Every time an “original” blockbuster hits and tanks —“Tomorrowland” is the latest example, despite borrowing its name from an area of a Disney theme park— a trade reporter writes a hasty thinkpiece regarding how audiences are increasingly wary of films that aren’t sequels, reboots or similar. Here’s the most recent, from the end of May. But after the last few weeks (and indeed, the first half of this year), one might wonder if sequels don’t deserve the same examination at this point.
This past weekend, “Terminator: Genisys,” the appallingly-reviewed continuation of the time-traveling robot franchise begun by James Cameron, opened and did worse at the box office than the equally-derided “Terminator: Salvation” and “Rise Of The Machines.” “Magic Mike XXL” also underwhelmed significantly, taking less in five days what “Magic Mike” did in three. And the week before, “Ted 2” also performed very poorly, with an opening that earned $20 million less than the first film three years ago.
Indeed, almost all sequels this year have underperformed relative to the originals, from blockbusters (“Age Of Ultron” took nearly $200 million less domestically than its predecessor “Avengers,” and “Insurgent” made less than “Divergent”) to lowest-common denominator comedy (“Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2” took half what the original film did, “Hot Tub Time Machine” made barely a fifth), to even indies —“The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” has lived up to its title, making a third less than the previous movie.
Few of these cases are disastrous: most will eke their way to a profit (“Magic Mike XXL” was produced on the cheap, and ‘Genisys’ is doing OK internationally), and some, like ‘Age Of Ultron,’ still earned gigantic profits. And there have been plenty of well-performing sequels: “Jurassic World” is on course to beat this year’s “Furious 7” as the third biggest grosser ever. “Pitch Perfect 2” way outperformed its predecessor, as did ‘Spongebob‘ and “Mad Max: Fury Road” (though even the latter will struggle to make a profit). But most have cut against the belief that a sequel can be relied upon to build on the original’s audience. And more significantly, it’s a reminder, creatively and commercially speaking, that not everything needs to be a franchise.
Of course, virtually everything is a franchise these days, at least when you look at the top twenty or so grossers. Last year, there were only two original, written-straight-for-the-screen movies in the top twenty U.S. hits, “Interstellar” and “Neighbors,” with everything else being based on a book, comic book, earlier movie, or being a direct sequel (“Neighbors 2” will open next summer). By contrast, 1994 had nine original hits, with the vast majority of the leftovers being adaptations of novels, and only two sequels, “Clear & Present Danger” and “Star Trek: Generations.”
Most put the blame on this state of affairs down to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and the blockbuster-ization of cinema, but “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” were themselves riffing on the serials of the 1930s and 1940s, so characters appearing in several films is hardly a recent invention. Wanting a story to continue, or to see popular characters return for new adventures, has been going on since the Odyssey picked up where the Iliad left off, and it’s understandable, if a little depressing, that they’ve come to dominate the release calendar to such a degree.
The predominance of sequels and franchises is most easily explained by the economics of running a movie studio in 2015. A studio boss must minimize risk as far as possible, and following up an earlier hit, or even something close to a hit (“Hot Tub Time Machine” did so-so, but performed well enough on home video to earn a follow-up; “G.I Joe: Retaliation” was made despite the first film losing money in theaters) is deemed to be a smaller risk than throwing the dice on something that comes without an established brand attached.
But not all sequels are made equal. “These movies [are] not inherently franchisable,” Colin Trevorrow, the director of “Jurassic World,” said in our interview about the franchise he’s revived in spectacularly successful fashion. “It’s not like Marvel or like ‘Star Wars,’ at least creatively, where you have infinite ways that you could go and this whole universe or galaxy to move in. These movies are in danger of just being remakes of each other over and over again.”
It’s ironic that Trevorrow, a director who just catapulted to the A-list with the smash-hit third sequel (and semi reboot) for a movie over twenty years old at this point, is the one to hit the nail on the head, but it seems likely that his awareness as such is one of the things that will make “Jurassic World” a billion-and-a-half dollars, and “Terminator: Genisys” a fraction of that.
The biggest, most enduring franchises —Bond, Star Wars, even an old serial favorite like Tarzan or literary favorite like Sherlock Holmes— are essentially granted as wide brief as possible. They create a sandbox of a universe to play in or focus on a beloved central character, but outside of that, they don’t have too many things to tick off. A laundry list of key factors have to be included —for Bond films, it’s some stunts, some womanizing, some globetrotting— but beyond that, there’s a certain freedom, one that can allow it to change with the time, as the Bond franchise has done in recent years by going for a slightly more serialized, “mature” approach.
It’s not that people don’t want more of the same, because they do: that’s the heart of the appeal of sequels. But they want more of the same only up to a point and in certain circumstances. For one, as with television, people tend to stick with a long-running series because they like the characters. Arguably, the two biggest franchises launched in the 21st century are “Iron Man” (leading to the subsequent Marvel movies) and “Pirates Of The Caribbean,” and their appeal leans heavily on the central performances by Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp. People loved Tony Stark and Jack Sparrow, and wanted to, and still want, to see more of their adventures.
