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Sequelitis rampant as summer nears

With three major sequels debuting this month and nearly a dozen others on tap this summer, the studios are again rallying around the familiarcry: Send in the clones.

And once again many in the business are wondering: Why bother?

Sure, Paramount’s “Naked Gun 33 1/3” zoomed to the top of the charts after its March 18 debut, drawing $ 16.9 million in its first weekend. But a survey of recent sequels reveals that very few are in fact successful — if success is measured by the commonly accepted benchmark that a sequel should gross at least 60% of the previous installment’s B.O.

Of the dozen sequels released by major studios since January 1993, two grossed above 60% of the previous film, one grossed exactly 60%, and nine came in below par. The sampling dozen produced an average return of 48% and, although one film –“House Party 3”– came close, there wasn’t a single instance of a film with a gross that bettered its earlier outings.

Studios undaunted

That doesn’t stop studios from trying. Disney’s “D2: The Mighty Ducks” entered the fray March 25, pulling a strong $ 10 million in its first weekend, and on deck is Morgan Creek/Warner Bros.’ “Major League II,” which opens March 30.

“In a high-risk business, big stars and sequels are as close as you get to a sure thing,” insists a senior studio executive. “Every time out you’re taking a $ 40 million or $ 50 million gamble. If Tom Cruise is attached or someone walks in with ‘Sleepless in Seattle II,’ that’s a script that’s going to be made.”

In the period from Easter through Labor Day weekend, a minimum of a dozen such films will enter the marketplace. In the coming months we can expect “The Next Karate Kid,””City Slickers 2” and “3 Ninjas Kick Back,” among others.

And of course each sequel costs more than the last — usually from 35% to 40% more. One analyst refers to the arithmetic as a “weird Las Vegas book”– and the odds are not in favor of the house.

So why does the reliance continue unabated?

Aside from a better than average probability of reaching a certain box office minimum, there’s the long-shot possibility of beating the odds and discovering the next “Star Wars,””Indiana Jones” or “Lethal Weapon” franchise.

And sequels generally have exhibitors smiling. They are known quantities, and this summer’s group is heavily weighted toward family and pre-teen audiences. Both the new “Major League” and “Beverly Hills Cop” pix have toned down their language and violence quotient in hopes of spreading a wider box office net.

Safety in numbers

“We’ll embrace anything,” jokes Mike Pade of Mann Theaters. “Sequels are safe harbor.”

Some insist it’s actually the harder-edged or action-oriented franchises, such as “Die Hard” or “Lethal Weapon,” that tend to hold up better in repeated incarnations. Hollywood is keeping a close eye on “Beverly Hills Cop” and the third Jack Ryan film, “Clear and Present Danger,” for that reason. Still one or two years away are kinetic repeaters like “Batman 3,””Under Siege 2,” and new Bond and Indiana Jones films — not to mention “Return to Jurassic Park.”

“There’s unquestionably a bottom-line business decision to do sequels, but that doesn’t mean it’s a wholly cynical process,” says Universal Pictures president Tom Pollock. “I believe that the continuing love of a character or characters is what this is all about. We are going into the third generation of television, and that is a medium where people tune in week after week to see the same characters.”

But one exhibitor complains that sequels too often are carbon copies of their inspirations, causing auds to feel exploited.

Sequel-free summer

Indeed, a year ago Hollywood fretted that the ’93 summer season was light on franchise fare. But when the frame posted the best box office returns ever, analysts pointed to the absence of numbers in titles to explain the commercial surge. Among last year’s top 25 grossers, none was a sequel.

Meanwhile, the boom in ancillary markets has not helped sequels. The availability of the original on cable or video “only reinforces the value of the first,” says a studio marketing exec. “It’s the rare sequel that can make it on the merits of the original. And if you’re lucky once with a film that’s not very good, you should remember that even in the movie business, lightning does not strike twice.”

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