Years ago, if a movie became a hit, it would spawn a sequel starring diminished returns, followed by either a third entry that tarnished the screen or went straight to home video. In special cases (read: horror) you could expect a dozen movies stemming from one big hit, creating a sine wave of varying quality. The old pattern wasn’t good, but it was reliable.
It’s also the same as the new pattern, except for one sinister addition: overwhelming knowledge.
What worked about the grind-a-great-thing-into-the-ground method of olden times was that we weren’t bombarded with it all at once. We knew it would happen, but we didn’t know it would happen, and it definitely wasn’t shoved in our faces. It could be a few months (or even years) before hearing that the Movie We Loved was getting another installment, and the distance gave us optimism even though the track record for sequels was abysmal. It was still an opportunity to spend more time with characters and worlds we enjoyed. If it was ultimately disappointing, so what? We weren’t expecting it to be as good as the first time around.
You can probably guess that I’m using all this lawn protection to exclaim in one voice that The LEGO Movie is fantastic, and news of ad nauseam sequels is awful.
First of all, I recognize that I’m taking the cynical view — treating news that I’m getting three pounds of chocolate instead of one with a grimace instead of grabbing extra napkins. I get that, and part of me is excited for the potential for seeing the LEGO gang back together. The other part of me is hardened by years of sequels where directors or writers or entire casts weren’t involved, or where it didn’t matter if they were.
So I want to show that the new kitchen sink method of project announcement is bad not solely because it’s newfangled and different, but because it’s inherently bad. There are two core reasons.
At the top of the list is the stomach-churning presumption at work. Studios aren’t even pretending anymore, which is at least admirable in its honesty (probably?), but they’ve also removed all pretense that they give a shit whether a second movie is any good, or even if anyone likes it. We liked a thing they made, so now they’re going to make four more of them regardless of what we think because they’ll be able to squeeze blood from the rock using magic math and DVD sales in China. Brand creation, not sustainability, is all that matters.
The other element is the narrowing of variety this all signals. It’s understandable that studios would look to popular movies and choose to slap a 2 on them, but situations like two (possibly four) movies branching from LEGO‘s success and Warners’ hilariously meaningless list of unknown superhero movies illustrate that a studio once interested in experimentation and filmmaker freedom is now betting a lot on two giant eggs in their basket. Three if you count Harry Potter. When they commit to making a sequel, it means a slot on the release schedule is reserved, protected from being invaded by another project. Now, they’re committing to making multiple sequels and franchise entries, securing even more real estate (and huge amounts of money for budgets and P&A) for tentpoles.
They’re not alone. There are currently hundreds of sequels in development.
Fortunately, increased availability of indie films has grown alongside studio puckering. We will need to look into that growing world to see anything beyond schlock in the winter, blockbuster spectacles in the extended summer and Oscar bait in the fall.
Yes, we know too much. We don’t hear about a movie when it starts filming (stop laughing), and studios have had to stretch the definitions of seasons and schedules in order to compete with one another into oblivion. Think about it in these terms: the next time you interview for a job or a promotion, and the boss asks you where you see yourself in five years, you can say, “Seeing Untitled DC Film.”
The ultimate point being that all of that information, all at once, means that loving a movie comes with a new price tag. When we walk out of a theater and collectively and enthusiastically champion something, we can be sure that the studio will be writing plans to run it into the ground as quickly as possible with the same amount of gusto. Or that they already have. And announced it an hour before the movie even opened.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that sequel quality is gotten better. If there’s a second silver lining, it’s that all of this is in our heads. No one at Warners is stupid enough to press down harder on the gas after lackluster returns, rendering that long list of dates into 2020 just as hypothetical as any other development slate without “firm” release dates attached. (It was especially funny that Warners planted their Untitled flag in chest-out defiance while changing the date for one of their biggest projects.)
The same goes for The LEGO Movie‘s potential children. Any number of things could happen between now and the start of filming. Regardless of the timeless mercurial nature of the beast, though, the message that Warners is sending with all these bold pronouncements is that if we tell them we enjoyed a meal, they’re going to keep shoveling it onto our plates.