Sequilitis

by | Apr 1, 2018 | 0 comments

A Review of the History of the Current Sequel Flooded Multiplexes

Sequels have been made in Hollywood since it first began producing movies. The original Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) was remade in 1931, and then again in 1941. The first supposed sequel was Fall of a Nation (1916), which was a continuation of the controversial Birth of a Nation (1915). However, while there have been examples of continuations and remakes throughout history, they have not really dominated the multiplexes until the recent decade, when the surge of superhero flicks and franchises became the norm.

In the 1970s, Hollywood had become accustomed to find financial success only in big studio films like Gone with the Wind (1939) or Lawrence of Arabia (1962). But in that specific decade a switch occurred, as mid to low-budget films like The Godfather (1972), Jaws (1975), and Rocky (1976) became blockbusters. Hollywood then realized that intellectual property (IP) was becoming more of a driving factor for audiences than any onscreen spectacle. Thus we began to see the first sequels making reference to their franchise: The Godfather: Part II (1974), The French Connection II (1975), Jaws II (1978), Rocky II (1979), etc. The studios were not being subtle about their citations to their IP, and thus by the 70s the first foray by studio-heads to sequels began, with the first superhero franchise: Richard Donner’s Superman (1978).

By the 90s, US viewers had become accustomed to sequel so much that a fascinating marketing change was forced on a British film. The film is a historical account of the monarch George III who lost the British American colonies in the 18th century. The film all around the world was called The Madness of King George III (1994), but in America the marketing executives were worried that audiences would think the film was part of a franchise, and thus the title was changed for the US alone to: The Madness of King George.

But making a sequel is not always easy. If one doesn’t have a clear roadmap of the characters’ journey throughout multiple films, the reiterations can frequently fall flat. Which is why by the 90s franchise sequels were raking in less than a quarter of what their source material had at the box office. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) made $15 million at the US box office in comparison with the first film’s $134 million. Jaws: The Revenge (1987) (the fourth in the franchise) made $20 million against Jaws $260 million. The first Robocop (1987) made $50 million, while Robocop 3 (1993) made just $10 million. Audiences were seeing the same formula rehashed with no path forward, and as the new millennium began an unexpected threat and exodus occurred.

The Writers Strike in the US in 2007 came out of anger that screenwriters weren’t being compensated accordingly for their contribution to their medium. The entire industry of film and television halted for fourteen weeks, with an estimated loss to the film industry of $2.1 billion according to economist Jack Kyser. After this strike, writers saw that the conditions of writing for television were better; they would get not only a better payday, but would be getting more credit for their stories by being credited as “Creators.” Thus after 2007 an exodus occurred from Hollywood to TV, the subsequent decade saw Hollywood diminish its output of original content while the TV landscape could hardly fit any more unique ideas. Netflix alone produces 700 TV shows and films in the 2018 calendar year. Film studios were losing the creative minds that had powered intriguing stories, which had brought audiences to the silver screen; they had to pivot to something else.

Iron Man (2008) premiered in 2008, and while there had been previous Marvel movies (Sam Rami’s Spider-Man (2002), Wesley Snipes’ Blade (1998)) Iron Man was made with a potential roadmap set for something bigger. The mastermind behind this road map was a producer called Kevin Feige; he envisioned a series of sequel and parallel franchises that would be interconnected in a shared “universe.” The idea proved to be a success, digging up stories already written in comics, and relying on star-power and effects to dazzle. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is still going strong at the writing of this paper, with a total worldwide gross of $17.5 billion in 18 films. The entire universe has only grown in the last decade, and studios all around Hollywood sought to copy them, looking for IP inside their libraries that they might exploit. Warner Brothers sought to copy the superhero idea specifically, given that they owned rights to DC comics and the likes of Batman and Superman. The same studio sought to mine the Harry Potter franchise, by green-lighting five prequels before the first of such a spin-off franchise had even premiered.  Universal attempted to replicate a Dark Universe, using the 30s and 40s monster flicks centered on Frankenstein, the Mummy, Dracula, etc., but their project was frozen when their first film The Mummy (2017) flopped at the box office. Production company Legendary has had more success with its monster-verse that includes Godzilla and King Kong. Paramount sought to create universes based on the toy brands they own with Hasbro such as the Transformers (2007)or GI Joe (2009). In the end, the studios dove headfirst into the universe ideology, forgetting about mid-budget films completely, thus leaving a wide gap between $200 million superhero movies, and tiny Oscar-bait independent films.

