Anghus Houvouras on whether the ‘frequel’ has ruined the Hollywood blockbuster…
Death is probably the most overused metaphor in the arsenal of the film writer. In this age of binary theory, everything is either a masterpiece or a piece of shit. So the idea that terrible movies have started to erode the very fabric of the cinematic experience are fairly commonplace among the laziest of online columnists.
There have been columns about the so-called ‘death’ of movies for years. There are always an odd collection of supposed film lovers who seem invested in the idea that the medium they write about is always one bad fiscal quarter away from spiraling into oblivion. When television was introduced, pundits questioned the life expectancy of cinema. When the VCR was introduced giving people the option to watch movies at home, pundits began to wonder if the cineplexes would shutter. Then it was DVD, then Blu-ray, then the internet and streaming services. Every few years someone gleefully says that this antiquated medium with a rapidly disintegrating business model is knocking at death’s door. Like some callous relative waiting for an elderly family member to die in order to collect a long overdue inheritance.
As a medium, it seems pretty damn obvious that the industry isn’t quite dead. There are good years, bad years, and lots of extenuating circumstances that impact the success of the movie business. While the genres have narrowed and the choices are becoming more limited, there is still a need and a desire for people to see movies.
If you really want a post mortem, we can start to pick apart the rotting corpse of the big budget blockbuster, because it’s beginning to stink.
The blockbuster is in a strange place. With studios looking for guaranteed returns, they’ve moved into unprecedented territory: not only are studios mining intellectual properties for more film ready franchises, they’re also releasing sequels more frequently. So not only are we getting more familiar product from studios, we’re getting them at a higher clip than ever before. I call them ‘frequels’.
Frequels = frequent sequels.
There was a time when sequels weren’t a foregone conclusion. A movie had to perform well, then a sequel would start to be developed. Alien would become a huge hit. Then the studio would start to develop ideas for a sequel and finding the right talent to bring it to life. Five or six years later you’d end up with a follow-up. This is probably why films like Alien and Terminator ended up with such amazing sequels. Even when studios were trying to churn out sequels at a fast pace, there was usually around three years or more, minimum, before the next installment came out. There was less product and it was more spaced out.
For me, the Frequel era began with two franchises: The Lord of the Rings & The Matrix. The idea of filming installments back to back was something that had been tried before in extremely limited trials. In addition, very few movie series were launched. Hollywood was always nervous about the proposition of financing a film series that hadn’t yet proven itself.
The Lord of the Rings had always been envisioned as trilogy and was engineered as such. A series of movies that could be shot in tandem and released each year for three subsequent years. It’s hard to think back now at the multi-billion dollar, Oscar-winning franchise as a risk. But there was a time where it was considered just that. Each year, for three straight years, fans were treated to some truly exceptional films that helped usher in a new age of billion dollar blockbusters.
On the other side of the spectrum we had The Matrix. A huge, genre defying blockbuster that came from nowhere to become a pop culture phenomenon. Warner Bros. saw the potential to launch a franchise and put two sequels into production. Fans were excited as the prospect of more Matrix movies felt like an amazing gift. Then, we saw them. Say what you will about The Matrix Reloaded & The Matrix Revolutions, but the public’s reaction to them was clear: Reloaded was consumed and generally left fans feeling ambivalent. Revolutions was met with disdain making just over half of what Reloaded had pulled in. Our collective thirst for more Matrix movies was met and left us with a bad taste in our mouths. Before we could even decide if we wanted to see how it all ended, another Frequel was released. Most people decided they had little care to find out Neo’s final fate. It was a sobering lesson.
As the 2000’s turned into the 2010’s, the Frequel became a constant cinematic companion. The Hunger Games, Twilight, The Maze Runner, The Divergent Series, and a number of other franchises were launched with the idea of launching subsequent Frequels. This idea of a studio releasing annual or bi-annual installments became normalized.
Now, Disney has turned the Frequel into multi-annual event. Marvel movie are coming at fans two to three times a year. Technically, not every Marvel movie is a sequel but it’s spawned from the same shared universe. Meanwhile, Star Wars films are going to become an annual event from now until the year 10 billion when the sun expands and swallows our big blue marble whole. Though the Star Wars and Marvel movies are financial winners and perform consistently well, they are releasing Frequels at a frequency that is taking its toll on all blockbusters. The space between is shortening and the viability of non-frequels becomes more difficult.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and X-Men: Apocalypse are two franchises that suffered a horrible Frequel fate. While The Fast and the Furious films have found success with Frequels every other year. However, I believe that a Frequel based film economy will be difficult to sustain. Eventually, all these franchises begin to feel eerily similar and there will only be a handful that will be able to maintain the momentum needed to supported each subsequent Frequels.
The Frequel is a real danger to the blockbuster movie model and may very well be killing our anticipation for future franchises.