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Three Critics: Are Sequels Killing Hollywood?

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 14, 2010 at 6:57AM

In our latest column at Moviefone, indieWIRE critics Eric Kohn and Leonard Maltin and I take on Hollywood's bad case of sequelitis, from Saw to Harry Potter, which seems only to be getting worse each year.
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Thompson on Hollywood

In our latest column at Moviefone, indieWIRE critics Eric Kohn and Leonard Maltin and I take on Hollywood's bad case of sequelitis, from Saw to Harry Potter, which seems only to be getting worse each year.

Kohn wonders, with the two-part Harry Potter finale under way, if sequels are "a bad phenomenon. The Harry Potter movies take place in a large, fictional universe, so it's reasonable for it to take several installments to reach the finish line. In this case, that's eight movies, seven sequels. But there are also that many Saw sequels, which shows you the negative side of the sequel logic."

Maltin makes a good point about ready-made sequels: "I tend to be suspicious of films that have a beginning, a middle, and most of all an end ... only to hear that after they make a bundle at the box office someone is going to 'continue' the story in a sequel."

I bring up the fact that as the studios chase low-risk, easy-to-market pictures with established brand names, they are squeezing out the high-risk originals that are harder to sell. Thus we see Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, Sweeney Todd, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows, and no more films like Edward Scissorhands.

The full Q & A is below.


Eric Kohn: With the two-part 'Harry Potter' finale looming large, I've got sequels on my mind. In theory, they aren't a bad phenomenon. Some stories are worth revisiting more than once, and some are even designed for that very purpose. The 'Harry Potter' movies take place in a large, fictional universe, so it's reasonable for it to take several installments to reach the finish line. In this case, that's eight movies, seven sequels.

But there are also nearly as many 'Saw' sequels, which shows you the negative side of the sequel logic -- when it happens on autopilot. The 'Saw' movies do well at the box office, but they have no staying power; nobody will remember any of them beyond the first installment. I realize that Lionsgate probably doesn't care so long as the studio has a cash cow on its hands, but the idea of constantly repeating one basic gimmick in a slew of sequels comes at the expense of quality. I think it's important to keep stating that, lest we wind up in a situation where sequels join death and taxes as the only certainties in life. It makes me think that the 3-D marquee sign for 'Jaws 19' in 'Back to the Future Part II' was especially prescient -- and ironic, since it showed up in a real life sequel. But I like 'Back to the Future Part II' because it brought me back to the lively sci-fi world of the first movie. It wasn't just a gimmick.

Sequels are nothing new, of course. What were Charlie Chaplin's early Tramp shorts if not a string of popular sequels? Nowadays, sequels tend to be associated with expensive, action-driven blockbusters, but I would rather see character-driven movies -- where the characters are worth revisiting -- make a comeback. Maybe they will: The upcoming sequel to 'The Hangover' sounds like the most anticipated comedy sequel in a long time.

Anne Thompson: I have no problem with sequels per se. 'Toy Story 3' was one of the best films of the year. The studios have been depending on sequels and franchises as old reliable from the days of Ma and Pa Kettle and Andy Hardy through James Bond and Jason Bourne.

The scary change in the movie landscape is that as the studios chase low-risk, easy-to-market pictures with established brand names, they are squeezing out the high-risk originals that are harder to sell. Thus we see Tim Burton's 'Planet of the Apes,' 'Sweeney Todd,' 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,' 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Dark Shadows,' and no more films like 'Edward Scissorhands.'

Hollywood's best directors complain that they don't get to make their passion projects. So you wind up with Ridley Scott's 'Robin Hood' and remakes of everything under the sun, from out-of-date TV shows ('Get Smart,' 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.') and Disney Classics ('The Sorcerer's Apprentice') to video games ('Prince of Persia'), whether or not they make any sense.

People forget that the most successful franchises started out as spanking new surprises. Remember 'Star Wars' and 'The Matrix'?

Leonard Maltin: I make a distinction between sequels and series. Every 'Harry Potter' film is an adaptation of a novel by J.K. Rowling, just as all three 'Lord of the Rings' movies were based on Tolkien's well-known books. That's a far, far cry from Lionsgate milking every last drop and then some from a single premise like 'Saw.'

I understand the appeal of a sequel; it's like comfort food for an audience. One of the reasons people have responded so strongly to 'Toy Story 3,' I believe, is that we're all so happy to spend time with Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the other wonderful characters we haven't seen on the big screen in such a long time.

What bothers me is when fans, not just critics, deride the recent "Resident Evil: Afterlife' and it still makes carloads of money at the box office, just because it's there. That's when sequelitis seems like a blight and not a blessing.

Eric Kohn: Anne's point about originality is one that can't be stated enough. 'TRON: Legacy' and 'Little Fockers' open a week apart. There are reasons to anticipate both of them. The new 'Tron' is an impressive technological feat, and the 'Fockers' team of A-list actors haven't let us down in previous installments. But why not make 'Tron' for a new generation by building a fresh story from the ground up? Or put Ben Stiller to work on new material?

Of course, this does happen, as evidenced by Stiller's 'Greenberg' performance and 'Batman' director Christopher Nolan's 'Inception.' But that relates to the problem raised by Anne: That the main people able to break the cycle of sequels are those who strengthen their box office cred ... by making sequels. So they're trapped by this problematic studio-driven mentality as well.

I do wonder about that 'Resident Evil' craze, though. If those movies routinely flopped, they might finally go away, but more equally awful sequels would instantly replace them. Audiences and filmmakers might want to consider boycotting sequels altogether if they want to send a message to Hollywood -- but only if they can get a handle on Leonard's distinction between sequels and series. A third 'Tron'? No thanks. Two installments of 'Tintin'? Bring 'em on.

Anne Thompson: The Coca-Cola Company acquired Columbia Pictures at one point (before Sony bought it) and did some research into what were the safest, most reliable projects that guaranteed success ... and the answer was: sequels!

Unfortunately, moviegoers love them, and want them, and go to them -- except when they don't, of course. Every series eventually runs out of steam and has to be reinvented. Again.

For every 'Saw' sequel, there is a 'Godfather: Part II' or 'The Empire Strikes Back.' A great script and filmmaker can work wonders with the tried and true.

The good news is that as the studios retreat into making fewer movies and more formula retreads, the economics of the business are changing so that everyone is getting paid less. That could be a positive thing. Soon filmmakers and stars will realize that if they're not staring at a green screen on a studio lot, they won't get paid much anyway, so they might as well make something good.

That's my hope, anyway.

Leonard Maltin: Finally, I tend to be suspicious of films that have a beginning, a middle, and most of all an end ... only to hear that after they make a bundle at the box office someone is going to "continue" the story in a sequel. That's why I'm apprehensive of something like 'The Hangover 2,' the kind of sequel that inspires the director and writers to try and top what they did the first time around. Easier said than done.


This article is related to: Directors, Franchises, Genres, Hollywood, Tim Burton, Ridley Scott, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Toy Story, TRON, Sequel, Remake, Animation


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