How to make a great sequel in the age of recycled blockbusters
If January is Hollywood's season for mercy killings of disposable box office bombs, summer is when studios spawn squadrons of sequels, remakes and adaptations. The industry churns them out as if movies based on original stories would be trampled by audiences racing to recycled blockbusters.
And when Hollywood brass discovers a cinematic pot of gold, the execs will remake and reboot it ad infinitum. It's a business plan that predates the talkies, and when it works, it works. Last year, "Creed" moved the punch-drunk Rocky franchise into exciting new territory, and the recent "Jungle Book" soared past its predecessor. When it doesn't ... well, did Ben Affleck really need to follow Harrison Ford's stellar run as CIA analyst Jack Ryan? And Christian Bale's as Bruce Wayne?
Yet for many moviegoers, franchise fever is an ever-widening addiction. Why do these films draw us into theaters like mosquitoes swarming to a bug zapper?
So many: That's a pressing question as we approach the summer season's harvest of redo titles. This month alone features the third Captain America adventure and X-Men No. 9 (counting spinoffs). Upcoming, there's a new crop of old favorites, with an all-female crew of Ghostbusters and the 20-year reunion of original cast members and aliens in "Independence Day: Resurgence."
If this calendar of retreads feels exhausting, you're not alone. Patrick Stewart has played key roles in two big franchises, and for him that is quite enough.
"Those films have given quite an impression of who Patrick Stewart is and what he does, which actually ain't true," he said. "That's not in any way to demean 'Star Trek' or 'X-Men.' I'm very, very proud of all the work we've done on those movies. But that was only a part of the story of my career."
His latest role takes him as far afield as possible: a neo-Nazi leader in the indie thriller "Green Room."
Indeed, watching studios endlessly milk cash cows gets tiresome. Especially when an original filmmaker such as James Cameron will devote his next few years to making four sequels to "Avatar," arriving in theaters starting in 2018.
Our fault: Turns out the design of this epic echo chamber is our own fault — in ways economic and psychological. Where culture and entertainment are concerned, "people do not like originality," said John Watkins, a professor of English language and literature at the University of Minnesota.
The numbers don't lie. Nine of the 10 highest grossing films of 2015 were new versions of tried-and-true titles — only Pixar's "Inside Out" was based on an original idea. The average moviegoer sees six movies a year, and these are the ones they're buying tickets to see. Meanwhile, respected filmmakers Guillermo del Toro, the Wachowskis and Brad Bird all released fresh movies that cratered at the box office.
It's not just movies. Sequel mania "is happening throughout the culture," Watkins said. "It's people wanting to read the same series of novels over and over, or Broadway and movie adaptations of things they've liked."
We behave that way from earliest childhood, he said, when bedtime stories trigger "the word every parent dreads, 'Again, again.'"
But tentpole blockbusters are more than a form of juvenile storytelling. Familiarity breeds contentment for adults, too.
"The way our brain works is the act of thinking is insanely hard. It gets easier if you're dealing with an activity that has familiar pieces to it. Then you can concentrate on what's new," said Watkins. "Otherwise, you would exhaust yourself cognitively. The nice thing about seeing the latest version of 'Hero Confronts Enemy and Gets Girl at the End' is your brain doesn't have to work that hard."
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New paths: Jodie Foster is a Hollywood heavyweight who has exclusively pursued original material from her start as a child actor to her current sideline as a film director. Rather than following clearly profitable paths, she said, "I just try to make the best movies and then I hope people will go. But if they don't, I get to say, 'I was so lucky to get to make that movie, and I hope I can make another one.' I think that you just have to do the best work you possibly can and have faith that if you make it meaningful and you make it good, people will come."
That's what led her to helm "Money Monster," a darkly comic political crime thriller that hits theaters in May, just as the blockbuster season pushes into high gear.
Cliches are not all bad, provided they're carefully handled. So how can you energize familiar territory (as "The Force Awakens" and "Creed" reinvigorated "Star Wars" and "Rocky") rather than collapse it ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2")? How can you make an ingenious follow-up film that escalates the appeal of a popular franchise? What is the secret sauce that turns continuity into an irresistible source of fan-ticipation? Here are a few of the ingredients.
1. Listen to the pros. "Each time has to be for the first time," Stewart said. "You keep it fresh whether it's a stage performance you're doing eight times a week or a character you're playing on a series who goes from episode to episode or a recurring character in a franchise. Each is a new and novel experience."
2. Remember, not every old hit needs to be a remaquel. Audiences didn't see the point of last year's "Point Break," "Poltergeist," "Pan" or "Victor Frankenstein." Nostalgia reaches only so far.
3. Don't veer off the main road. While they gave us fresh perspectives and new characters, "Mad Max: Fury Road," "Jurassic World" and "The Force Awakens" felt like sequels on a common story line, not paradoxical side stories like the time-jumping shambles "Terminator Genisys" and Lucas' dismaying "Star Wars" prequels. So the story should be much like the blues in music — a fairly simple structure that nonetheless allows for many variations.
4. Make it work as a character-driven feature with a great villain. "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" makes an unforgettable character out of Gollum, elevating the epic above its earlier and later chapters. The haunting Joker does the same service in "The Dark Knight." In contrast, April's "Batman v Superman" operates as a long-form commercial for upcoming DC adventures, while its Lex Luthor has a small cameo role at best. It's a film without firepower or a wicked target.
5. Don't keep repeating yourself, duh. The two Spider-Man series filmed outside the control of Marvel Studios simply reintroduce the characters to challenges they had faced before. The "Hangover" sequels were blurry carbon copies of the original, and the "Die Hard" movies simply made Bruce Willis' hard-luck hero John McClane increasingly bald. Don't just make the last story bigger, make it deeper.
6. Hire talented Young Turks with something to prove. Marvel Studios' president, Kevin Feige, described his empire's success as depending on fresh creative energy drawn from talented outsiders. This Friday's "Captain America: Civil War" is directed by the Russo brothers, who before being hired by Marvel were Emmy winners for "Arrested Development." As Feige recently told the entertainment website Vulture, Marvel chooses "from a pool of filmmakers not who have done big, giant films before but who have done interesting things that made us stop and go, 'That's cool.'"