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The Brown Tweed Society Guide for Filmmakers: Sequels

April 15, 2011

Everyone returns this videotape

I’ve said it, we’ve all said it. “What a terrible sequel. What were they thinking?”

Yes, the ubiquitous they. Somehow, the same they that is remaking Porky’s, or Real Genius, or Meatballs is also releasing a sequel to a movie beloved by you and your associated crew (I use the singular verb form when describing this mythical body). As an 11th-hour member of Generation X, I am well aware of our propensity to assume that all lasting societal change occurred when we were children, although I blame our power-brokers (they?) for making it appear that way (development of home computers, video games, MTV, post-Cold War geopolitics, high fructose corn syrup, the 24-hour news cycle, the 24-hour sports news cycle, the “hot” toy during the Holiday season, designer drugs, fantasy sports, etc). While the idea has been kicking around long before the 8-track era (Homer’s Odyssey predates us by a few millennia), the modern era in sequels within American cinema began in the 1970s, when studios eventually figured out that mass audiences were happy to gulp down a slight variation of the exact item they saw the previous summer (The United Kingdom, as it often does, beat us to the punch by about a decade with the James Bond 007 franchise). Although it must be said that this new emphasis on proto-tentpole fare did not mean an end for wide releases of the darker or more absurd films of directors such as Robert Altman and Hal Ashby, it did mean an end to films of this style capturing the most dollars of the moviegoer. The absolute takeover of our cinematic culture by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and their associates is quite astounding. For context, here is a list of the highest-grossing film for the 10 years preceding Spielberg’s Jaws:

Year   Film (Director)

1965   The Sound of Music  (Robert Wise)

1966   Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  (Mike Nichols)

1967   The Jungle Book  (Wolfgang Reitherman)

1968   Funny Girl  (William Wyler)

1969   Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid  (George Roy Hill)

1970   Love Story  (Arthur Hiller)

1971   Diamonds Are Forever  (Guy Hamilton)

1972   The Godfather  (Francis Ford Coppola)

1973   The Exorcist  (William Friedkin)

1974   Blazing Saddles  (Mel Brooks)

Compare that list with the next 10 highest-grossers (aka, The Gen X Childhood Years):

1975   Jaws  (Steven Spielberg)

1976   Rocky  (John G. Avildsen)

1977   Star Wars  (George Lucas)

1978   Grease (Randal Kleiser)

1979   Moonraker  (Lewis Gilbert)

1980   The Empire Strikes Back  (Irvin Kershner)

1981   Raiders of the Lost Ark  (Steven Spielberg)

1982   E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial  (Steven Spielberg)

1983   Return of the Jedi   (Richard Marquand)

1984   Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom  (Steven Spielberg)

Not until 1971 do we find a franchisee (Diamonds Are Forever), which is followed by the initial entry into The Godfather trilogy. Funny Girl and Love Story both spawned sequels, although both were closer in spirit (and audeince/critical reception) to Shock Treatment than to The Empire Strikes Back. In addition – The Exorcist (!) was the highest-grossing film until Jaws. Wow.

What a change we would see in the next decade: all but one film to top the box-office was either the first installment or a sequel within a franchise. If not for the charming disaster of Grease 2 – our girl for all seasons – we may have been 10 for 10. Oh wait – E.T. doesn’t count? I disagree – since the film’s dénouement restricts the potential for centering a franchise upon this fairly-disturbing “kid’s film”, E.T.‘s multiple re-releases has allowed it to become its own sequel (although not in the same manner of Bob Roberts, another example of a self-sequel).

(My favorite E.T. related anecdote: the voice for the alien was provided by an elderly woman that smoked 40 cigarettes a day. Good thing knowledge of this oddity was not more prominent, or the 1980s cognates of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce would have crafted an entire angle around Lucky Strikes as a buzz-worthy job training program.)

A note must be made about Moonraker – read the Wikipedia entry, and bask in its awesomeness (but don’t see it, because how could it live up to that description?)

This ten-year time period set the tone for the present day, for of the last twelve box-office toppers, only one was neither a sequel nor the first installment in a franchise (Avatar, the single stand-alone, is slated for a few more editions, so we’re 0 for 12).

Despite the gaudy financial statements being scrutinized by the accountants for Messieurs Lucas, Spielberg, Wachowski, Jackson, Bay, and Verbinski, these efforts at recapturing the zeitgeist often fall short of our expectations. Let’s examine some of the biggest mistakes one can make in Part 2 – either as directors or as audiences – and look at a few examples of each flaw in question.

For Directors

If you make a crappy sequel, do not be surprised to hear people tell you that you made a crappy sequel. “Crappy”, of course, being a technical term for “I was kinda upset when I saw it because I just got dumped, there were no parking spots, and I was forced to sit in the back between two punk-ass kids.” Sorry, everyone, but in most cases, the sequel is as good (at least technically) as the original. There are logical reasons we do not like the numbered version as much as the non-numbered one, which have little to do with the people creating the film. But here a few that do:

1. Releasing the film originally as a stand-alone, only to add unplanned sequels. For reasons that are more suited for analysis by a psychologist than a writer of grand consequence, our expectations as viewers are more realistic when we already know that another installment awaits. The franchises based upon the Lord of the Rings, Spiderman (Tobey Maguire version), and Star Wars (Episode IV-VI) saw few disappointed fans, whereas the films spawned by The Matrix, Caddyshack or Ghostbusters left most viewers wishing the sequels never happened. While I thought The Hangover was “a good bit of fun”, as Simon Mayo might have said, I’m a little nervous about the sequel, largely because of this reason alone. Will I see it? Of course! Todd Phillips (like Greg Mottola, Judd Apatow, and Miguel Arteta) understands multiple eras of comedy, and reflects this within his films, so he’s innocent until proven Happymadison.