And yet ‘Age Of Ultron’ made less than the first “Avengers,” in part because it was perceived by fans as too similar to the first film. And that’s likely the problem faced with the recent run of follow-ups too. “Ted 2” looked like a replay of the first movie, down to one-sheets only distinguishable from those of the first movie because the title had a number at the end. “Magic Mike XXL” had a similar issue (though the relative seriousness of the first movie, which looked at the dark edge of the American dream smuggled in a bachelorette-party night-out, may not have helped), and “Terminator: Genisys” attempted to freshen up with a reboot (as Jess covered last week), but looked, visually and narratively, more or less interchangeable from earlier films in the series.
“Terminator” is perhaps the best example of rights-holders trying to squeeze a square peg into a franchise-shaped hole. Some credit is due the various filmmakers involved over the past thirty years for squeezing out six different iterations on the same basic idea, but the only time it worked was when James Cameron did it with the second film, flipping Arnie’s cyborg into being a good guy, and as he did with another successful sequel “Aliens,” going bigger with the action.
Almost all the other “Terminator” franchise entries since ‘Judgement Day,’ including the short-lived TV show “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” have been variations on the same story: good Terminator tries to protect the Connor clan from a bad Terminator. Even ‘Salvation,’ which departed from the established present-day aesthetic and went post-apocalyptic, was essentially that same story at its heart (and it was also terrible, probably worse than ‘Genisys,’ which didn’t help).
The story for Cameron’s first film had a great hook —time travel, unstoppable killer— and he turned it on its head with the second film. But the ‘Terminator’ universe isn’t broad or distinctive enough for attempts to sustain the franchise further to hold much appeal, because all it comes down to is ‘man vs. robots,’ and that’s a story we’ve seen plenty of times elsewhere, and now six times with the “Terminator” name slapped on.
As Trevorrow suggests, the “Jurassic Park” series has a similar issue, and that’s what killed the franchise to begin with: “The Lost World” and “Jurassic Park III” were replays of the original, with dinosaurs chasing less memorable characters around less memorable locations. “Jurassic World” has its own share of problems, and it’s partly a triumph of circumstance, landing at the exact right point to capture both nostalgic adults and their dino-happy kids (‘Genisys’ might have the former, but not the latter). But it also sticks to the formula of the first movie while giving new twists that people genuinely wanted to see, such as a fully operational park full of people and trained dinosaurs.
Some franchises are evergreen. Some are not —look at “Die Hard,” which revolved around the appeal of an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation and has faced diminishing returns every time John McClane ends up in a new extraordinary situation. To his credit, Trevorrow seems to realize that “Jurassic World” is probably the latter, bowing out of the next film and telling us that it’s “one of those franchises that will benefit much like ‘Mission: Impossible,’ by having new voices, new directors that come in and they’re able to put their own stamp on it… there’s really cool men and women right now who could give a very, very different take on what a dinosaur movie is.”
That seems to be a smart decision, and one that the film prefigures: after this, surely it’s impossible to go back to the “dinosaur theme park” well (who would go? who would insure it?), and the plot hints at “weaponized dinosaurs” being the future hook of later “Jurassic” movies. But then, that may risk the same problem that “Terminator” has been crushed by— having your film hinge on robots or dinosaurs may not be enough.
In an increasingly franchise-heavy world, and one with a post-“Avengers” emphasis on connecting multiple series or spin-offs, that’s the problem facing many studios. “Spider-Man” might be a reliable money-maker, but there’s little evidence to suggest that the character’s universe would have been enough to sustain the multiple spin-offs that Sony were (and probably still are) developing. “Harry Potter” might be the biggest single franchise in history, but will Eddie Redmayne be enough to make prequel “Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them” similarly massive?
The present hope is to follow in the footsteps of the “Fast & Furious” movies. The third instalment, ‘Tokyo Drift,’ threatened to end the series, with no original stars and a box-office take much smaller than previous installments. Today, nearly ten years on, “Furious 7” is the third-biggest movie of all time. The essence of those movies stick to the same ingredients —the beloved core cast, fast cars, multi-cultural and international appeal, physics-defying stunts, a sentimental emphasis on family — but is also flexible enough to switch genre into heist and action movies and to introduce new figures, and has only gotten bigger and bigger each time.
We’re sure the current run of misfiring sequels won’t last —we’ve got “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation,” “Spectre,” ‘Mockingjay Pt. 2‘ and more on the way. But moving forward, studios should be a little bit more careful with their greenlight button when it comes to movies that may not have the solid foundations to launch the sequels and spin-offs that they want (the decision to axe a follow-up to “Tron: Legacy” could be a signal of the changing climate). And if they still go ahead, it’s becoming increasingly clear that simply replicating a blockbuster no longer cuts it.