Are Sequels a Bad Thing?
This is one of the most puzzling paradoxes I have encountered in the modern film industry. Everyone seems to be clamoring for new ideas, to such a degree that it’s almost impossible to read an editorial on film without hearing a demand for originality. I have spoken with many filmgoers, casual and dedicated, and almost all of them have told me that they hate being ‘forced’ to watch sequels. The current narrative surrounding films seems to be this: everything is a sequel, everything is rehashed, and nothing is new. Many believe that Hollywood has lost its ground in quality, but something very odd is happening at the same time. Original, and bizarre films enter theaters each year, and they are almost always bested by sequels of some variety. In 2014 the highest grossing film was a sequel, and it happened again in 2015, and again in 2016. If people want originality so badly, why aren’t those films dominating the box office? That question is simple, yet it leads to far more fundamental truths about the world of film. Really, what we are asking here is this: is it bad that sequels gross more than original properties, and more importantly, are sequels a bad thing in and of themselves?
The reason why sequels dominate the box office is simple: they are familiar. Familiarity is a massive selling point because it minimizes risk: you already have an idea of what you are getting, and you already know you might like it. The audience feels safe and at home with sequels, and it is understandable. Here is where hypocrisy enters the picture. So many of these same people complain that nothing is original, and that filmmaking has suffered tremendously from the abundance of sequels.
There is data supporting that first claim. The number of sequels released in the past few decades has drastically increased, but that statistic might mislead some audience members. Yes, there are more sequels, but they exist because audiences wanted them. Studios chase audience interest, and not the other way around. To criticize the number of sequels while ignoring any and all possible blame for their profusion creates a false narrative.
To be fair, many of those who criticize the excess of sequels do actively seek independent and original filmmaking, but those indie films pale in comparison to the success experienced by blockbusters. Box office results add an additional question to this premise: do box office hauls correlate with quality? What defines quality is an interesting debate, but for now let us assume that quality is defined by overall reception to a film, basically, how everyone felt when they left the theater. If we define quality this way, then the highest grossing films are not always well made pictures. A popular example of this is Transformers: Age of Extinction, a film which grossed 1.1 billion dollars, and garnered an IMDb score of 5.7. While IMDb cannot factor in the opinions of everyone who saw the film, it gives us a rough idea of its quality.
Studios chase audience interests, but audience interests do not always line up with quality. Sequels gross billions because they are usually flashy and appealing to the eyes (easy to market) and offer a low risk experience. Even if they leave unsatisfied, the experience likely involved less risk than paying to see a film they had never heard of before.
So, we now know why sequels dominate the landscape, but more notably, is this a bad thing? Do sequels truly harm filmmaking?
In my opinion, it depends. Just because something is original does not mean that it is good. Few people would have been satisfied if 2003’s The Room out-grossed The Godfather Part II. And just because something is a sequel does not mean it is bad. The statement: sequels are killing film, is reductionism through and through.
The Empire Strikes Back was a sequel, The Godfather Part II was a sequel. The Dark Knight, Aliens, The Lord of the Rings, Toy Story 3, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Casino Royale, Silence of the Lambs, and Mad Max: Fury Road were all sequels. And if they weren’t sequels, they were based on pre-existing characters and chronology.
Granted, Batman and Robin, The Godfather Part III, and Quantum of Solace were all sequels too, but the idea that sequels are always bad and that originals are always good is false. Sequels allow the writers and directors to spend more time in the world they had previously created, and an opportunity to deliver the masterpiece they might not have able to deliver the first time. Yes, sequels can often be worse than the originals, but their existence is not always bad in and of itself.
Now that we have debunked the popular narrative surrounding these films, we can finally delve into the problems that sequels truly create. Mainly: the monopolization of ideas.
To explain what I mean, let’s explore a question: what would happen if sequels had never been invented?
My answer is this: if there were never any sequels, studios would be forced to constantly come up with new ideas. In this type of landscape, the studio with the best quality films would, in theory, produce the most hits at the box office. But with sequels thrown in the mix, this idealistic world of film is destroyed.
Today, for a studio to gross massive hauls, all they need to do is strategically purchase franchises. That has been Disney’s strategy for the past few years: buy as many massive intellectual properties as possible, and then turn them into gargantuan franchises with one to two sequels a year.
In 2006 they bought the legendary animation studio Pixar. In 2009 they bought the now vast Marvel Studios who has reached into film and television. And in 2012 they made perhaps their most famous purchase of all: their acquisition of Lucas Films.
Those three franchises out-grossed every other film in 2016. Finding Dory grossed 1.028 billion dollars, Rogue One grossed 1.053 billion dollars, and Captain America: Civil War grossed 1.153 billion dollars.
While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can create a harmful atmosphere. Quality no longer determines gross as much as it used to. Now, the franchise depicted on your movie poster can almost guarantee a strong profit.
In the modern world, the same few franchises are making massive figures, the same few studios are dominating the box office, and the same few ideas are placed on screens across the world.
