Oh, the sequel. Nothing has ever proven to be so popular at the box office like a sequel. Except the franchise. Or the book or comic book adaptation. Or even a reboot.
Anything other than an actually original film.
This year alone, I have seen 31 films (already tying my full-year effort of last year, I might add). Some were outstanding (see my earlier list of my Top Five Favourite Films of the Year So Far), some not so great, but there’s one thing I’ve noticed. Of the 31 movies, there were:
- 7 sequels
- 10 adaptations
- 1 reboot, and
- 3 films based on a true story.
Leaving only 10 films – Sisters, the Good Dinosaur, Dirty Grandpa, How to be Single, Hail, Caesar!, Grimsby, Zootopia, Central Intelligence, Bad Moms, and Kubo and the Two Strings – as original films that I’ve seen this year. Obviously, I haven’t seen every film that was released this year so far, but for as many other original films that I know have come out (Hateful 8, Secret Life of Pets), there are just as many sequels and adaptations I haven’t seen (Warcraft, Zoolander No. 2).
Why, though? Why, in a world full of possibilities, of new stories just waiting to be told, are we given so many sequels, adaptations and reboots? I mean, sure, some sequels can be great (the Godfather Part II and 22 Jump Street), and some original films are less than stellar (like most comedies released this year, like Dirty Grandpa, even Grimsby), but why make a third sequel to a film that sucked to begin with, or badly adapt a well-loved book, when you can make something new?
The most obvious answer is also the worst: money. In the cynical, cash-grab environment that is modern day Hollywood, sequels are almost always a sure-thing to turn a profit because they come with ready-made branding. A sequel plays off of its predecessor’s popularity; an adaptation will have the loyal following of the fans of the book/comic book/game, and a reboot garners interest through the possibilities of taking a well-loved film and doing something new and exciting for the fans to love. Of course, this has often been done with great success: The Lord of the Rings trilogy is both essential fan viewing and a critical success, with the combined Trilogy boasting more Oscars than any other film. But it also has its downfalls, with some recent reboots failing on all fronts, like 1998’s remake of Psycho proving absolutely pointless and the 2015 Fantastic Four reboot receiving even less success than its goofy forbearers. Films like these won’t suffer too much damage from a weak script, or even a lack of story, because they capitalise on the sentimental audience, who might be too excited to see their favourite characters realised on screen to worry about what they’re actually doing.
Outliers aside, sequels, reboots and adaptations are almost guaranteed to turn a profit, and a big one at that – of the 26 films to have made over $1 billion dollars worldwide, only four are original films. This is when Hollywood places their faith in the international market; after all, a film can only make so much money in the US. Take, for example, the recent Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh instalment of the franchise, ranked as the third-highest grossing film of all time: according to Box Office Mojo, it grossed $936.7 million dollars in the US, which is still an unbelievable amount of money, but international territories earned it another $1.132 billion dollars, taking its total to $2.068 billion. So why would Hollywood bother making new films for its domestic market, when all its money is made internationally with known material?
And even when money isn’t the most obvious pursuit, winning awards might come a close second. Of the 8 nominees for Best Picture at the 88th Academy Awards this year, only one, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, was an original story, the rest either being sequels, adaptations, or ‘based on a true story’, which I include here as non-original (it’s more similar to an adaptation than an original story). And, of the sixteen awards presented at that ceremony, only six were awarded to original films (documentaries not included).
Yet, despite everything stated above, sequels aren’t all bad. Apart from the fact that some of the greatest films of all time are sequels, reboots or adaptations – Toy Story 2 and 3, the Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight, the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings, Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Kahn, I could go on forever – they are a continuation of a story, giving fans more to love and discuss and theorise over. Sometimes they take average films and make them a great series (see Captain America: the First Avenger to Winter Soldier and Civil War); sometimes they take a great film and make it an even better series (Alien to Aliens). And, since they make up the bulk of our viewing material these days, at least we’re getting some solid entries.
Except we haven’t really, not this year at least. Despite the fact that we’ve gotten so many sequels this year, none of them have been anything to write home about: the only one particularly worth anything to me was Captain America: Civil War, which took our favourite characters to new heights with a political thriller that also had a lot of fun. This American summer season has been so lacklustre, with some sequels proving better than expected (Ghostbusters did alright, hey, Internet?), some adaptations not quite meeting expectations (Me Before You needed to be so much more), and a franchise or two causing way too much controversy than deserved (whilst enjoyable, Suicide Squad was a mess). Hollywood is so obsessed with packing the season full of crowd pleasing films, they’ve forgotten what the true crowd pleaser is: quality. In truth, the only summer movies that really wowed me were Captain America, Hunt for the Wilderpeople (technically an adaptation, but infused with a lot of Taika Waititiness) and Kubo and the Two Strings, the best original film of the year.
Which is why the original film should never be overlooked. Original storytelling is the foundation of the film industry as we know it today: we wouldn’t have six Star Wars sequels or prequels without George Lucas’ initial idea for such an original universe. We wouldn’t even have the concept of a “summer blockbuster” without Steven Spielberg’s pioneering original blockbuster Jaws. Without the original film, Hollywood will just keep folding in on itself, just like in Back to the Future 2 – the reality of Jaws 19 isn’t so far away, unfortunately. And if great sequels feel like a thing of the past, you’re very much mistaken: Pixar’s best films are their original ones (think Wall-E, Inside Out, Up, all of which will never warrant a sequel), and we’ve still got great filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, The Coen Brothers, Jeff Nichols, Alex Garland and Taika Waititi, just to name a few, who are always going to be a source for great original stories.
And even still, some of the most original films of the last two years are actually adaptations and sequels. What makes a film original doesn’t have to be a new story, but can be a new way of approaching an idea, of filmmaking. James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is based on a comic book series, yet has revitalised the superhero genre with a much needed injection of humour, heart and light; Tim Miller’s Deadpool did the same thing again, poking fun at the superhero construct and giving it a much more crass, dark tone. And films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens are returning us to a Golden Age of filmmaking, where practical effects trump CGI, and a good story beats fan service.
Perhaps what Hollywood needs is not more original films, but more heart. Instead of pumping out hastily made films of a lower standard in order to capitalise on an audience before they lose interest, maybe they should take a few years to figure out how to make a film the audience truly needs, wants, and deserves, whether that’s a high concept original film that engages audiences with new characters and stories, or a brilliant adaptation, sequel or reboot, which does justice to its characters and takes well-known stories and ideas in a new and interesting direction. A great film will find its audience; a bad film will lose its own.
Photos taken from IMDb.com:
Box-office statistics taken from Box Office Mojo: