New crop of follow-ups outpaces originals

Here are three factoids worth pondering:

Sequels are now consistently outperforming their predecessors. Booming DVD sales are adding muscle to the franchises. And the films’ “brand names” appear to be so strong that studios increasingly seem willing to toss aside the key talent of the original.

Welcome to the brave new world of sequel-itis.

Remember when sequels were a sort of frivolous byproduct for the major studios? Well, now they’re the core product. And audiences had better get used to seeing Roman numerals decorate seemingly every other movie title.

So far this summer, “2 Fast 2 Furious,” “The Matrix Reloaded” and “X2: The X-Men United” have each outgrossed the original.

And, for many of the nine other sequels set to bow before Labor Day, prospects appear bright.

They had better be. Never before has Hollywood placed such a high-stakes bet on sequels. So far, the wager appears to be paying off — to the great relief of the studios.

Just a few years ago, the conventional wisdom said that a successful sequel would do about two-thirds as much biz as a franchise original.

But there has been a radical change in that thinking.

Now, Hollywood is banking on the second and third installments taking the franchise to new heights. The key reasons for that shift in thinking are DVDs and marketing.

A film’s afterlife on homevid can add millions to a film’s income, and the home version can whet the audience appetite for a follow-up.

The first “Austin Powers” movie, for example, earned a mere $53.9 million at the domestic box office; however, the second film’s homevid-fed opening weekend of $54.9 million surpassed the entire run of its predecessor.

In addition, studios are getting savvier with their marketing initiatives, eager to capitalize on established brands.

In a few rare cases, the success of the first film at the box office and in ancillaries makes the job of marketing easier. With properties like “Star Wars” or “Terminator,” sometimes merely a teaser logo introduced in theaters is enough to foment audience excitement.

But in most cases, execs are leaving nothing to chance. Since execs no longer view a second or third film with diminished hope, they’re putting considerable muscle and money behind these franchises.

Still, a sequel is hardly a slamdunk.

Studios are haunted by such pics as “Speed 2,” “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2″ and “Babe: Pig in the City,” which proved that one misstep can kill a potentially long and lucrative franchise.

More recent backsliders include last year’s “Analyze That” and “Stuart Little 2″ and the prior summer’s “Scary Movie 2.”

There are several other reasons for concern:

  • Marketing costs on sequels are just as high as on the original. Despite higher audience awareness for sequels, studios must identify bigger auds for the pricier followup films.

  • An inclination to emphasize production values can be both costly and taxing of crix and auds’ patience if the flash of the sequel supplants plot and substance.

  • Sony is shifting “Charlie’s Angels” from November to June and, though the buzz is good, there’s always a risk when a sequel bows in a different season than the first one. Sony’s “Stuart 2″ suffered from moving from December to July.

  • And the biggest ballooning to production budgets comes from greatly inflated talent costs.

Topliner demands on “Spider-Man 2″ so unnerved Sony execs they threatened to cast an alternate “Spidey” in the sequel should Tobey Maguire not change his tune. (He did.)

Universal went so far as to do without “Fast and Furious” co-star Vin Diesel in “2 Fast” to avoid big upfront and back-end contract demands. Yet the sequel’s production costs still swelled to $75 million from a mere $35 million on the original.

The studio is taking a similarly prudent tack with “American Wedding,” the third pic in its popular “American Pie” franchise slated for Aug. 1.

“Wedding” re-assembles enough cast members necessary to populate a story line in which two of the franchise regulars finally get hitched. So, Jason Biggs and Alyson Hannigan are back as the betrothed couple, but Chris Klein and Tara Reid missed out on “Wedding” invitations.

“American Pie 2″ bowed in August 2001 with $45.1 million en route to a $145.1 million domestic run. That compared with 1999 original’s $18.7 million opening and total haul of $102.6 million.

U execs credit heavy focus on characters for the first sequel’s big success, and they hope auds will similarly care about thesps’ latest on-screen adventures in “Wedding.”

“Men in Black II” cost so much due to profit participation that its big B.O. still meant that its profit margins were considerably reduced.

Franchise success is never self-generating, Hollywood execs stress.

“It’s a complex equation that figures in determining whether the sequel is capable of capturing the same level of excitement as the original,” U vice chairman Marc Shmuger muses.

U’s “2 Fast” must further prove itself over subsequent weeks, but the street-rod sequel roared off the starting line with 25% more opening B.O. fuel than franchise progenitor “The Fast and the Furious.”

“X2″ has done so well a third installment in the comix-inspired series is all but certain.

And the “Reloaded” booty has set the stage for “The Matrix Revolutions,” a third installment skedded for November. “Reloaded” and “Revolutions” were filmed at the same time.

Aside from the success of this summer’s trio, there’s another good reason for the optimism in Hollywood: Previously somnolent moviegoers are suddenly wide awake and storming movie theaters.

Through June 8, year-to-date grosses remain 2.5% behind the comparable portion of last year. But industrywide B.O. has marked big weekly upticks in three consecutive seshes, and total summer grosses are 5% ahead of last year, according to data from B.O. tracker Nielsen EDI.

“I believe you can get a momentum going, and there seems to be a big momentum right now,” EDI exec VP Dan Marks says. “The public gets onto a roll — they get movies on the mind.”

Distribs soon to hit theaters with their tentpole sequels are thusly aiming a bit higher than in the past. They include:

  • New Line’s “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd” from New Line, unspooling this weekend (click here to see review);

  • Sony’s “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” June 27;

  • Warner Bros.’ “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” July 2;

  • MGM’s “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde,” set for July 2;

  • Sony’s “Bad Boys 2,” July 18;

  • Miramax/Dimension’s “Spy Kids 3D: Game Over,” July 25;

  • Paramount’s “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life,” July 25;

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