Three Critics: Are Sequels Killing Hollywood?

by Anne Thompson
December 14, 2010 6:57 AM
18 Comments
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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.


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18 Comments

  • David | December 16, 2010 7:15 AMReply

    Like the columnist said "the economics are changing so that everyone is getting paid less". I hope this leads to a return to good filmmaking.

    My theory is that the Crapola that Hollywood churns out will lead to diminishing returns from one year to the next, and the studios will eventually have no choice but to cater to "US" the film lovers who are willing to pay for something good. ...Because kids these days don't need horrible movies to have fun, they have tons of distractions.

  • Jeff | December 16, 2010 3:33 AMReply

    "My theory is that the Crapola that Hollywood churns out will lead to diminishing returns from one year to the next"

    We may already be heading in that direction:

    http://articles.cnn.com/2010-07-08/entertainment/summer.movies.bad_1_persia-box-office-movies?_s=PM:SHOWBIZ

    But I agree with the point that there's a difference between sequels and series. LOTR was a series. The Saw movies after the original are sequels.

    The problem in reality is less the sequels and more the mentality that leads to them. Of course Hollywood is a business. Of course it has to offer commercial product. Of course, you need big budget doodoo like Transformers to make up for the really good movies like Precious and Fight Club that aren't blockbusters upon release. But at the same time, there needs to be more of an understanding in Hollywood that there are audiences out there for stuff other than the latest vacuous roller coaster or thrill ride. Taking into account what was noted in that linked article, along with the success this year of Inception and The Social Network (although I attribute part of the success of that one (as good as it was) to the fact that it tapped into the zeitgeist of the time) there is a possibility we could get to the way it was for a while in the mid-to late 1990s when there was room for both blockbusters and films with genuine substance to them.

  • MikeyNYC | December 16, 2010 1:54 AMReply

    I always enjoy these ridiculous debates about the various maladies that have supposedly "killed" Hollywood. Are you kidding? Hollywood isn't dead - it is making more money for its investors today than it ever has in its history, even adjusting past revenue into today's dollars. Hollywood exists to MAKE MONEY for those who invest in its products. It is a business and if, tomorrow, a poll came out stating that the vast majority of Americans wished to see more lesbian vampires from another galaxy in their cineplex, Hollywood would oblige and we'd see Angelina Jolie starring in "Dykes from Outer Space".

    Hollywood caters to what the public demands and as long as sequels and remakes and "reimaginings" make money, that is what we will continue to see. People don't look for originality on the big screen any longer - they turn to HBO and Showtime for such fare and watch it on their big screen television.

  • shaunofthedead9 | December 16, 2010 12:24 AMReply

    It's not sequels killing Hollywood. It's remakes, lack of ideas, and Michael Bay killing it. Stop remaking movies, especially rebooting movies that has only been out less than 5 years. There's a ton scripts out there are better than the dribble that we are asked to shell out top dollar for.

  • ken007 | December 15, 2010 11:32 AMReply

    Have you READ: The Greatest White Shark Story Ever Told?
    "My Friend Michale" a true story about the Real Jaws.

  • anonymous | December 15, 2010 11:20 AMReply

    I think part of the reason movies often are aimed at 12 year olds is because american adolescents have upwards of $60 billion (I think some estimates say $180 billion) of disposable income, with NO bills or other financial commitments. It's just way too easy to get teenagers to spend money on worthless junk and so we get lots of blah movies.

  • tkr | December 15, 2010 10:55 AMReply

    Someone needs to get their facts straight. The Harry Potter films are not sequels. Of all the examples to give of sequels ruining Hollywood (Transformers 2, POTC 2 and 3, Matrix 2 and 3, Oceans Twelve) they choose an example that isnt even a sequel. As they are based on the books, they are not sequels, but a series which have been filmed, regardless of their suitability for the screen. That is a whole different argument.
    I'm actually dumbfounded that a critic can not see what is a sequel and what isnt.

  • juan cela | December 15, 2010 9:25 AMReply

    i am spanisch screwrentier films

  • JHB | December 15, 2010 7:47 AMReply

    What's killing Hollywood is the world of comic books!

  • Anne Thompson | December 15, 2010 7:32 AMReply

    Of that list I adore Sweeney Todd, but used it as yet another example of a movie that came from another established source, as opposed to being an original.

  • jrzcat | December 15, 2010 7:30 AMReply

    “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.”

    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was the last real Tim Burton movie, IMO.

  • Tony M | December 15, 2010 7:03 AMReply

    "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."

    Off topic, but Sweeny Todd? You are lumping in Sweeny Todd with that bunch? That movie was brilliant.

  • EddyL | December 15, 2010 6:13 AMReply

    The answer is yes... all the big films now are sequels or remakes, cartoons, sci-fi, comic books, fantasy etc. ENOUGH. You've driven adults out of the theaters and we'll probably never come back. Stop aiming 90% of Hollywood films at 12 year olds.

  • Louis F | December 15, 2010 4:25 AMReply

    All these things said by the critics are true, but not always. And it is as much a sign of a stagnating culture as it is of an art form, or type of entertainment but they make money, and some don't. The first Scream was a bore, but I've seen every Harry Potter to date. Mostly I watch "art house" movies and I use those inverted commas because I hate the term. Like with music there are just movies. Some come with big budgets and hype, some don't. Some make money, some don't, and I like some of them and I don't like many of them. But that is just me. I still haven't seen Avatar and feel no less human for it but I do get a kick out of calling it Smurfs meet Titanic just to irritate the fans. And in case you have not noticed the annual computer game industry turnover and profit has long since exceeded Hollywood's but we still have new movies every week and some are good and some are not. The industry is way more than any one person's opinion about it.

  • Mark Burttop | December 15, 2010 4:08 AMReply

    Hangover 2 is treading on dangerous ground- At the moment it feels like Home Alone 2 -ala Different city, same characters for some really weird reason (Mike Tyson, the Asian guy from community)- Why would those characters show up in Thailand or even meet up with the guys at any point again, anywhere-

    I'm sure it will have some laughs, but eh, I'm skeptical-

  • Marty | December 15, 2010 3:26 AMReply

    I had an enlightening moment a few years back when a workmate of mine who goes to the cinema as regularly as I do if not more so, but doesn't have an interest in film said to me he was going to "Ocean's Twelve" at the weekend. I told him I wasn't going because I didn't care for the first one and asked him what he thought of it. His answer was "It was allright".

  • Louis | December 15, 2010 2:56 AMReply

    Yes cause many cheap sequels to horror/gore movies are a novelty *facepalm

    I don't buy this "the arts are dying" speech not one bit.

    Some sequels are bad and others are good, same for every movie.

  • cadavra | December 15, 2010 12:38 AMReply

    Leonard is 100% right in distinguishing between sequels and series. The best way to tell the difference: sequels primarily repeat the plot, series primarily repeat the characters.

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