Call it 2011: The year the sequel strikes back.
2010 was an incredible year for movies. Or rather, it was an incredible year for a movie. Christopher Nolan's "Inception" was an ambitious, layered and complex tentpole sci-fi actioner and there was no antecedent for it. "Inception" was a rare film in Hollywood: a gigantic tentpole not based on a comic book, a graphic novel, an animated series, toys or a previous movie. There was zero reference point for audiences and more importantly, it was hugely expensive (over $200 million).
It was a calculated risk for Warner Bros. who likely did not want to upset the golden child who had brought "The Dark Knight" to over $1 billion dollars worldwide. But even then they had to secure one of the biggest A-list stars in the world (Leonardo DiCaprio) to make it potentially viable and surround him with a who's who of interesting supporting cast members (granted even Marion Cotillard and Tom Hardy were risky as they were not household names at the time).
In an interesting overlap of sentiments, Mark Harris, author of the film book "Pictures at a Revolution," has posited in the newest issue of GQ (this particular article not online yet) how "Inception" was a triumph in Hollywood against the odds and conventional wisdom, and yet major film studios have rarely noticed and instead are greenlighting crud after crud project. Part of his thesis rests on the examples of myriad sequels opening in 2011. While "Inception" not only proved that an original concept could survive in the thick of the competitive tentpole summer season, but like a virus in the right circumstances, it could thrive. But Hollywood doesn't like to gamble too often and looking ahead, the future of big-budget original films is a little bleak.
Hot on the heels of Harris' piece comes news from Box-Office Mojo, which reports that the number of sequels taking place in 2011 -- 27 in total -- has broken the previous record in 2003 when 24 sequels hit screens that year. This essentially means one in every five films released in 2011 will be a sequel. So as Harris sees it, and it's hard to argue, this demonstrates an utter lack of faith, imagination and creativity in Hollywood. Shocker, what's new, right? But there is something to be said about "Inception" proving safe choices wrong and then that decision being followed-up with the same old, same old from the studios.
"The scab you're picking at is execution," Scott Rudin (producer of "True Grit," "The Social Network") told Harris in GQ. "Studios are hardwired not to bet on execution, and the terrible thing is they're right. Because in terms of execution, most movies disappoint." So then, what sequels are in store for us this year? Witness the bounty (and great breakdown from BOM):
Of the 27 sequels, nine are second movies:
"Cars 2," "Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules," "The Hangover Part II," "Happy Feet 2," "Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil," "Johnny English Reborn," "Kung Fu Panda 2," "Piranha 3DD," "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"), up from eight in 2010.
Five are third movies:
"Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked," "Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son," "Madea's Big Happy Family," "Paranormal Activity 3," "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," down from seven in 2010.
Deeper cut sequels will be well represented all the way up to No. 8. There'll be the highest number of fourth movies ever, tallying five:
"Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol," "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," "Scream 4," "Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World," "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (Part One)"
Fifth movies will also have their largest showing yet, numbering five:
"Fast Five," "Final Destination 5," "Puss in Boots," "X-Men: First Class," "Winnie the Pooh"
And lastly this nugget:
There will also technically be two seventh movies ("The Muppets," "Rise of the Apes") and one mighty eighth entry ("Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2"). (None of this is counting "New Year's Eve," which may or may not be a sequel to "Valentine's Day," or "The Thing," which may be a prequel.
Why is this happening? "Fear has descended," James Schamus, screenwriter, frequent Ang Lee collaborator and head of Focus Features, told GQ. "And nobody in Hollywood wants to be the person who green lit a movie that not only crashes but about which you can't protect yourself by saying, 'But at least it's based on a comic book!' "
Dramas are going the way of the dodo bird too. When Rudin first was pitching around "The Social Network," interested studios called up and asked how much the picture would cost and then all balked when the price tag was over $15 million (it was made for around $40). "The days of having five companies chase you for a movie that has to be good in order to [succeed financially] are over," he told the magazine. Tellingly, Rudin has closed his L.A. office and is rumored to be aligning himself with Sony Pictures so he'll have a production deal and home for the movies he produces.
