Can’t sequels be equal?

AN ADMISSION: I’D ENJOY seeing sequels to “Liar Liar” and “Jerry Maguire.” Jim Carrey, in his sequel, might give up the law to become a fast-talking sports agent like, say, Jerry Maguire. Similarly Tom Cruise, in his sequel, would abandon sports to become an agent at CAA where he might represent stars like, well, Tom Cruise. Now those would be two edgy movies for next summer.

Having said all this, I confess I’ve had it with sequels. As Richard Corliss observed in Time, the problem with this summer’s movies “isn’t just that they’re bad movies, but that they’re the same bad movie.”

Summer 1997 will be remembered as the season when the cost of sequels headed north and the returns headed south. It’s the summer when “Speed 2” cost four times as much as “Speed” and will gross less than half the money; the summer when Warners spent a fortune making the fourth “Batman” sequel, but forgot to write a real part for its lead character.

In view of all this, a moratorium on sequels clearly deserves serious consideration. It’s not just a question of saving money, but also saving face. Think of the cinematic debacles we might avoid: Howard Stern will not have to reveal any more “Private Parts.” Steven Spielberg will be spared from thinking up any more dinosaur stunts. And actors will be liberated from having to utter lines like, “Watch out, here comes the lava.”

What went wrong with the sequels business? Back in the heyday of the studio system, the “Andy Hardy” sequels and their ilk seemed downright lovable. In those days, the audience followed the same actors playing the same characters from situation to situation.

In “Batman,” by contrast, the characters are as interchangeable as the cast. The only continuity comes from the merchandise.

ARGUABLY THE MOST SATISFYING modern sequel was “The Godfather Part II,” which intercut the continuing saga with a fascinating prequel. George Lucas is even now at work in London with two back-to-back prequels to “Star Wars.” Surely the “Indiana Jones” and “Rocky” series offered superbly successful examples of this “continuing saga” approach.

In many cases, earlier sequels actually improved upon their predecessors both in terms of commerce and art. “Lethal Weapon II” returned a domestic gross of $ 147 million, compared with $ 65 million for the original “Lethal Weapon.”

No so the present crop. Warners initially predicted that its fourth “Batman” would do $ 150 million domestic, roughly equal to its production cost, but, given two successive weeks of 40% declines, the sequel will have to huff and puff to climb past $ 100 million.

Another measure: the negative critical response. In Variety’s Crix’ Picks compilation of reviews in major markets, the newest “Batman” was greeted with only three “pro” reviews from critics compared with a chorus of 40 negatives or mixed. The second “Batman,” by contrast, elicited 30 positive reviews compared with 37 mixed or negative.

Even more striking, “Speed 2” turned up only three positive reviews compared with 43 negative or mixed notices, while the original elicited 46 “pros” and only 12 “cons.”

I REALIZE THAT SEQUELS historically have been critic-proof, but these responses nonetheless indicate that something resembling mass hostility has broken out toward the sequels business. The reason is that sequels have blatantly become “franchises” rather than movies. “Noisy, campy and overproduced,” in David Ansen’s words, these “event pictures” have rolled down the assembly line with the aim of selling merchandise, spurring fast-food tie-ins or inspiring theme-park rides.

They weren’t designed to be movies; they were designed to be “content” produced by “content providers.” Hence the ultimate irony: As movies increasingly have been designed as pure business ventures, they’ve become — guess what — marginal business ventures.

Thinking about all that, maybe Tom Cruise and Jim Carrey should think again about doing their sequels to “Jerry Maguire” or “Liar Liar.”

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