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IT DEPENDS: Sequelitis or Hollywood’s Obsession with Movie Sequels

Hollywood tends to make movie sequel after sequel chasing diminishing returns and never seem to recover. Christopher Schiller explores why is this disease is so contagious and widespread throughout the industry.

Christopher Schiller is a NY transactional entertainment attorney who counts many independent filmmakers and writers among his diverse client base. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisschiller.

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Sequelitis [s ee-kwuhl-ahy-tis], n. – a condition denoting abnormal tendencies to rely excessively on “proven” prior material in favor of an untested original idea. (See delusional.)

It often appears that Hollywood has an incurable case of this quite often deadly disease. They will tend to make sequel after sequel chasing diminishing returns and never seem to recover. Why is this disease so contagious and widespread throughout the industry? Its diagnosis should be considered as one pernicious instance of the broader and no less worrisome class of illness, familiarity that infects the filmmaking community.

We can easily see the symptoms of this sickness: the ill-ease dealing with original ideas, the constant calls for films “just like these others,” the tendency to gravitate to what’s already proven itself in the marketplace before. New ideas are scary. The audience may not like something new.

Numbers never lie – except that they often do

In some ways, you really can’t blame them. I mean, movies are expensive ventures. If you’re going to be risking millions of dollars and months of time on one product, you want to be as certain as possible that you’ve made the right decisions. That’s why the studios often rely on asking a lot of questions to make sure they’re on the right track. They will often pre-try films in front of test audiences or try to find ready-made, built-in audiences already waiting for that specific content or audiences predisposed to liking similar fare. But there are problems with gathering and assembling that kind of information as well as properly interpreting the meaning of that data.

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Test audiences may be testy

Test audiences are a way to see whether a nearly finished film is going to find the audience it needs to break even, the concept is a logical one: find a random group of people with no preconceptions about the film they’re about to see and get their immediate impressions after viewing it. This should result in unbiased, real results that would reflect what to expect. If a test audience doesn’t click with a film or has a comment, make changes accordingly, easy peasy. But there’s a selection bias issue that most studios don’t often pay attention to.

The kind of an audience available to see movies on a Tuesday afternoon, in major markets like L.A. – the typical test audience demographic – might not be representative of potential true weekend box office on a wide, domestic release. Studios can easily be entranced by having hard numbers from the test, ignoring the factors that really influence the actual movie going public.

Rarely do you go to the films and just see what’s playing when you arrive. A true audience member has made the decision, on whatever criteria important to them, as to what they want to see. They may have liked the trailer, been intrigued by the director’s last film, may like the cast, may want to see any romance movie playing, whatever. There is already a bias towards hopefully liking the film that is inherent in the movie selection process which is missing from the test audience approach.

Those who typically get chosen for test audiences are aware that they are being selected for their opinion and so are ready to be critical, sometimes hyper-critical, because that’s what they think is expected. I mean, they’ve got nothing better to do that day otherwise they wouldn’t have two hours to kill at a cinema. That can skew the reactions and a studio not taking that into account may end up “fixing” or even killing movies that aren’t really broken.

Ready-made audiences are not like ready-to-wear

Even without using test audiences, studios who greenlight sequels will tend to rely on having a proven audience whose already shown a tendency to like what came before. But the fact that an audience liked one thing doesn’t always translate to a repeat viewing. You need to understand what they liked about the thing in the first place. Preexisting awareness of a property may not indicate desire for new works.

This can be seen in the troubles sometimes encountered making films out of popular novels or TV shows. Book readers may not want or like their favorite novel altered in any way. Fan bases of cult shows may have strong opinions that can be easily offended. If you disappoint your cult fan base and don’t make a unique worthwhile film for a new viewer, no one comes to the theater. Fan interest in an idea may not always show the same willingness to see the film that follows those threads (e.g. Snakes on a Plane).

Those studios that want to capitalize on the popularity of a new film franchise will run into similar issues.

Sequels are safe bets, aren’t they?

Proven audiences should be indicators of success. Just do what you did before and we should be fine. But there are tons of examples where a second film gets rushed out the door after an initial success, follows the same format and style, tells a similar story with the same familiar characters – and falls far short of the initial mark set with the original. It happens often enough that you wonder why so many studios do exactly that same mistake over and over again (definition of insanity?).