Granted, the success of "Inception" and its positive repercussions may arguably only be felt in 2012, but if you look at the schedule one year from now that reasoning fails as you have 16 sequels/prequels/reboots so far -- "Underworld 4," "Ghost Rider 2," "The Avengers," the Apatow "Knocked Up" spin-off, "Prometheus," "Star Trek 2," "Clash of the Titans 2," "Men In Black 3," "Madagascar 3," "Ice Age: Continental Drift," "The Dark Knight Rises," "The Amazing Spider-Man," "The Bourne Legacy," "Monsters Inc. 2," "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (Part Two)" and Zack Snyder's "Superman." Plus there are six films in 3D (so far) -- not a strong indication that anyone is trying anything remotely groundbreaking. And hell, the year, and its schedule is still young.
Films in 2012 based off an existing property? Several including, "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax," "21 Jump Street," "The Hunger Games," "Battleship," "Frankenweenie," "Ouija" "47 Ronin" and two 'Snow White' films (again, this is just so far, the 2012 schedule is still taking shape; let's not get into all the 2011 (safe bet) existing properties like "Green Lantern," "Thor," "Captain America," etc.)
So what "big films" are arriving in the next couple of years from the studios that are (more or less) originals? Well, Warner Bros. is still probably the biggest studio willing to take risks. They gambled with Spike Jonze and "Where the Wild Things Are" (and failed financially) and following "Inception," big original idea #2 arrives in March: Zach Snyder's "Sucker Punch," which features tough, super heroine-like females in a steam punk-like dream world setting. It's based on Snyder's imagination, it's ambitious and it's expensive (unfortunately, it looks a bit messy, but we'll always be rooting for the super heroine genre since it's practically non-existent).
What else? There's "John Carter of Mars" from Pixar/Disney in March 2012, and yes, while it's based off Edgar Rice Burroughs' 11-volume Barsoom series, it might as well be the invention of fire given the other tentpole concepts in Hollywood. There's Duncan Jones's inventive "Source Code" film, but it can't really be considered a tentpole exactly because it's much smaller in size and budget. There's also Jon Favreau's "Cowboys & Aliens" which will be a very interesting one to watch. It's based on a graphic novel, but for all intents and purposes to regular cinema pleebs, it's likely an original concept, but Favreau has the geek crowd in his pocket, plus Harrison Ford and "Bond" actor Daniel Craig. Will it be enough? "Real Steel" is arguably original too if you count "Rocky" meets "Go-Bots" as a novel idea. While basically a throwback film steeped in '70s nostalgia, J.J. Abrams' "Super 8" might not be terrifically new, but by today's standards, it might be the richest original concept in years. Of course there is "Avatar" that goes into the equations. The highest grossing film of all time is an "original" concept and perhaps it was risky of 20th Century Fox to dump like $300 million into the film, plus insane marketing costs that probably reached $100 million, but James Cameron's movie was four quadrant superfriendly: enjoyed by men, women, people above 30 and those under 30. It was so safe and familiar, it appealed to every common denominator (hence arguably being not that original).
But hey, there are "Stretch Armstrong," "Magic 8 Ball" and "Rubik's Cube" films in the works. Those will be good, right?
This trend of herd thinking and playing it safe doesn't seem like it's going to end. There are three Snow White films in development (the version starring Julia Roberts as directed by Tarsem, another starring Charlize Theron, Viggo Mortensen and probably Kristen Stewart and another from "I Am Legend" director Francis Lawrence); two Abraham Lincoln pictures (Spielberg's version with Daniel Day-Lewis, the 'Vampire Hunter' version from Timur Bekmambetov); and two Cleopatra films (one from Scott Rudin as a potential vehicle for Angelina Jolie and Paul Greengrass directing in 3D, and one from director/actor Ralph Fiennes. Let's not even talk vampire films and the onslaught of zombie pictures that will be dawning on the horizon soon as well.
The choice is ultimately yours. This last graph of Harris' piece is great and it sums up Hollywood thinking -- and our own complicity in all this -- in a pretty wry nutshell: "Which brings us to the embarrassing part. Blaming the studios for everything lets another culprit off too easily: us. we can complain until we're hoarse that Hollywood abandoned us by ceasing to make the kinds of movies we want to see, but it's just as true that we abandoned Hollywood. Studios make movies for people who go to the movies and the fact is, we, the complaining class, don't go anymore."
"Hollywood wants the $800 million [that "Inception" made] and in fact, they may have figured out the perfect way to extract that from our wallets. It took twenty four years to get here, but it's finally happening: 'Top Gun 2'."
*The author of this article initially failed to mention "Super 8" and "Avatar" and belatedly added them into this conversation.