Diminishing Returns: Have Sequels Run Their Course?


Part 1: Matthew Goudreau

Although this is an unusual way for me to begin an editorial, I would like to begin by quoting someone who shares my thoughts about the topic in question. In Jurassic Park, Dr. Malcolm states that John Hammond’s scientists “Were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” If you recall, that scene takes place during a round-table discussion in a large boardroom. The characters are debating the ethical questions surrounding scientific progress for the sake of notoriety and financial gain (the titular attraction).

To better illustrate my point, I would like to apply Dr. Malcolm’s thoughts to the movie sequel. Picture that same scene occurring somewhere in a Hollywood studio. The main discussion topic is different but the questions and Malcolm’s talking points in that scene could be almost identical. 2016 in particular has seen many sequels be released with diminishing results compared to their predecessors. To that end, here’s the question I pose; Even if you can make a sequel, does that mean that you should?

Let’s be frank though. Sequels and franchises have existed since the early days of the Hollywood studio system. In recent years, several sequels have profited enough to warrant recognition as some of the highest grossing films of all time. For example, 13 of the 14 highest grossing films released in the year 2013 were sequels and/or adaptations. With that said, 2016’s sequel profits have been largely disappointing for the most part. Is this a premonition of years to come or is this just a peculiar one-off trend?

Without delving into the specifics of the films in particular (Michael will do that later), there are a few factors worth mentioning. One of the biggest in my estimations has to do with some of these films’ budgets. Nowadays, many of the summer tent pole releases are given extraordinarily large budgets to create breathtaking effects often at the expense of story. Some of these budgets are so bloated that it’s nearly impossible for the film to regain it at the box office (last year’s Jupiter Ascending). The other extreme are low-budget sequels made cheap enough to be profitable no matter what (Neighbors 2 as an example). That’s fine and dandy for the moviegoers looking for escapism but I think it’s hurting the business. In the midst of all these blockbusters, how often do you see summer releases with budgets between 50 and 75 million dollars? These kind of mid-range films used to be the backbone of American cinema but they’re practically nonexistent during the summer, with a few exceptions.

One of this year’s exceptions was The Nice Guys, which was made on a budget of 50 million dollars. Despite a very positive response from critics, it hasn’t even made back its money yet. You can argue about whether it was marketed enough, but there’s another factor at work here. It was not part of a franchise or a sequel. In this day and age, name recognition and ‘the brand’ plays a pivotal role in whether or not a film is successful. For example, a film like Guardians of the Galaxy may not have fared as well had it not been under the Marvel banner.

In addition to name recognition, another factor behind this is summer film placement. It seems like every weekend sees the release of more than one summer blockbuster. In the case of The Nice Guys, it was pitted against The Angry Birds Movie and the previously mentioned Neighbors 2. While they both appealed to different demographics, it touches on a problem I’ve had for a few years now. With the homogenization of the summer movie season, I am of the mindset that if every sequel is special then none of them are. As Scott Mendelson from Forbes stated that (films) “opening almost on top of each other through successive weekends, they are just this week’s arbitrary would-be blockbuster.”

Arbitrary is a perfect word to describe some of the sequels we’ve had this year. Movies such as Huntsman: Winter’s War and Alice Through the Looking Glass felt more like contractual obligations than organic movie magic. Some seem like a case of too little too late (Independence Day: Resurgence being a prime example). That’s disappointing considering how much of a cornerstone the original was 20 years ago. Not having seen it yet, I can’t say that for sure but that’s just my preconceived notion. I’m sure it will do well though because as the Transformers films have shown, explosions and mindless action travel faster than great stories. Then again, this summer has shown so far that there are no longer any guarantees or safe bets.

Part 2: Michael Fairbanks

In the mid 20th century, Hollywood was beginning to lose its grasp on what audiences wanted. Since its inception, it seemed as though there was no greater place for entertainment than the cinema, but audiences were starting to grow tired of the same old tricks. The world was changing, in no small part because of the horrors of the Vietnam War exposing the happy go lucky lens of American cinema to be a sham. Not only did films being made in a richly classical style such as Cleopatra and Hello Dolly started flopping miserably, but even going to the theater at all had begun to feel like a chore. Television was on the rise, and audiences were becoming more and more fickle about what they left the snug confines of their homes to see. This lead not only to Hollywood stepping up its game, by creating epic films such as Ben-Hur and Bridge on the River Kwai, which eventually splintered off into both works of auteur and blockbuster fiction being re-embraced by audiences.

