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Sequelmania

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It's not new, but ever wondered about the truth behind sequels?


The fact that Hollywood is cranking out remakes, sequels and adaptation with increasing vigour is nothing new.

Since 1916's Fall of a Nation (the follow-up to D W Griffith's 1915 hit Birth of a Nation), filmmakers and their investors have realised the principle today's studios exist upon; pre-existing properties sell.

Capitalising on a name, character, world or franchise the movie-going public already knows is cheap and easy from a marketing angle. If you make a movie that introduces something completely new, you not only have to plough a lot of your budget into marketing so people know what you're talking about, you have to make sure the movie is good enough to generate the word of mouth that will ensure its success.

If you're a film studio making a movie version of The Dukes of Hazzard, Miami Vice or Starsky and Hutch, you needn't even bother making it a good film. Brand association alone is enough to ensure a good opening weekend. By the time audiences realise how rubbish your film is, you'll already be sending trucks full of money down to the Central Bank of Los Angeles first thing Monday morning.

In 2006, PREP (pre-existing property) mania reached a new high. Of the blockbuster films released in the US summer season, every one was based on pre-existing material for the first time. X-Men: The Last Stand, Poseidon, Superman Returns, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The Da Vinci Code and Miami Vice were all sequels, remakes or adaptations. It can even be said Cars adheres strictly to the formula and themes laid down by every Pixar film since Toy Story.

So it's worth asking this year like never before; why must we spend every year slushing through the tepid swamp of movies about stuff we've seen before?

The obvious answer is the saving of marketing costs. After spending over 10 years in development hell, the announcement there's going to be a new Superman film is worth the same as a million 30 second TV spots about Nacho Libre or Fearless (which was actually called Jet Li's Fearless in order to wring as much fan recognition as possible out of it).

But there's a deeper motivation for film studios. For years now we've been bombarded with stories about the decline of cinema. 50 years ago the same hysteria accompanied the arrival of TV. This time it's the rise of everything from digital technologies to home theatre systems. There are too many distractions and too many other media competing for cinema audiences' money and time.

And unlike the old system, which comprised a well-worn path in one direction from cinema to the video shop and no further, new media is all about mash-ups, convergence and file sharing. Along with the drop in cinema attendances and the ubiquity of DVD (ironically, a technology facilitated by cinema), TV has arisen to a new position of respectability. No longer relegated to a mere TV Guide listing, you can consume TV shows when and how you want simply by going to the video shop, where box sets of Lost and Alias wrestle for space among Hollywood blockbusters.

The alarming dip in Hollywood's fortunes prompted some marketing boffin to hit upon the aspect of convergence currently driving Hollywood sequelmania. By snapping up the rights to pre-existing properties – often a TV show – they can sell you not just a movie ticket, but the product the movie is referencing all over again. It doesn't take much to work out why every time a big budget screen version accompanies the simultaneous release of the original show on DVD. A ticket to Miami Vice won't put enough money in the studio coffers to pay the salaries of director Michael Mann and in-demand actors like Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell. Not even buying the themed popcorn at the candy bar makes enough money for film studios any more.

But when you go home and read the review in the paper and there's an ad on the opposite page for the first four seasons of the iconic 80s show on which the film is based has just come out, it's a plea from Hollywood bigwigs to save their industry.

Not only does the trend show no signs of slowing, it's not just TV getting the repackaging treatment. Before DVD came of age in 2000, there were movies around for a century beforehand. That's a lot of products to bring out on DVD. Even those films we'd be gravely alarmed at seeing again are up for it. Announced recently was a new Police Academy film. You can almost see the development meeting now; 'The movies were crap, repackage them as cult comedy and they'll finance the $10-15m production of the new version.' Such is the economics of Hollywood.

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