July 15, 2013

A New Breed of Sequel

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 6:00 pm
Tags: , , ,

When I was in eighth grade, I wrote an article for the school paper about what seemed like an oversaturation of sequels. I don’t remember the specifics all that well, but my memory is that it may have been less an article than a list of all the sequels that had recently come out or were in the works. Given the era, that list would have included movies like Caddyshack II, Big Top Pee-Wee, Cocoon: The Return, Ghostbusters II, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Back to the Future Part II and Lethal Weapon 2. These were the early days of my single-minded movie fandom, so I might have thought that what felt like an increase in the number of follow-ups was something new. But I soon learned that sequels have been a part of the movie landscape nearly as long as there have been movies.

Those of us who criticize Hollywood’s incurable case of Sequelitis tend to talk about it as though it’s a symptom of the blockbuster era that began in the early 1970’s. Au contraire, cinephiles. In 1916, Thomas Dixon Jr. wrote and directed what is acknowledged as the first sequel, The Fall of a Nation. It was a follow-up to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 hit “The Birth of a Nation,” which was adapted from a novel by Dixon. Though the sequel was a commercial failure, the early studio moguls learned that there was easy money to be made by satisfying the public’s craving for beloved characters. Warner Brothers put out 19 Rin Tin Tin pictures in a seven-year span during the 1920’s. In 1937, MGM released A Family Affair, which was originally conceived as a courtroom drama about a small town judge named Hardy. His family life was a minor part of the story, but studio head Louis B. Meyer was seeking a showcase for child star Mickey Rooney, so the story was retooled to focus more on the judge’s home life, allowing for Rooney’s role as son Andy Hardy to be expanded. When A Family Affair—particularly Rooney’s Andy—struck a chord with audiences, MGM quickly built a series around the character, dedicating a complete production unit to making Andy Hardy pictures. According to The Genius of the System, a book by film professor Thomas Schatz about the early years of the Hollywood studio system, when the second movie started to shoot, the writers set to work on the third, and the Seitz Unit (named for the films’ director George B. Seitz) “turned out Hardy pictures virtually nonstop for two years, averaging about one every three months.” Other popular characters also had series built around them, with rapidly produced sequels flooding theaters. During the 30’s and 40’s, MGM made six Tarzan movies and six Thin Man installments. In the 1950s, Universal Pictures made nine movies starring the characters Ma and Pa Kettle.

Looks like Disney’s plan to release a new Star Wars movie every two years has some precedence.

So this sequel thing is not a phenomenon unique to post 1960’s Hollywood. And I’m not here to knock it. From The Godfather Part II to The Empire Strikes Back to Aliens to Toy Story 3, and many in between, some of my favorite movies are sequels…and I’m hardly alone. But I’ve noticed a mutation in the Sequelitis virus over the last year or so. It’s no surprise when massive financial hits like Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers continue to spawn follow-ups. They made gobsmacking amounts of money, so sequels remain inevitable. But now we’re starting to see sequels to movies that are only modest financial hits, and that didn’t particularly grab hold of the pop culture consciousness. Just this weekend, we had Grown Ups 2. The original film, released in 2010, cost $80 million to make and grossed about $162 million domestic, and another $109 million in foreign markets. So it performed well and turned a nice profit. But by today’s standards, neither that gross nor the profit are all that noteworthy, and it’s not like the movie or the characters took root in the hearts and minds of the world’s moviegoers. I’m sure the movie has many fans, but it didn’t introduce us to the next Jack Sparrow, Austin Powers or Ron Burgundy. Adam Sandler is pretty much always Adam Sandler, and you don’t hear people talk about Grown Ups the way they talk about Billy Madison or The Wedding Singer. Yet Grown Ups 2 is the actor’s first sequel.

This coming weekend, Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich and Mary-Lousie Parker return in the action comedy RED 2. I really enjoyed the 2010 original, which cost $58 million to make and earned $90 million in the U.S. and $108 million in other countries. Perhaps I’ll enjoy this one too. But was it necessary? Again, we’re not talking about staggering grosses, stunning profits or unforgettable characters. Why does this movie merit a sequel? Grown Ups 2 and RED 2 are just the beginning of what appears to be a new trend of making sequels to movies that, even more so than usual, don’t really need sequels. Here are six others in development:

Title Budget Domestic Gross Foreign Gross Total Gross
Safe House (2012) $85 million $126 million $81 million $208 million
Salt (2010) $110 million $118 million $175 million $293 million
Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) $36 million $50 million $14 million $64 million
Bad Teacher (2011) $20 million $100 million $118 million $218 million
Dolphin Tale (2011) $37 million $72 million $23 million $95 million
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012) $10 million $46 million $90 million $136 million

Hot Tub Time Machine 2 and Dolphin Tale 2 appear to be the only ones that are definitely happening as of now, but even if the others never make it into production, the fact that they are being developed at all remains somewhat puzzling. Some of these movies were huge hits on DVD, which can sometimes justify investing in a follow-up. I mentioned Austin Powers and Ron Burgundy earlier, and both of those characters’ initial films were bigger hits on video than they were in theaters. But once viewers caught on and discovered Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, both movies gained strong footholds in pop culture. None of the movies on this chart, nor Grown Ups or RED, have taken on any such traction as pop culture currency.

