Sequels more than equal

Gaggle of summer reprises flies north of originals

In one of the end-credit outtakes in “Rush Hour 2,” Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan hurl a villain out a high-rise hotel window.

Tucker then earns one of the film’s biggest laughs by looking down and cracking: “Guess he won’t be around for ‘Rush Hour 3!'”

In today’s Hollywood, missing out on a sequel opportunity is a fate worse than death. Never has that principle been more true than in the summer of 2001 — the most fruitful sequel summer in more than a decade.

The season had six in all, not counting pseudo echoes like “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” and “Planet of the Apes.”

The results stumped skeptics who believed most of the pics were retreads headed for a fall. It is telling that one of the biggest misfires was “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” a singleton if there ever was one (at least until the Blue Fairy gets her own production deal).

Five of the six sequels cleared $100 million. More significantly, three out-grossed their originals: New Line’s “Rush Hour 2” and Universal’s “American Pie 2” and “The Mummy Returns.”

The other three — Fox’s “Dr. Dolittle 2,” U’s “Jurassic Park III” and Miramax/Dimension’s “Scary Movie 2” — did well enough to potentially merit more installments.

Now, as the biz takes a break from followups (no sequels are skedded for release the rest of this year), many industryites sense a resurgent audience appetite for familiar properties.

Critics may carp about the artistic limitations of recycling, but the prevailing sentiment at studios is that they honor a serial heritage dating way back to “The Perils of Pauline.” The only question is simply how to deliver the goods.

“There is great value — with marketing costs so high — of not to have to invent a brand-new product every weekend,” says Fox chairman Tom Rothman.

Russell Schwartz, marketing chief at New Line, agrees, but also cautions: “Audiences are just not duped these days. They can tell when something is just repeated. That’s why the sequel business started to fizzle in the early ’90s.”

Several original pics from summer ’01 are ticketed for sequels. Among them: “Shrek,” “Cats & Dogs,” “Legally Blonde,” “Tomb Raider” and “Planet of the Apes.”

To point them in the right direction (think “Toy Story 2,” not “Speed 2: Cruise Control”), veterans of the clone wars offer three golden rules:

  • Focus on the characters.

    A harbinger of the sequel-friendly summer came in February, when “Hannibal” proved the immense draw of a familiar face. Despite lacking its predecessor’s Oscar-winning director and co-star, the MGM-Universal co-venture opened to $58 million domestically on the way to $165 million (and $350 million worldwide).

    “Above all else, you’ve got to have a strong creative take on it,” Rothman says. “But if you’ve got a character people grow attached to, you see the same loyalty people show toward the next episode of ‘Friends.’ ”

  • Stoke demand on video and DVD.

    To extend Rothman’s metaphor, television audiences are snapping up “Sopranos” DVDs while awaiting the next season. They watched “Survivor 2” as eagerly as they flocked to the first edition.

    Many film execs see similar behavior developing at the megaplex, especially with lower-budget pics.

    The best example is “Austin Powers 2.” When the original did $54 million in 1997, New Line knew it had a hit. But when the company detected phenomenal video numbers, it put enormous resources and marketing muscle behind “Austin Powers 2,” which got a prime June release date in 1999. It grossed $205.4 million after a $54.9 million bow — at the time the best ever domestic tally for a comedy.

    Similar upside was mined on New Line’s followups to “Friday” and “Rush Hour.”

    “Our audience was expanded through video,” Schwartz says. “We were able to reach all four quadrants. People came to the second movie who hadn’t seen the first in the theater.”

    Another title aiming for a similar rags-to-riches arc elsewhere is “Dude, Where’s My Car?” at Fox.

  • Don’t flash the greenlight too soon.

    Too often studios riding high on the first go-round will automatically fast-track another installment without making sure the essential elements — from script to cast — are in place.

    Think about it: Did we really need a Harrison Ford-less “U.S. Marshals” or a full-color “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2”?

    Of course, the cost of recapturing past glory can be steep. Reuniting the “Men in Black” crew is projected to run Sony about $140 million.

    “You have to look at the economics and make sure it makes sense,” says Robert Friedman, vice chairman of Paramount’s motion picture group. “A movie doesn’t have to make $100 million to be successful.”

    Friedman cites the second “Rugrats” pic, which took in $76 million last year after enjoying cost savings in production and marketing due to its origins at Par’s sister cable net Nickelodeon.

    Toby Emmerich, production prexy at New Line, says the uncomfortable truth about the sequel biz is that “a lot of times it can earn more money but not be as good as the first one. You have all of that spending and good will stemming from the original film.”

    For both fiscal and creative reasons, we may never see a return to the halcyon days when Paramount had to wheedle Francis Ford Coppola into revisiting “The Godfather.” And to say nothing of the concept, the budget would be prohibitive for “Gladiator: Et 2.”

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