticked off at not making any money off the feature film – so he threw together a sequel in under a year. If anything, Hollywood’s gotten more sluggish, with the average wait between sequels being two to three years.

Still, in the time since, we’ve seen Hollywood flood the market with sequels. And prequels. And reboots. And spin-offs. Any excuse to effectively tell the same story featuring the same actors and characters. If you’re looking for a reason why the studios like sequels, look no further than money. The figures support their assumption:   

With their built-in fan base, sequels are seen as a safe bet in Hollywood. Now research by two academics–one at Cass Business School in London, the other at Texas Christian University’s Neeley School of Business in Fort Worth–shows just how safe. The two studied the take for more than 100 movie sequels released from 1998 to 2006. Comparing those box-office numbers with what was earned by thematically similar standalone films shown around the same time, they found sequels generated an average 27% more revenue.

If you need further proof, it’s worth counting the number of sequels/prequels/reboots/remakes on the list of the 50 most successful films of the decade

Here’s the thing: One has to go all the way down to No. 15 on the list, Disney/Pixar’s Finding Nemo, before finding one created from original material — in other words, not a sequel, remake or adaptation of existing material or characters (such as Batman or Harry Potter).   

And then, to find another, you have to go all the way to No. 30, also animated: DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda

Of course, this statistic is heavily influence by the fact that virtually every summer blockbuster is a sequel. When I find myself choosing at the cinema between Sex and the City 2 and Shrek Forever Ever, it doesn’t matter which I favour with my money and which I snub – it isn’t as though I have the chance to demonstrate my own particular choice of movie-going, so I end up just reinforcing this sort of attitude

When the only films at the multiplex are garbage, then garbage is what will lead the box office. Which sends the message that, in fact, audiences want garbage.  

The fact is that Hollywood spends its money advertising these films. Iron Man 2 received a lot more advertising than the original Iron Man, so was it ever really an equal playing field when it came to awareness and gross? We are constantly sold the sequels to films we are familiar with more aggressively than original films. Maybe it’s because Hollywood isn’t really sure how to sell original films most of the time (without a familiar premise or character to use as shorthand) or maybe it’s that they are unwilling to risk the publicity budget on an unproven quantity. 

Truth be told, I don’t think anyone objects to the notion of sequels in general. The Godfather Part II is even more widely beloved than its predessor. The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (though technically a prequel) is better than A Fistful of Dollars (and, arguably, For a Few Dollars More). Hell, the general consensus is that The Empire Strikes Back (the second film made and fifth in the series) is the best of the entire Star Wars saga. However, I think the problem emerges when sequels are applied where none are really called for.   

Is it fair, for example, to criticise Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as a lifeless and pointless sequel when Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (and arguably Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) illustrated that good sequels could be offered to the original Raiders of the Lost Ark? Do good films justify the production of a sequel, even though we can’t be sure of the quality of the sequel in question? So, does Jaws – arguably the first blockbuster – justify the string of soul-destroyingly terrible sequels? What about average, inoffensive films? The Descent, for example, was a perfectly serviceable horror film, but was it good enough to justify a sequel? 

Index of imdb scores of notable sequels in film series (click to enlarge)

  

I don’t know. I don’t pretend to know. Obviously the final test of a sequel’s value is the value of the film itself: is the sequel a good enough film to exist in its own right? Would we miss it had it never been made? But, as a kind of a pre-emptive rule, I cite the involvement of the director and writer as an indication of a sequel’s quality early in the production process. The involvement of both parties is perhaps a solid sign that they believe that a follow-up story deserves to be told – if it’s not an interesting enough idea to keep them on board, then it probably isn’t a good enough story to keep me interested. I’ll concede that this method isn’t flawless – it led me to anticipate Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, for example – but it has helped steer me clear of many a disaster. 

What of the observation that we are tiring of sequels? It’s worth noting that this idea has been mooted before, in 1999 for example, and Hollywood certainly hasn’t turned over a new leaf since then. However, in the past couple of weeks (with media outlets more than a little eager to gloat over the perceived failure of Sex and the City 2), people have begun to ask whether audiences are beginning to stage a grassroots revolt against the sequel. I am not convinced.   

