Hollywood’s franchise obsession!

More and more sequels are hitting big screens around us. As popcorn sales soar, is the quality of the movies going down? How did this start? Where to is the industry heading? Nasif Tanjim tries to find answers.


"Isn't this a sequel?"

“Isn’t this a sequel?”

We’re not great at original concepts. Can we interest you in another generic sequel? This seems to be the question Hollywood studios are asking us by pumping out more sequels than any time in their history.

Hollywood has a long history of producing sequels. In the 1930s episodic movie ‘serials’ like Flash Gordon brought in the big bucks. And after failing to get the license to remake it, a certain guy named George Lucas went on to create what according to Guinness book of world records is ‘The most successful merchandising franchise of all time’, Star Wars! In the same decade Universal Studios, known for producing horror movies also spawned numerous sequels, such as Bride of Frankenstein and Dracula’s Daughter. In the decades that followed, the biggest studios produced movies from countless genre — comedies, westerns, musicals, noirs. Stars like John Wayne James Cagney, Fred Astaire and the Marx Brothers each had genres they specialsed in, and more often than not they were typecast.

The Godfather: Part II became the first sequel to win best picture at the 47th session of the Academy Awards. This ushered in a new era of sequels, sequels and some more sequels. But instead of an era of critical excellence, we got an area of studio greed. The studios saw an opportunity to squeeze their successes for all they were worth, producing a succession of mediocre follow-ups to hit flicks over the next 20 years. The blockbuster success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, which, according to pundits, was the first summer blockbuster to inspire the studio to release four sequels, each worse than the previous one (Spielberg had the presence of mind to decline any involvement in any of them). Climaxing in the horrendous Jaws: The Revenge (1987) is regarded widely as one of the worst films ever made! The immortal Michael Caine, the film’s star gave it a glowing review saying ‘I’ve never seen it, but by all accounts it’s terrible.’

By the early 1990s a recipe (for disaster?) had been devised for sequels, particularly for action movies. Assuming the first film was a success, a second could be produced using essentially the same plot but in a different setting, higher stakes and perhaps most importantly more explosions. Bruce Willis fought a gang of criminals in a Los Angeles skyscraper, in Die Hard, arguably the greatest Christmas movie ever. In the sequel three years later, the action had moved to an airport. The latest film was set in Chernobyl (location of the biggest nuclear disaster in human history).

Sequels promise more screen time for beloved characters, with everything else from the previous one but bigger, and most of the time good box-office returns. But something happened in 1997 that made the studios realise how profitable franchise films could be. So what happened you ask? The second movie in the Austin Powers franchise powered an opening weekend that was bigger than the entire run of the first film. The innuendo-laden first movie parody of the spy genre starring Mike Myers scraped to $54m in total ticket sales at the US box office. Not the best of earnings but it became a cult hit on home video. So by the time the second movie came out the fans were hungry for Myer.

The most glorious moment for sequels came in 2003 when The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won a record-equaling 11 Oscars, including best picture and best director for Peter Jackson. The following decade was dominated by franchises: The Matrix series, Pirates of the Caribbean, the eight instalments in the Harry Potter series, a rejuvenated James Bond series with Daniel Craig in the titular role, two different Spider-Man franchises. With Iron Man, Marvel struck cinematic gold. Thus began the area of the super heroes. The hit generating machine that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise has produced one hit after another. In Hollywood, familiarity breeds success, not contempt.

Critical and commercial successes like Dunkirk, Get Out, Girls Trip, and Baby Driver which were not part of any established franchise indicate that well-made, thought provoking movies can make money, pleasing critics in the process. On the other hand, according to Box Office Mojo out of the 25 biggest hits of this year 20 were either sequels, part of a bigger cinematic universe or at least remakes.

Directors were once the king of Hollywood but now they enjoy increasingly lower creative freedom over their projects. Studio executives meddle with the production of the movies so much, to ensure that the movies follow certain formulas, that directors like Edger Wright have to leave their projects sighting ‘creative differences’. Studios are not going to fix what they think is not broken.

So, whether the strategy of ‘making original film’ can replace the ‘milking every last penny from franchises’ strategy, remains in the future to be seen.

I know. I know the future doesn’t seem very promising if you love movies with originality. So, if you are a fan of witty dialogues, refreshing storylines, and interesting characters completed by nuanced storytelling you might want to shift your gaze to the small screen dear reader. We are living in the golden age of television after all. And if that too is not good enough for you they do say ‘old is gold’ for a reason.


Nasif Tanjim is a student of University of Dhaka


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