Outside of the seemingly-easy box-office riches that await, hoisting additional chapters to a theoretically-completed work is pretty damn risky to the legacy of a film. Instead of being remembered as that awesome film, the creators are gambling that any conversation about the first film of the “series” will be relegated to this:

Biff – “Hey, did you ever see The Matrix? It was sweet!”

Tony – “Yeah, but those sequels were just awful.”

Biff – “Yeah, you’re right. They shouldn’t have made those.”

Is that really worth the millions and millions of dollars from disappointed viewers and fast-food tie-ins?

2. Waiting several years to release the sequel. Utilizing the statistically-significant sampling technique known as “asking the opinion of my friends” (you’ll get to this in Multivariate Regression, just look under the “Anova” tab in SPSS), everyone seems to think The Godfather III was a poor film that “you don’t need to see.” Now is this because of the film itself, or because of the several years between releases?

While the extra years allow time for more viewers to encounter the film, it also allows us more chances for repeat viewings, with some films transcending into cult status. Be warned, franchise directors: if you create a film that led to tangible cultural impact, and then drop a sequel after this impact has been present for more than three years, the audience will have expectations beyond all reality. So Joel and Ethan Coen, as a fan of your entire catalogue, allow me to say this – we may be ready for more than we can handle; or countenance another example of da hi-hat; or be willing to sing into yon can and skedaddle once again; but a sequel to The Big Lebowski would be (dare I say it) over the line. I know – the Supreme Court has roundly rejected prior restraint. But this isn’t ‘Nam, Dude. There are rules.

The Star Wars prequels illustrate this last point to perfection. Far too many of us expected to walk out of Episode I: The Phantom Menace with the same wonderous energy that accompanied our sprint to the arcade after first viewing Jedi. We were not expecting (what several comics have called) Episode I: C-SPANning the Empire. We were so enraged with the ridiculous antics of Jar-Jar Binks that we failed to notice that our tech stocks were a tad inflated (as were our baseball players). Some filmmakers have been issued mulligans regarding this flaw, releasing a long-awaited sequel so inconsequential that they were barely even noticed. Blues Brothers 2000 comes to mind, as does the aforementioned Shock Treatment. So the best strategy with delayed sequels is to go small, and aim for a different cult audience. I do not count films like American Psycho 2 and S. Darko, or other “sequels” created by completely different personnel than the originals, thus qualifying as little more than pricey examples of fan-fiction.

One of the easiest methods to avoid Mistakes #3 and #4, especially if there’s even a microscopic chance that the story may evolve into a multi-part effort, is to venture into the small-screen domain of modern cinema. While both The Wire and Mad Men, for example, are serials, each episode functions as a fine standalone 48-minute film. Instead of scoffing at the sequels, audiences excitedly await them. Perhaps TRON should have been reborn as a miniseries, maybe?

3. Releasing a sequel with major casting changes. While also an example of #1, the Smokey and the Bandit “franchise” famously rolled on with a Part 3, despite the lack of Burt Reynolds, aka the Bandit.  Apparently they were oblivious to the “Coy and Vance” fiasco that afflicted The Dukes of Hazzard in the previous year, although they at least had the decency to not maintain the name of the main character while killing off the main character, a la Valerie’s Family – Bo “Bandit” Darville survives, if I remember correctly (I am not sitting through either Part 2 or Part 3 ever again). Smokey and the Bandit, along with Convoy, Any Which Way You Can (the best sequel ever, in my opinion) and Dukes (all pop-culture writers are obligated to utilize arbitrary abbreviations at some point) were the vanguards of an odd time in American culture, when truckers, CB radios and electing cowboy actors as the President took hold of the US.

For Audiences

Suppose a director and their parent studio are able to somehow avoid the four common pitfalls listed above, all while providing a decent follow-up picture (unlike, say, Jaws 2). This is where you, the humble viewer, can maximize your chances at enjoying this second (or third…) installment of those characters.

1. Try your damnedest to watch all sequels within a brief duration of the initial film. Obviously, you are limited by the release schedule of a current franchise (the highly-enjoyable Star Trek reboot from ’09 has a sequel planned for later this fall, I believe), but if you’ve yet to see, per se, any of the Raiders of the Lost Ark or Rocky films, set aside a month and catch ’em all (but stop after Rocky IV).

2. Don’t expect the same “great moments in life” occurrence from the sequel. We romanticize a film that reaches us, as well we should. I often write about the films from a brief three-year period (1998-2001) like it was the most important era in film history. Of course it is not, but because of what films like The Big Lebowski, Fight Club, Rushmore, Election, Donnie Darko, High Fidelity, Almost Famous, Ghost World, and The Last Days of Disco meant to me at that time, I would never expect a sequel to either of those movies to have anywhere near the impact as their source material. Hell, I made the mistake of expecting The Royal Tenenbaums to act as a de-facto sequel of Rushmore, and was extremely disappointed when the comedic romp that glorified intellectual curiosity transformed into a tale of how such curiosity has a dark side, where laughter and discovery will be stolen and replaced with melancholic resignation.

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