Summer Movie Special: Sequel Madness

Newsweek, May 30, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Summer Movie Special: Sequel Madness

Byline: Ebert is the film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times.

This summer, Hollywood is betting bigger on franchises than ever before. Roger Ebert on why it may forever change what you see in theaters.

No movie executive has ever been fired for greenlighting a sequel. Once a brand has been established in the marketplace, it makes sound business sense to repeat the formula. When Procter & Gamble discovered that Ivory soap would float, do you think they came out two years later with a soap named Buoyant?

Movie critics despair of sequels as betraying a lack of imagination and originality. There is truth in that. But they address a hunger among fans of popular movies, who currently are waging an Internet war against Paramount for deciding not to make a sequel to 2004's Anchorman. Will Ferrell, who starred in the original, has helpfully called the executives who made that decision "idiots," and told the movie's fans, "You really have to assert some sort of email hate campaign to Paramount Pictures. They told us, 'We've run the numbers and it's not a good fit.' "

They've run the numbers? This is more evidence, not really needed, that a majority of modern big-studio releases are marketing decisions yoked however reluctantly to creative ideas somewhere farther down the food chain. The majors in general make good films either (1) for Oscar season or (2) purely by accident. Weekend releases between May and September might better be covered by marketing specialists than film critics.

According to Brandon Gray of Box Office Mojo, who ran his own numbers, 2011 will see a record 27 sequels. I'm just going to go ahead and list them: Cars 2; Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2; The Hangover Part II; Happy Feet 2; Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil; Johnny English Reborn; Kung Fu Panda 2; Piranha 3DD; Sherlock Holmes 2; Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked; Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son; Madea's Big Happy Family; Paranormal Activity 3; Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

Those are the second and third sequels. Gray's accounting is precise; he finds there will be the highest number of fourth sequels ever: Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol; Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; Scream 4; Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World; and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (Part One), with its own sequel set for 2012.

This year includes five fifth sequels (Fast Five; Final Destination 5; Puss in Boots; X-Men: First Class; Winnie the Pooh), two seventh sequels (The Muppets; Rise of the Apes), and the eighth Harry Potter movie (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two), itself a sequel.

The idea of a sequel is harmless. One Thin Man movie is not enough, nor one Tarzan, James Bond, Star Trek, or Star Wars. There may have been an excess of zeal with Francis, the Talking Mule. Some sequels improve on their predecessors, such as Spider-Man II and The Dark Knight. Others were possibly doomed, such as Sex and the City 2, because of its inexplicable decision to send the girls on holiday to Abu Dhabi. Those are Manhattan women.

The beat goes on. As the leadership of many studios is taken from creators and assigned to marketers, nothing is harder to get financed than an original idea, or easier than a retread. The urge to repeat success can be found even in the content of modern trailers, which often seem to be about the same upbeat film. Even The Beaver, with Mel Gibson battling mental illness, is made to look like a hopeful comedy with a cute stuffed animal.

Trailers also do their best to spoil secrets and sight gags for you. One executive told me: "We want them to feel like they're seeing the whole movie, except that it's longer." This model can also be found in the aisles of supermarkets, where you're offered a bite of cheese on a toothpick. After you eat it, you know everything there is to know about that cheese except what it would be like to eat a pound of it.

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