Matt Damon stars as Jason Bourne in the fifth instalment of this huge, blockbuster film franchise.

The Sequel Effect

19th August 2016

Jennifer Lipman explores Hollywood’s preference for big blockbuster brands over new and individual storylines...

It was ‘Sex and the City 2’ that did it. Watching four of television’s greatest characters prance around as if they were foolish, bad-mannered and even prejudiced, in not even the first but the second dismal adaptation, I wondered what, exactly, Hollywood was thinking.

Rubbish films are nothing new. For every Casablanca or Citizen Kane, we’ve had ten times the number of flops now gathering dust in a cinema archive. But as television has upped its game, it’s no stretch to argue that Hollywood has lowered it, with mainstream films featuring stereotypical characters, dramatic explosions rather than true emotion, and back-of-a-napkin plots. As the #OscarsSoWhite controversy made clear, blockbusters tend to be anything but diverse, and achingly conventional in their views on marriage, abortion and happily ever after. While plenty of films originate outside of Hollywood, our screens are invariably dominated by those made in Tinseltown.  

Most noticeably, originality is out, with increasing numbers of sequels, remakes or franchises. This summer brings us Independence Day: Resurgence, 20 years after the first, along with new X-Men and Bourne films, plus Alice Through the Looking Glass, and the fifth instalment of Ice Age. “Franchise potential” is a favourite phrase on Hollywood lists,’ explains Fionnuala Halligan, chief critic at Screen Daily. “It’s not enough to make a movie; it’s got to be able to spawn other movies.”

Again, the ‘sequel effect’ is nothing new; take Star Trek, the Godfather, Die Hard, or even the Hammer Horror films. “Hollywood filmmakers have always been involved in both original films and those adapted from some kind of existing source material,” says Dr Mark Gallagher, Associate Professor of Film Studies at Nottingham Universal. “Remember John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon from 1941? It’s a remake—the second adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, first filmed in 1931.”

Empire journalist Phil de Semlyen echoes this. “You could say Chaplin’s Little Tramp was his own franchise,” he says. “But it’s definitely fair to say Hollywood is sticking closer to recognisable ‘brands’ in the same way that other businesses do. Hollywood has definitely become more sequels orientated.” While there are positives – Finding Dory has garnered critical praise – it isn’t always good news. “It can lead to irritating sequel-baiting endings and filler movies like Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, that try filmgoers’ patience.”

As sequels have taken hold, we’ve seen a move away from ‘smaller films’ aimed at both sexes, reliant on plot rather than stars or special effects to pull in the crowds. These days, you get either giant multiplex crowd pleaser movies or arty foreign films, Halligan observes. “There are films like Pitch Perfect, but they tend to be slow burners – they don’t get the immediate publicity of the opening weekend. A Love Actually or a St Elmo’s Fire – you haven’t had one of those for a while.”

It’s a decline criticised by Guardian writer Hadley Freeman, whose book Life Moves Pretty Fast celebrates 1980s cinema. “The reason it feels as if they don’t make fun movies like they did in the 1980s is because they don’t,” she has commented. “This is down to three things: economics, shifting social attitudes and… the changing world order.”

Partly, it’s the pressure from television, in terms of piracy, streaming services, and simply the quality stakes. “Film definitely has a big competitor now for epic, big-scale storytelling – for talent as well as audiences,” says de Semlyen. “TV series plots can be more complex and the characters more nuanced than in a 210-minute film,” adds Professor John Ellis, a cinema expert at Royal Holloway, University of London. “TV can tell stories at a greater length, and people can binge-watch online, effectively replacing the older DVD-watching culture.”

Thus, there’s more value in ‘event’ films that people will pay to see first, fast, and on the big screen than in originality. “It’s got to have ‘the film experience’ written all over it,” Halligan explains.

Naturally, it’s about money. Making movies – and marketing them – is more expensive than ever. As a result, says Ellis, “a gap has opened between the huge successes and the rest, meaning that the middle level of films, which used to return their investment comfortably but not spectacularly, has all but vanished.”

For producers, sequels are less risky, given they offer a built-in audience. “Forty of the top 50 highest grossing films are sequels, whilst only six are originals,” says Carolyn Jess-Cooke, author of four books about film. “The remaining four are remakes. The commercial promise of the sequel has reached a peak.”

Even critical flops like Batman v Superman can rake in a fortune, as fans pay to see much-loved characters. Critics – the traditional arbiters of taste – simply matter less today. “When it comes to expensive films, sequels can be an easy way to bypass the effort of building something up from the ground,” Halligan says. That’s why so many are released in the summer, when audiences are at peak volume.

And even if US or UK audiences hate them, sequels – particularly those with impressive effects and conventional storylines – do well in non-English speaking markets. “China alone can turn a flop into a hit,” notes Halligan, giving the example of Warcraft, rated just 29% on the influential film criticism website Rotten Tomatoes. “Terminator: Genisys’s foreign sales were more than four times its domestic income,” echoes Jess-Cooke.

In any case, while the critics may be unimpressed – “Mother’s Day is the worst thing Hollywood has done to mums since Psycho,” said The Daily Telegraph about the recent Julia Roberts outing, part of the Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve series – viewers are content. Bums on seats don’t lie; people eagerly await the next Hunger Games. “There is plenty of evidence audiences will want more of the same thing,’’ says Ellis. “Maybe when there is so much choice, there’s reassurance in knowing what you’ll get before you ‘make the commitment’.’

Crucially, sequels are keeping young male audiences happy. As de Semlyen explains, they remain the major movie-going demographic. “Hence, sci-fis and comic-book movies are king.”

So what hope that things will change? Will Hollywood ever make good, small-scale films again?

Well, firstly, it’s not entirely true that intelligent filmmaking is dead – it just hibernates for summer, with spring bringing a buffet of Oscar-worthy contenders, as producers choose release dates to give themselves the best chance of a trophy. And, as de Semlyen points out, not every blockbuster-maker avoids originality. He gives the example of Christopher Nolan, whose latest hit was the space fantasy Interstellar.

Equally, the critics aren’t entirely redundant, so there is still pressure for Hollywood to make films that are both commercial and acclaimed. “In order to get over a billion dollars you almost can’t do it without good reviews,” says Halligan.

And there are hints that studios are waking up female filmgoers and other audience tastes; witness the all-female Ghostbusters, or Jennifer Lawrence’s ubiquity. “Animated films and films for female audiences are close to dominating the box office,” notes Gallagher. “As the ‘tweeners’ who made a megahit of Frozen grow up, studios will chase their disposable income.” (Not that we’re on the brink of a cinematic gender revolution. “So far, men and boys haven’t been willing to see so-called ‘chick flicks’, so action-adventure films, most often based on some kind of adapted, ‘pre-sold’ material, will continue to be studios’ bread and butter,” he adds.)

It’s not curtains for original, story-led entertainment, then, but at the same time the sequel effect is here to stay. “Hollywood is highly conventional and resists change,” says Jess-Cooke. “That said, I think the format of the sequel will change dramatically and will likely create interesting storytelling techniques.”

And, as she says, not all sequels are equal. “The drive for originality is as constrained now as it was in the 19th century,” she points out.

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