Sequels sink sans stars

Studios misjudge auds tastes

Will a rash of lackluster sequels dampen Hollywood’s franchise fever?

With the exception of “The Ring 2,” the first eight sequels of 2005 have proved to be a desultory group, calling into question some of the basic assumptions of Hollywood’s spinoff strategy.

It’s long been argued that sequels are a panacea for the volatility of opening weekend box office. They’re pre-branded and therefore easy to market; they’re part of a series and therefore lend themselves to DVDs, videogames and other ancillary markets.

But witness the disappointing returns of this year’s sequels to date — among them, “XXX: State of the Union,” “Son of the Mask,” “Elektra,” “Beauty Shop” and “Miss Congeniality: Armed and Fabulous.” In each case, studios and producers badly misjudged the audience appetite for another bite of a hit movie.

That’s not to say sequels are a lost cause. The first quarter of every year tends to be a box office wasteland, and this year was no difference.

But increasingly, studio sequels fall into two categories: — high-profile juggernauts like last summer’s “Shrek 2,” “Spider-Man 2” and “Harry Potter 3” and low-profile duds like most of this year’s crop.

The most painful look to be Sony’s “XXX 2,” starring Ice Cube, and New Line’s “Son of the Mask,” starring Jamie Kennedy. In both cases, studios decided to save money by not using the respective stars — Vin Diesel and Jim Carrey — from the original films.

“When you make a ‘XXX’ film without Vin Diesel, you’re taking away what made the first film distinctive,” one agent notes. “It’s almost an admission to the audience that there may be something wrong with it.”

The original, with Diesel portraying a sort of Generation X version of James Bond, grossed $276 million worldwide in 2002; the sequel looks on track to take in perhaps $25 million domestically and $50 million on the foreign side.

It didn’t help matters that the sequel pretty much shed the original’s antiestablishment feel, and that the basic premise was stretched so thin it drew hoots from the critics (Roger Ebert described it as “theater of the absurd”).

Additionally for Revolution, the dismal performance by “XXX: State of the Union” came at a delicate time in the midst of negotiations of a new deal with Sony.

New Line execs concede they erred on two fronts on “Son of the Mask” by going without Carrey and relying heavily on special effects.

“I think the town is going to take a more cautious approach and realize that many ideas are not repeatable,” one producer laments. “Isn’t it just common sense to ask whether anyone wants to see another film about some secret agent named XXX or Sandra Bullock being an FBI agent named Gracie Hart?”

Not only is it hard to imagine a third “Mask” or “XXX” getting greenlit, it’s also chilled the climate, for now, for sequels that lack high-wattage star power.

Take, for example, “Miss Congeniality 2.” It’s finished at $47 million domestically and may get to $50 million overseas — less than half the $212 million the original grossed four years ago.

“I think you wind up with a problem when you take films that were sort of borderline successes or sleeper hits like ‘Analyze This,’ ‘The Whole Nine Yards,’ or ‘Get Shorty,’ ” one exec asserts. “You may have gotten a little lucky the first time around, but that doesn’t mean that lightning will strike twice.”

The rule of thumb with sequels has been to hope for a match of the original’s gross and be satisfied with two-thirds — e.g., “The Ring Two,” “Be Cool,” “Barbershop 2: Back in Business” and “Blade: Trinity.”

Besides “Star Wars: Episode III,” the upcoming slate for the rest of 2005 is relatively light on sequels — “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” “Batman Begins” and “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.”

“Deuce Bigalow is just enough of an iconic character to merit a sequel,” one producer offers.

Whether or not that’s true, “Deuce Bigalow 2” is certainly a small risk compared with next year’s blockbuster spinoffs, “Pirates of the Caribbean 2,” “Mission: Impossible 3,” “Rush Hour 3” and “X-Men 3.”

“Spider-Man 3” arrives in 2007; Paramount’s holding its breath that George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford can agree on the Jeff Nathanson script for “Indiana Jones 4.”

In the meantime, though, producers who want to do a nontentpole sequel are finding a tough road due to the difficulty of replicating the elements that made the original work.

“You can tell by the number of subpar sequels that it’s very tough to get it right,” notes David Friendly, producer of “Big Momma’s House 2,” in which Martin Lawrence’s character plays an undercover nanny. “Getting the story so that it’s organic and not contrived, waiting the right amount of time, getting the stars back — there’s nothing easy about it.”

That doesn’t mean he’ll stop trying. Friendly’s already got a plan percolating for a sequel to “The Honeymooners” if the comedy hits when it opens in June.

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