Why do I bring that up? Well, that very same thing is about to happen again, and the summer of 2016 brings the first real warning signs of a major tremor in Hollywood filmmaking.

Make no mistake, The Avengers changed everything when it shattered both expectations and records in 2012. All of a sudden, crossing over franchises wasn’t just a corny gimmick of comics and serials, but a legitimate business model that has essentially turned the filmmaking process into an assembly line. Now, we don’t just know when the next fifty-five installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are coming out, but Hollywood has basically provided us with a roadmap through many of our potential franchises. Initially, the idea of continuity and consistency was a great one. Finally, rabid fans and general movie-goers alike can appreciate the intricate structure of years and years of stories that lead into one another.

Captain America: Civil War is the only summer film thus far to gross over $1 billion.

Captain America: Civil War is the only summer film thus far to gross over $1 billion.

However, now more than ever, audiences are getting that exact same thing at home. Not only has television been revolutionized in recent years due to the binge-watching model that Netflix started, but the quality of the shows themselves have skyrocketed. It’s gotten to the point to which many shows are essentially 13-hour films, and often times, these “movies” are wildly more inventive than the ones you might find outside of your house. Since these networks have much fewer restrictions than the average movie studio, they often house content that is aggressively visionary and often times deeply personal to the creators. They have even taken it a step further by producing features themselves, Netflix moving into fairly big budget territory with audacious projects such as David Ayer’s Bright and Adam Wingard’s Death Note. If Netflix’s flagship film, the harrowing and powerful Beasts of No Nation is any indication, these will both be incredible outlets for their respective directors to really play. It’s an outlet for the originality which we all desperately crave.

Hence, we have the summer of 2016, during which Hollywood seems to finally be experiencing tremors of what is to come. Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, X-Men: Apocalypse, Alice Through The Looking Glass, Now You See Me 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, and even the well received Conjuring 2 have all opened significantly below their predecessors. Some might say that it is because of the mixed to negative reviews that several of these films have received, but that hasn’t stopped plenty of other average summer blockbusters from being hits before. This falling off is because now that we have a different breed of storytelling to compare with conventional Hollywood, we’re starting to see it for what it truly is. A product line. These aren’t so much inspired summer spectaculars, as they are clearly labeled cash grabs that are being flung out of the door to meet a quota. After all, if we didn’t get another Now You See Me soon, people just might stop buying Blu-Rays of the first one, and then they can’t expand it into spinoffs to create the Superhero Wizards Cinematic Universe

This isn’t to say that by existence, these sequels are bad films. A sequel provides a wonderful opportunity to build upon the first story and make the characters richer, which some of the best films of all time have done exceptionally well. In fact, I am greatly looking forward to seeing Conjuring 2, Independence Day: Resurgence and Jason Bourne, to name a few. However, by throwing them all together into one gluttonous mass in the middle of the year, they all start to blend together. Where Star Wars: The Force Awakens felt like an event, Rogue One feels like an obligation. As if we need to keep Star Wars release day on our calendar so that we don’t forget to get it a card.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first in a series of intended spin-offs.

This obligation is fueled by the way internet culture reacts to these movies as they get made and released. While many online film critics and discussion centers do touch on original films, they are heavily focused on franchise content and will often cater their attention towards it. You’d never see a spoiler talk podcast for films like The Voices or The End of The Tour (two of last year’s best films), because more than likely the outlet is far more concerned with spending an hour analyzing who has been cast in a bit role in the latest Marvel movie. Naturally, that’s a strategic move to amass views. However, isn’t it also severely limiting the kinds of films that could attain a wider audience from increased attention that would perhaps be highly enjoyed if just given a chance? It’s a thin line, but it’s one that should be walked with more grace.

In other words, if you want change in Hollywood, support the films that enact it. Try to pivot the online conversation away from what the studios want you to be talking about, and demand content out of them that is every bit as inventive as what you are seeing for free. Hollywood is going to have to re-invent itself very soon, but it is our job to draw them a road map.

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