Will Summer 2016 Prove That Blockbusters Don’t Need Sequels?
Hollywood insiders are beginning to notice a very disturbing trend this summer. Despite the massive success of Captain America: Civil War, all of the other sequels are tanking, and tanking hard.
As of this moment, it looks like Neighbors 2 will be lucky to top $100 million, and Alice Through the Looking Glass – the follow-up to a film that grossed over $1 billion – looks like it will take in a relatively small fraction of that amount. And while Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and X-Men: Apocalypse aren’t exactly “flops,” they’re both performing well under the box office expectations set by their predecessors.
It’s a disappointing development for movie studios, who have become increasingly reliant on sequels in this, “The Age of the Franchise.” Each of these films was a follow-up to a blockbuster success that seemed to prove that audiences wanted more of each particular brand of shenanigans. So what the hell went wrong?
The industry pundits are all making their case right now, and some of the arguments are reasonable. Perhaps it really is a case of unrealistic expectations, for example. But I think we can debate all we want and still come to the simple, undeniable conclusion that just because one movie is a hit, doesn’t mean that audiences necessarily want another film just like it.
That may be a frustrating concept for industry types who like to think of the film industry in terms of simple mathematics (“If Film A is popular, then Film A: Part 2 will be popular. It’s practically a science!”), but of course art doesn’t work that way. And this summer has given us two stellar examples of how sequel planning can go wrong.
The first comes in the form of Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, which was a follow-up to a film that most people liked, but a film that in no way demanded a sequel. It was the story of two adults who were clinging to their youthful identities, who eventually embraced the next phase of their life when a frat house moves in next door. Quite simply, from a plot perspective, no aspect of the original Neighbors left audiences dangling, wondering what happened next.
In fact, the characters grew up so much over the course of the first movie that Neighbors 2 had to do backflips just to get them all in the same situation, all over again. In Neighbors, Zac Efron eventually made peace with his rival neighbors, played by Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, but then he literally forgot about that plot point in the follow-up, because if he didn’t they couldn’t recycle the exact same comedic set pieces they had before.
With no storyline to continue, and trailers that only promised the exact same movie but with a sorority instead of a frat house, it only makes sense that Neighbors 2 didn’t come across as a “must see,” even to fans of the first movie. Sadly, the best and most original part of the movie – the sorority subplot, which was new and funny and surprisingly socially relevant – was minimized in the advertising in favor of assurances that Neighbors 2 would play out exactly the same as Neighbors 1. Perhaps treating the sequel as a second course instead of the same old comfort food would have helped it find a larger audience.
(It’s not a summer movie, but I would argue that this “Done in One” effect also had an impact on Allegiant, the third film in the Divergent franchise, which – to those unfamiliar with the books, at least – came after a second film that seemed to wrap the whole story up in a tidy bow, if only in a Twilight Zone kind of way. Audiences got everything they needed, so coming back for more seemed optional.)
The other example(s) we should be looking at are Alice Through the Looking Glass and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, two sequels to two films that made a ton of money but that nobody seemed to actually “like” very much. In fact, both Alice in Wonderland (40) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) are often held up as examples of how NOT to tell a story in the modern age of visual effects. Alice emphasized spectacle over character and story, and Turtles emphasized product placement instead.
Both of the “original” films (as original as they can be, since they were both reboots) made money based on a curiosity factor, nostalgia and certainly a bit of spectacle. But once those novelties wore off, audiences were left with characters who had very little emotional impact, whose stories did not become a part of our lives in the that way more dramatically impactful blockbusters do. We have grown attachments to the cast of the Fast & Furious movies, for example, but the abrasive new Turtles and the bizarre deviations from Lewis Carroll’s original creations only kept us at arm’s length, demanding that audiences look “at” them rather than become personally involved “with” them.
(I should note, however, that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows actually FIXED a lot of of the problems of the first film, but it seems the damage has been done, and that audiences weren’t terribly interested in giving the series a second chance.)
Of course, in Hollywood, audiences can only vote with their money, but maybe they should get more than one vote. Studios only determine whether people want a sequel based on how much money the original made. If the popularity of a franchise only subsides in the months and years after the original release, the studios have no way of knowing about it. (Unless of course they asked somebody, but that’s crazy talk.)
Time, as I have said multiple times before, is the only critic that matters. Lots of movies are successful for a little while and then fade almost immediately into obscurity. (Do you remember when George of the Jungle was a blockbuster? And do you remember when the sequel most definitely wasn’t?) The films that make a lasting impression are the ones that have value, not just to audiences but also to studios.
This may not be a terribly useful lesson for Hollywood to learn – i.e. wait a while before you green light a sequel to a successful motion picture (I’m sure the investors would love that approach) – but if we don’t at least keep it in mind we’re going to keep getting sequels that nobody asked for, and the studios are going to keep being surprised when doing the same thing over and over again doesn’t yield different results.
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.