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There are sequels that have broken that mold mostly by not treating themselves as sequels but being as original as possible. James Cameron’s Aliens was a far cry from the true horror classic of Ridley Scott’s original Alien movie, and was a true success in its own right. It was a sequel in name, setting and one character, but, using action as its genre instead of horror gave it a fresh start. New fans who hadn’t seen the first movie could watch it without feeling like they’d missed half the story.

Trend following is often a fallacy

Some studio heads take the defense of sequels by appealing to the idea that they are just following the current trends. Far too often, trends tend to exist irrespective of the facts, especially if the fact would buck the current regimes out of their comfort levels. For a current example, take the conceptual trend about woman directors. It seems to “buck the trend” to have a successful film done by a woman director, so much so that when a film scores well that happens to be directed by a female it makes the headlines. The “trend” being bucked ignores the statistics that show that there are an awful lot of female directed films that have been quite successful. Each and every one of them have hit with their own headlines of them “bucking the trend”, ignoring the fact that the “trend” doesn’t really exist except in the minds of the male-biased heads of companies that want to ignore the numbers.

Even outside the subject of sequels there are the trend-biases that defeat new works dealing in supposed out of favor genres. “Westerns (or insert your favorite past genre) are dead.” That is, until someone forces one or slips one by the studio heads not paying attention and scores an “unexpected” success with one. Perpetuating the sequel mentality creates a self-fulfilling fallacy that nothing else works. Until something does. And then the trends shift dramatically. But then they all too quickly fall into a new dominant trend, with everything else dead (until it happens again.)

The worst part of this disease is when it infects those writers trying to break in and appease these studio heads. Writers who follow current trends end up being at least two years behind the current hot prospects. Movie going trends change quickly. Writing takes time. So does developing the story.

World building (example: The Mummy)

In the old TV series Cosmos Carl Sagan stated that to bake a cake you must first create the universe. That’s akin to what needs to happen with every original script that becomes a movie. Rightly so, studio heads recognize that creating a whole world every time is risky and doesn’t always work. If you have an already created one sitting right there (whose rights you happen to already own,) the attraction of starting again in that sandbox is tempting. If you can create a new story to tell in that world, then its worth it, for the studio and the audiences. But if it’s just re-tilling the soil and planting the same crops, we’ve already eaten that cake.

Cures for sequelitis

There are ways of teasing the familiarity desires but still delivering unique fare. Genres cheat familiarity by giving the audience a structure in which to anticipate what kind of film they are going to see. By choosing a familiar genre the filmmaker can explore creative and fresh ideas. There are thousands of ways to scare people in a horror movie. Make yours fresh and the audience will love it. In the same vain scènes à faire, tropes and other genre specific expectations set up audience anticipation. Playing with that expectation in creative ways allows the audience to experience something new. If you can give the studio a safe, genre movie and still give the audiences something fresh and exciting you can get around the familiarity worries.

Even not playing the genre game, there are ways of medicating the symptoms that lead to sequelitis. Have an answer to the traditional killer question, “What film is it like?” That’s at the heart of why studio heads are so comfortable turning to sequels. It’s a quick way of setting the audience expectations through similar marketing and prep.

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If you’ve written original work you don’t have the familiar character, actor or package that pre-sells the story to the audience. But you do have familiarity you can find within your work that resonates with what’s gone before. The elevator pitch you develop will find more ears willing to listen if you can pitch the film tied to the familiar as “Fast and Furious on speed boats” or “Jaws with alligators in the Florida swamps”. It rings of the familiarity of a “sequel-ness” without the need for it (nor legal issues surrounding it) to be a sequel.

Still, you have to be careful that your story actually delivers enough of that promise not to disappoint the producer you’ve pitched to nor the audience that will buy the ticket based on the marketing playing that angle up. If you’re not careful you could find yourself making films in old B-movie fashion where they first design the poster, then write a movie to go with it, quickly and cheaply. That’s not really the originality you were striving for.

But, once you’ve written your good script look at it with fresh eyes and see if there are any reflections of things that have come before. If they happen to be there play them up in the pitch. If they are not there, don’t invent them in the pitch just because it’s the hottest trend and hope you’re fooling them. Stand on your originality but also stand on any shoulders you happened to have used to get your own perspective and voice. Who knows, if you are familiar enough to allow them to consider the risk in making your original film it just might lead to a sequel of your own. It depends.

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