Enough Already: The Rise of Lackluster Sequels

Sam Chapin

This past summer, there were seven film sequels or reboots, including Cars II, Transformers III, Spy Kids IV, Final Destination V, and Harry Potter VIII. This year there will be a total of 27 (according to Box Office Mojo), the largest number for any year in cinematic history. Where have all the new ideas gone?


“The definition of what’s a hit has been raised because you can make so much money
from these franchises,” says David Ansen, Newsweek  reviewer and director of the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Popular cinema is no longer judged by its quality. If a movie is fundamentally brilliant but doesn’t make a killing at the box office, then studios and the media generally deem it a failure. If a movie is god-awful but makes a boatload (G.I. Joe, Wanted, Ghost Rider) then not only is it seen as a success, but it is quickly green-lit for a second go-around. These sequels are often OK’d by the studio before a writer has even been assigned to the film. Or, in the case of the upcoming Spiderman reboot, a year before the original is set to release.

“I wonder if money and technology are part of the problem,” pondered New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott in his column. “It seems that for a great many filmmakers, computer-assisted special effects have become a crutch.”

Is this art? It seems more like advertising. Studios hire writers and directors to sell their products; they package ideas in appealing, simplistic films that give customers what they want and leave them feeling satisfied, albeit not very stimulated.

This money-driven, sequel-making mentality is a fairly new one. Over the past decade, 15 of the highest-grossing 25 movies have been sequels, six have been the first of a franchise and only four have been standalone pictures. In the 1990s, 14 of the highest-grossing 25 movies were standalone films, according to The Movie Times.

What’s changed?

“It’s kind of a shame,” says Ansen. “The middle-ground movies have kind of disappeared, the movies that are for everybody.”

The ‘90s brought the end of the “everyman” movie. Movies that were among the most popular during the decade (Liar Liar, Mrs. Doubtfire, Groundhog Day) had no sequel and were made on reasonably low budgets. They did not boast elaborate special effects, nor were they targeted towards a specific audience. They were movies that told stories, made you laugh and brought people together.

 

Whereas once the draw of an actor or genre was enough to bring people to the theater, now movie-goers need more incentive.

“This new trend illustrates the triumph of marketing. Marketing is the true art of Hollywood these days,” explains Ansen.

Movies need to sell, in more ways than one. In order for you to buy a ticket, first the production company needs to pique your interest. They do this by putting up billboards, airing previews during your favorite TV shows, littering the walls of the subway, sticking toys in Happy Meals and printing on everything from T-shirts to baseball caps. According to the Los Angeles Times, some films’ advertising budgets rival the production costs of a blockbuster movie:

$150 million marketing budget for Avatar.
$155 million marketing budget for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
 

And these marketing campaigns work. The posters and previews catch viewers’ interest and add to the shared experience of going to the cinema. And while this means business for blockbusters, it’s bad news for the independentsespecially during a recession.

Because of the economic slowdown, “Independent distribution companies are much less likely to pull out the checkbook while many of the big studios have all but gotten out of the indie film business,” writes Michael Cieply of the New York Times.

In a struggling economy where everyone is scrounging for some extra dough, how can smaller, lower-budget films compete? If all the posters and previews are for blockbusters, what chance does an indie film have?

“The independents don’t have the marketing budget of these big movies. People don’t
even know they exist,” says Ansen. “The idea was it’s [the media’s] responsibility to turn people on to good stuff. Then the magazines and newspapers started to think like the studios. That we want to cover what’s going to be popular. We don’t want to miss out on a chance to sell magazines, so we’ll put Star Wars on the cover. We’ll become arms of the marketing campaign and their willingness to lead.”

When times are tough, everyone instinctively takes care of themselves. The studios look to the blockbusters to give them security, the media does whatever they can to move magazines and cover their losses and we, the viewing public, want to see movies that entertain us.

“In tough times,” Ansen says, “when people are hurting, this idea that they want so-called escapism…at least they could be giving us good escapism.”

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