The argument is that this year’s sequels have so far underperformed. I don’t think that’s really fair – although it didn’t shatter box office records, Iron Man 2 is hardly a box office failure. And the arguement sidesteps the simply fact that movies (rather than just sequels) have underperformed this year. Remember Kick-Ass? Everyone was picking apart the box office numbers of that relatively original (in that it was developed in tandem with, rather than after, the book upon which it was based) film. And Shutter Island may have drawn the strongest box office of Martin Scorsese’s recent career, but it doesn’t exactly measure up against the equivalent releases over the last few years – 300 and Fast and Furious come to mind. Ridley Scott’s surprisingly original Robin Hood didn’t exactly end up merry at the US box office (losing to one of those sequels we’re apparently tiring of). Alice in Wonderland would seem to be the year’s true bona fides success story, but it is staged as a sequel (albeit a sequel to the original book rather than the earlier film, but a sequel nonetheless). 

The Guardian have also noted the trend:   

For all its faults, Predators has already whipped the film blogs and action fanboys into a state of near-delirium, and unless every single teenage girl in the country somehow manages to crash through the back-end of puberty at exactly the same time within the next month, Twilight: Eclipse is also guaranteed to do gangbusters. Contrast that with the smidgen of muted anticipation reluctantly doled out to the likes of Knight and Day and The Last Airbender and you can see that, if anything’s going to be blamed for the relatively meagre box office takings this year, it shouldn’t be sequels. 

It just seems to be a crap summer in general. 

Rule #1 of Sequels: At Least Make Sure You Have a Catchy Subtitle...

 I’m always reluctant to comment on outcomes until the whole thing is over, but I think that the summer is only really warming up. The only truly major original release this summer is Inception. I’m going to be brutally honest and say that – while I expect it to do well – I don’t expect it to break records. People I talk to in the real world have been relatively cold about it, seemingly incapable of grasping the inherent awesomeness of the movie’s central premise and visual style.   

In contrast, Twilight: Eclipse is in prime position to (depressingly enough) do the business. And then there’s Harry Potter. These are the big guns. Forget your fickle Sex and the City fans with their cosmopolitans and knowledge of fashion and shoes, these are the franchises with the power to mobilise fans. There’s a reason they call fans of Edward and Belle Twi-Hards.

I think that May has offered us at best the opening round. The sequels have taken a pounding, perhaps, but original cinema isn’t exactly in a sturdy position. Hollywood isn’t churning out enough original content with a marketing budget behind it to actually make an impact. I thank the powers that be that Christopher Nolan was given the budget he was to make his own movie free of studio interference, but this is the exception rather than the rule. People will seethese unoriginal films because people go to the cinema in the summer and these types of films are all that are in the cinemas.  

To be entirely honest, I don’t think that sequels inherently represent the problem with modern movie-making. They are, to be sure, an example of it – but they aren’t the cause. If Hollywood dedicated itself to churning out ‘original content’ you can be sure many of the same problems would persist. Indeed, some of the worst blockbusters of the past few years – Eagle Eye or Jumper, for example – have been the ones crafted from scratch. the problem is more fundamental than sequels and one that won’t be so easily solved. 

I hope Hollywood may one day realise that they shouldn’t be making movies solely for thirteen year olds, but I’m not holding my breath.   

Is Inception out yet?

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2 Responses

  1. You are absolutely right that the problem is much more profound than the desire to cash in on a proven success. The entire creative process behind making blockbuster movies is distorted because it is different than the one used to make less expensive, more “risky” movies. Even more moderately priced movies these days are getting the blockbuster treatment.

    Studios rehash the same concepts over and over and over again. For example, did you notice that the blockbuster hero is almost ALWAYS the same type of character. Out of all the infinite type of characters, he is always a rogue, charming, deceptive, and highly confident male with a problem that needs to be surmounted for him to save the day.

    • Yep. And the recession, rather than scaling down all types of movies equally, or even scaling down blockbusters because they can afford it, has hurt those quirky low- and medium-budget films worse.

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