Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Theory on Hollywood Sequels

This past New Years Eve, my wife and I had some friends over for a small celebration. There was a good amount of food, alcohol, and of course, trivia.

Now, if I told you that my wife and I gave a Year In Review style quiz with multiple question types, genres, and answer sheets to our friends, how much would you bet that it was my idea? (Remember, this is the same guy who re-took the SATs for fun)

Like a million dollars right? Well you'd be wrong.

Turns out my wife was really into putting everyone to the test to see which major events they could remember (and by major events, I mean really major. I think we had one question on Osama Bin Laden but four on the various Kardashians)

Anyway, one of the questions was on the Top Box Office Hits of 2011. I got to be a guinea pig for the test beforehand, and I did a terrible job on this question. For whatever reason, I missed a bunch, even though I'm a huge movie fan.

So, when it came time for the answers, I quickly went for the movies I missed, which appear below in rank order.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1
The Hangover Part II
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Fast Five
Cars 2
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Rise of the Planet of the Apes

When I looked at the list, I was pretty shocked that they were almost all sequels. Everything was the second or third or fourth incarnation of various franchises, with various combinations of pirates, robots, vampires, and apes.

The one exception, Thor, you could argue is also a sequel as it's really just the next in the sequence of Marvel Comics-based releases leading up to the super-huge Avengers film coming up.

That got me wondering, sure we like to accuse Hollywood of a complete lack of creativity (outside figuring out new ways to blow something up or cause a gruesome death), but is that really the case?

One could certainly argue that sequels in and of themselves aren't 'uncreative,' which I would largely agree with. There are tons of sequels which are pretty darn good in their own right (Bill Simmons, for example, argues Beverly Hills Cop II is a better film than the original. Now, that's completely insane, but there are dozens of actual examples)

However, while we can't definitively state that sequels aren't creative, we can use their presence as shorthand. The more Hollywood derives its success from its own established cultural capital, it should at least be a sign that not all their juices are flowing.

So, my question then became, have sequels increased?

Well, take a look at the chart below and you tell me:

Now, this chart illustrates the raw number of sequels that were in the top 10 Box Office Hits for each of the past 31 years. Starting with 1980 (thanks to BoxOfficeMojo.com for the data!), I looked at each year and quickly determined whether they were sequels or not (The presence of the number 2 or 3, or generally anything with Roman numerals helped out quite a bit)

But at first glance, that seems to be a heck of a trend over the last three decades.

The average year in the 80's had ~2 sequels (think Smokey and the Bandit II, or Crocodile Dundee II {Side note: By the way! Did you know that in 1988, Crocodile Dundee II actually grossed more money than the original Die Hard?!? And it wasn't even close, Paul Hogan brought in $109M to Bruce Willis' $83M! What the hell was everyone's problem back then???)

By the time we get to the aughts (00's, still trying to get aughts to catch on but I think it's a losing battle at this point), ~4 movies out of the top 10 were sequels. And if 2011 is any indication, it shows no signs of slowing down.

Now some people might argue that these last few years have been skewed by the popularity of a few mega-series based on recent books (Harry Potter, Twilight) and those gigantic franchises are atypical. However, if we look back at the 80's, there were also a bunch of huge mega-franchises, and while they weren't based on books, I'm not sure we can discount Rocky, Star Trek, and the early chronicles of one Indiana Jones (who's a University of Chicago alumnus btw).

So I don't know that I buy that argument, even if these new films skew more towards children/teens/tweens.

Another idea is that there were just as many sequels then as there are now, it's just they didn't do as well and fell outside my arbitrary cutoff of the top 10. Definitely possible, but seems unlikely, given that a sequel tends to be off the back of a big hit and generally exceeds the performance of its predecessor (Police Academy notwithstanding, I'm fairly certain Mission to Moscow went straight to video)

So what's to explain the over-representation of sequels? A theory:

- Hollywood is going further and further in its effort to launch big mega tent-pole films, the kind that guarantee a big opening weekend, and the best way to guarantee a huge opening weekend is to have a hugely recognizable name/story on the marquee. At the same time, the megastars of the 80's and 90's don't really carry all that much weight anymore. It seems like a big opening is increasingly becoming less about the movie star and more about how many things can explode (I long for the good old days where Arnold would just toss people off a cliff)

Continuing that train of thought, if you're in Hollywood and need to guarantee an opening weekend, and you can't rely on a megastar (either because they're too expensive, they're not effective, or they look stupid in tights), then what do you need to get people in the door?

A sh*t-ton of cultural capital, a back-story everyone knows, everyone's familiar with, and everyone has at least a passing interest in.

There may be lots of other factors as well, stuff like merchandising tie-ins and all that ancillary revenue, but what I do think it comes down to is risk aversion.

If you need to open well to keep your job, then you need as close to a sure thing as possible. And with the notable exception of Pixar, who could put out a movie on anthropomorfic dog crap that I'd go see, no one seems to have earned any credible reputation for original ideas that a mass audience is going to love.

So until that does happen, or until the establishment of some new mega stars (which I'd argue is an impossibility given our always-on media and lack of privacy), get ready for Fast and the Furious 6 and Twilight 9 or whatever.

I'll still see them, but then, I'm mostly in it for the popcorn.

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