The independent film craze began in the late 80s, early 90s with some considering Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) as “year zero.” The Sundance Film Festival, although created in the late 70s, began to gain popularity in the 90s as fervent filmmakers saw that the way to break into Hollywood would be to write and direct your own films. Thus the rise of the writer-director came to be, with the feeling of control of the project being one of the main attractions. This caused a stark divide in Hollywood, where the universe and franchise was more controlled by the studio and producers than any director or writer, so the “talented” filmmakers would go to smaller films, or started flocking to television, where the “Creator” tag allowed incredibly creative control.

Thus as most of the talent went to TV, and viewers started deciding to stay home and excuse themselves from paying the rising ticket prices, studios sought to replicate the TV feeling of leaving audiences on a cliffhanger, wanting more, instead of giving a complete and rounded out story.  Kevin Feige of Marvel did this to great success with the famous Marvel after-credit scenes that teased the next film. Subsequently, films from all studios began to mirror an episode of TV instead of a classic movie. In fact, TV writers and producers began to migrate over to the big screen and were given the reins of the biggest movies, such as Joss Whedon who had a following on TV thanks to the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Firefly (2002-2003). Whedon was given the reins of the first two Avengers films, which carried budgets of $220 million and $250 million respectively. The brothers Joe and Anthony Russo who had had success with Community (2009-2015) and Arrested Development (2003-) on TV, became the caretakers of such films as Captain America: Civil War (2016) with a $250 million budget and the last two Avengers films, the first of which carried a $321 million price tag (the latter’s budget has not yet been disclosed as of the writing of this paper). The switch of filmmaker and show runners is a curious one to note– it’s certainly shaken up the medium from what audiences had been accustomed to– but specifically in film it is a cause for some worry. 

While the sequels and remakes craze may have brought about relative success and survival for studios today, it is a bubble waiting to burst. Big movies, carrying big price tags, had previously only been released in the summer, known as the blockbuster season. Due to the volume of blockbusters being made, however, the release of big films has become a year-round thing, with the likes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) premiering in December with a $245 million price tag, or Black Panther (2018) being dropped in February with a $200 million budget. Even Avengers: Infinity War (2018) was released in late April, with the aforementioned $321 million backing it up. The risk here is that studios are betting so much money on few very similar films. If there is a superhero or franchise fatigue, the lack of diversification would cause a bubble to burst and possible bankruptcy for the most strapped studios like Sony or Paramount. The likes of Divergent (2014), Assassin’s Creed (2016) The Mummy, and The Dark Tower (2017) were big bets for studios hoping to begin franchises, and the subsequent failures nearly bankrupted some of the studios that produced them.

If one looks at the top ten grossing films of any of the past ten years, it would be hard to find a film that was neither a sequel nor a remake. In the top 100 highest grossing movies of all time (not adjusted for inflation) one finds only eight features that are neither a remake nor part of a franchise. It seems tragic that such is the state of Hollywood films, where taking creative risks is not in the best interest, instead piling all the money into one type of movie is the safer bet.

From a business standpoint the sequel craze makes sense. There’s definitely less effort to go about in approving creative projects; there’s the advantage and assurance that the films being produced carry characters and stories familiar to audiences, thus the brand exposure is already big and marketing will sometimes pay for itself. Betting on sequels and remakes also allows the studios to unlink themselves from creative, but controlling directors. The new formula allows relative unknowns to make big-budget movies, allowing studios to push around their own agenda on a film. Such an emphasis on IP has diminished the “movie star” persona as well, with actors still getting big paydays, but no longer factoring into the attraction to ticket-buyers. Such examples range from Tom Cruise in the Jack Reacher movies, which flopped, but he somehow was still a big draw in Mission Impossible. Both film franchises are spy thrillers and cast Cruise in a similar role, and yet the former stopped releasing films after the second movie, while the latter’s recent sixth film became the highest grossing in the franchise.

One should look at the situation of sequilitis as a pendulum swinging between extremes. Hollywood has survived many crises over the years: it adapted to the sound movies, the addition of color, the mid-budget films of the 70s, and this sequel-remake craze is a response to the threat of television. The Darwinist instincts in studios have caused them to band together (some even merging like Fox and Disney), and while it is incredibly risky that all the studios’ eggs are in one basket, a mistake or bursting of the bubble won’t render the medium obsolete. In fact, a rebellion of sorts is already forming with the likes of Netflix and Amazon pouring money into unknown filmmakers with original ideas. Independent cinema, once thought as a niche genre for cinephiles,  might end up being the savior of the studios, as they are slowly becoming the only alternative to big-budget sequels. Studios will learn that a diversity of options is what viewers want and in time the pendulum will down and center itself once again.

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