The success of Grown Ups 2 this weekend could be seen as a sign that, yes, the sequel was justified and that people had a legitimate interest in these characters. I’m inclined to think that the movie’s $42.5 million weekend speaks more to the general idea of people wanting to see Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, David Spade and Kevin James together…something that could have been accomplished with an entirely new premise. Using a modestly successful, forgettable comedy as the springboard to reunite a group of actors who play well together is a hallmark of Hollywood laziness. And in a typically competitive summer movie season like this one, I suspect Grown Ups 2—while still ending up a respectable success for Sandler and company—will see its fortunes sink fairly quickly. So in a posh office somewhere at Columbia Pictures, I’m sure Grown Ups 3 is being seriously discussed today.

I’ll be curious to see if this trend continues. Hopefully it isn’t paving the way for the next step: sequels to movies that weren’t hits and that nobody liked. Case in point: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, which opened earlier this year to lousy reviews and lousy U.S. box office, but which did decent business overseas. Decent enough to make Paramount Pictures think that a sequel is worth pursuing. I can’t imagine the studio would be able to get Jeremy Renner back on board (he couldn’t have been less enthused when he was forced to promote the original, as Vulture points out). I’m not sure they could get Gemma Arterton back either, and she has less clout than Renner. More importantly though, I don’t think they could get much of an audience. Hopefully that hard truth will dawn on somebody at Paramount before this punchline-in-waiting gets greenlit. I’m not enthused that we’re getting yet another Pirates of the Caribbean movie or another Transformers, but seeing as both series’ most recent installment grossed over $1 billion worldwide, I understand why we are (even if I don’t quite understand how those gigantic grosses were achieved, seeing as nobody seems to have liked the movies). I even understand why we’re getting a sequel to 21 Jump Street, which had a comparable budget-to-gross figure as the movies discussed here, yet with much more pop culture viability. What I don’t understand is why studios are getting into the business of making sequels to any ol’ medium-sized hit with no particular resonance in the zeitgeist. Most sequels that get made probably shouldn’t get made for one reason or another, whether it’s the lack of story logic for a follow-up, a tendency to just be a remake in a different setting or because most sequels usually just suck. Yes, I said at the beginning that there are many I love, so I’m not saying, “Don’t make sequels.” I’m just saying, “Be more selective about the sequels you make.” Because the odds are that we’re far more likely to get Major League II, Son of the Mask, Look Who’s Talking Too or An American Werewolf in Paris than we are to get The Dark Knight, Terminator 2, The Bourne Ultimatum or Before Sunset.

But there are lots of things about the way this crazy industry operates that I don’t understand. I should have learned by now to stop asking questions. I guess I just love movies too much not to question Hollywood’s unerring penchant for making baffling decisions.


  1. Every time out for a sequel, it’s probably going to do good business. Every time out for something new, it’s a tossup. Money talks. By the way, just watched all 3 Bourne movies for the first time. Awesome. The third one was a little ridiculous in places, but otherwise those were fantastic popcorn movies.

    Comment by Alan Burnce — July 16, 2013 @ 12:20 am | Reply

    • I saw each Bourne movie around the time they came out, and liked them but kinda forgot them. Then I watched them all again last summer before the fourth movie came out and couldn’t believe they hadn’t stayed with me. They were so good, and I regretted not including them in my Best of the Decade post (https://i-am-db.com/2009/12/23/the-decade-in-film-part-i-2000-2003/).

      You should watch the fourth one too, with Jeremy Renner. Those movies all follow the same formula and the latest is more of the same, but it had two or three of my favorite scenes/sequences of the year.

      “I always thought that Matt Damon was like, a Streisand, but I think that he’s rockin’ the shit in this one.” – Dave (Paul Rudd), watching The Bourne Identity in The 40 Year-Old Virgin.

      Comment by DB — July 16, 2013 @ 3:40 pm | Reply

  2. I’m really looking forward to RED 2. I loved the first one.

    Comment by Richard Gentner — July 18, 2013 @ 7:55 pm | Reply

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