I believe that many of these sequels are high in quality, as all three previously mentioned films garnered strong reviews from audiences and critics alike. But at the same time, the lack of originality in the blockbuster realm is troubling. There are numerous, smaller films that dazzle audiences across the world every year with their innovations in storytelling, but they are seen by a mere fraction of the people who turned up to see Captain America: Civil War in 2016, or The Force Awakens in 2015.
I strongly enjoyed both of those films, but they are placing a heavy burden on the entire industry. Studios chase audience interest, but audiences don’t always know what they want. Sometimes audiences can be conditioned to desire certain experiences. The audience may think they know what they like, but history disproves this.
For example, following the travesty that was Batman and Robin, the next Batman film, Batman Begins, grossed only 374 million dollars. While this may seem like large amount of money, it’s actually embarrassing. The film cost around 150 million dollars to produce, and studios only get half of a film’s gross, as theaters take the other half. This means that Batman Begins, which is now hailed as one of the best comic-book films, barely recouped its investment. In fact Warner Bros. could have spent no more than 74 million dollars marketing the film just to break even. Again, 74 million may sound like a lot of money, but it’s not. The Hollywood reporter estimates that Transformers: Age of Extinction cost 100 million to advertise in North America alone.
After Batman and Robin, no one wanted to see another Batman film. Audiences didn’t want another Batman film. But as word of Batman Begin’s stellar quality spread, three years later its sequel, The Dark Knight, grossed over 1 billion dollars.
Audiences did not know they wanted a darker, hyper-realistic take on Batman. They thought they had grown tired of him, and it took Nolan’s work to prove them wrong.
This is the danger of sequels. From a purely economic standpoint, Batman Begins was an initial failure. Film lovers like us are lucky that Warner Bros. decided to give it a sequel instead of scrapping the franchise entirely.
If we live in a world where studios only make films that can guarantee a strong profit, we may never have another Batman Begins. Yes, Nolan’s take was not an original film, but the damage that sequels pose isn’t just on original films, but on other sequels as well.
Sequels, in their current state, encourage safe filmmaking.
The recent film Silence shows this perfectly. Silence was a faith-based film that had the courage to challenge its audience (read my full review here), and yet it grossed only 7 million dollars at the box office. In contrast, the poorly reviewed, and unquestionably safe God’s Not Dead grossed 62 million dollars.
As movie characters and fictional settings have built up over the past century, the film industry has become increasingly shy of trying anything new. Filmmaking is, first and foremost, a business. Studio executives cannot truly be blamed for green-lighting sequels: they know the characters are popular, and few can afford to make films without worrying about the box office results. From a commercial perspective, it makes no sense to avoid making sequels.
What these executives forget is that the characters they reference, whether it be Batman, Luke Skywalker, or Gandalf, were all initial risks. Star Wars in particular was a massive gamble. Hardly anything worked, the story was new, and there was a large chance that the entire film would fall apart. 40 years later, Star Wars is one of the largest franchises in Hollywood.
If we keep paying to see Star Wars films, there will never be a need for the next Star Wars film. Studios will not have to wow us in a new, innovative way if they can just repeat the successes of the past. Again, I love what Disney is doing with the Star Wars franchise and I love what they have done with Marvel.
But the feeling of seeing the Avengers assemble for the first time, or the feeling of seeing Obi-Wan and Darth Vader clash with light sabers, will be almost impossible to recreate within those franchises. They may be able to consistently satisfy us, but as time goes on, it will become nearly infeasible to blow us away.
So, what can be done about this? Is there a better path for the film industry to head towards?
In my opinion, it is already happening.
Before I explain, let’s take a trip back in time to the early days of filmmaking, when Westerns were the most popular films around. Back then, one in every five films took place in the wild west. Over time however, the percentage of western films released began to decline. In the modern day, very few westerns are released, and very few are hits.
Audiences got tired of the same old thing, and as time passed and interests changed, the western genre began to fade away.
In the summer of 2016, there was a sling of box office disappointments, including Independence Day: Resurgence and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. This trend was referred to as ‘sequelitis’, but I do not believe this word accurately portrays what happened that summer. Most of the blockbuster flops were low in quality, and so audience members avoided them.
With the competition of online entertainment and television, the film industry needed to step up its game in quality to compete. Finding Dory came out on June 17, 2016, and yet it grossed over a billion dollars. The problem wasn’t that they were sequels, the problem was that they were uninteresting sequels in an increasingly competitive entertainment industry.
I believe that the current trend of sequels will pass, because audiences will get tired to the same old thing eventually. At some point, a director will have to take a risk and we will get the next Star Wars. Until then, why not enjoy this period of filmmaking?
It’s fine if you saw Finding Dory, but maybe you should have seen Kubo and the Two Strings as well. There is nothing wrong with having seen Rogue One, but hopefully you also saw Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, or Silence.
As audience members, we decide what films are made. Therefore, we have the responsibility to seek out great films. If you want to see more Marvel films, let them know with your wallet. But keep in mind, if you truly want an original, unconventional picture, you must let Hollywood know with your wallet as well.