Does shooting films back to back work?

With Paramount and Hasbro apparently considering making Transformers 4 and 5 back to back, Simon argues that it’s an approach that often works...

Yesterday, word was filtering through that Paramount Pictures and Hasbro were looking into the possibility of shooting the next two Transformers movies back to back. And you can see the advantage to the companies concerned. After all, making movies is expensive, and if you can deploy some economy of scale in making two films in one go, then that helps to reign in the bill a bit. 

And, as we’re being constantly reminded, we’re in austere times. Just look at the example of The Lone Ranger, a movie production that was all but shut down until savings of a good few million could be found in the budget. Then you have the further example of Men In Black III, which reportedly started shooting early to take advantage of a tax break, before production went on hiatus while the rest of the script was bashed into shape. It’ll be interesting to see how that one turns out.

So, from the perspective of an Excel spreadsheet, arguably one of the defining forces of the Transformers franchise to date, it’s understandable why back to back productions would be investigated.

The general consensus that I’ve picked up, from reading some of the reactions to the Transformers story, is that back to back productions is generally a bad thing. But I’m not sure I agree. I certainly think it presents major problems, and usually isn’t for the absolute best. But rarely have back to back movies resulted in a disaster.

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So let’s deal with the obvious exceptions to that first, before you get your flamethrowers out.

The most obvious, and recent example, of things not entirely going to plan, can be found in the middle two Pirates Of The Caribbean movies (the fourth one benefitted from a more singular focus, which oddly, also resulted in it being crap). It’s hard to work out just which is worse out of Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, but the combination of the two is an almost pleasure-free way to lose the best part of six hours sitting through them. 

Granted, there are moments in both films where they threaten to burst into something more promising. But incoherent, uninteresting writing was just the foundation of the problems here, although both movies enjoyed scary levels of success. From a bean counting point of view, the decision to do the movies back to back worked. From a creative, or quality, standpoint? ‘Less successful’, would be on the generous side. Heck, just finding a way to take 15 minutes out of each would have been worth it.

The last time before then that the second and third movies in a franchise were shot back to back? That’d be the Matrix sequels. And the same problems ensued. A battered script, and no space in the production to sort out the problems with one movie, yet alone both of them. Any lessons could barely be carried over from one film to the next, due to the haste and size of the combined productions.

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In these instances, going for the back to back approach robbed each film of time and care, and the problems were clear in the final cuts of all four movies concerned. But, and this might not be the populist view, I’d argue that Pirates and the Matrix were the exceptions to the rule.

So what about the other side of the coin?

Clint Eastwood, for starters, shot Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima back to back, and while the former is a middling movie at best, the latter is really quite strong. All the more so for being a companion piece to the first film. The difference here is that the decision to make the films this way was undertaken because it suited what the movies themselves needed. It was also taken very early.

I’m sure there were economic benefits, but they didn’t appear to be the driving force. But still, there was nonetheless arguably a penalty to pay. Would Flags, for instance, have been a better film, had Clint’s energies been focused on tying that up, rather than moving onto Letters From Iwo Jima? Mind you, would it have mattered anyway, given the speed and efficiency that Eastwood works at?

One film that, by the admission of its director, did feel a bit of a pinch, was Back To The Future Part II. I found this surprising, as I’m a real fan of the second Back To The Future movie. But Robert Zemeckis, of late, has admitted that he didn’t quite get to spend as much time on the edit, on fine-tuning the movie, as he would have liked.

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Such were the demands of Back To The Future Part III, which he shot it back to back with (with just a couple of weeks left in between), that he couldn’t make as much time as he wanted in the schedule. It’s surprising perhaps, as the Back To The Future films are generally regarded as examples of when back to back productions work at their best.

I’d also submit that the last two Harry Potter movies showed little damage from being shot one after the other, and the same could apply to the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, and the two Kill Bills. But then these were different beasts. In these cases, this was the plan (okay, perhaps not quite the plan in the case of Kill Bill, where a split was proposed, but even so, time was built in to manage that).

The work was put in beforehand to make the schedule workable, and space was built in afterwards to fix any problems that arose. Peter Jackson is repeating the exercise with The Hobbit, and even though few filmmakers wouldn’t like more time, there’s space built in for reshoots, for instance. That said, the schedule for the first Hobbit film still looks really quite tight.

I should also briefly mention Superman and Superman II, which were originally shot together. Although in this case, the brakes were applied to Superman II when the Salkinds were struggling to meet the budget demands of the first film. Even so, the majority of Superman II was in the can before Richard Lester came in and finished off the movie.

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Few are going to argue, I’d suggest, that back to back productions are the way forward. But I was surprised to see that the ratio of times they’ve worked out is generous, when compared to the number of times they’ve crashed and burned. It’s a model that Hollywood continues to employ, too, with the two parts of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn shot this way.

However, the shadow of the Pirates films in particular looms large, and if Paramount and Hasbro do adopt the back to back strategy for Transformers 4 and 5, then they’d be wise to make space between the release of the two movies to fix issues that arise.

That said, most would argue that, in spite of their financial successes, the Transformers movies have far bigger problems on their plate. While they’re technical spectacles, how well they satisfy as engaging, blockbuster stories is more open to debate.

Perhaps, then, the deployment of Jason Statham may prove to be the more telling decision in this instance, rather than the number of Transformers films they’re planning to make at the same time?