The Folly of Announcing Sequels Before Your Movie is Out

Can we have an old-fashioned focus back on a single movie, rather than trying to hint at six others in the same film?

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

It was pretty well known that, by the time Warner Bros was getting ready to release Green Lantern in cinemas back in 2011, it had got to work on a sequel already. It hadn’t actively announced it, but a script was being developed which– should the film be a hit – would speed the time it would to take to get a follow up in theaters. Given that movie studios have gradually been trying to draw back the gap between sequels from three years down to two, this – in Warner Bros’ defense – seemed pragmatic. It wouldn’t, in the scheme of things, cost them a lot of money, and provided they kept things quiet, they wouldn’t face much negative publicity if it failed.

That’s basically what happened, too. Appreciating the trade press picked up on the news, Warner Bros nonetheless didn’t comment on it, and when Green Lantern failed to have the desired box office effect, the sequel script was quietly shelved. It’s unlikely that even a comma from it will make it to Green Lantern Corps, the reboot that’s due around 2020.

One by-product, however, of studios’ gradual shift to a cinematic universe model over the past four or five years is that said studios are looking to get multiple movies moving, and aren’t being shy about it. Ahead of the release of the Power Rangers reboot earlier this year, for instance, Lionsgate and Saban were talking up the prospects of it being a six-movie series. Warner Bros, too, was looking to get five or six films out of its King Arthur idea, and this was well known ahead of the release of King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword a month or two back.

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In fact, there are more examples. Ridley Scott offered to “crank” another Alien movie out next year, with three or four more teased, in the build up to Alien: Covenant’s release. Paramount earmarked dates for two further Terminator films ahead of the unveiling of Terminator: Genisys. And the latest example is The Mummy reboot, that arrived sporting a Dark Universe logo and fanfare, setting up a series of films before the first is even out. In a few weeks time, meanwhile, Transformers: The Last Knight is set to be the moment where Transformers movies stop being sequels, and start being part of a cinematic universe.

It made me chuckle that in the midst of all of this, Doug Liman described his Edge Of Tomorrow sequel as being the last in a “two-movie franchise.” In olden days, we’d have just called Edge Of Tomorrow 2 a sequel.

Hollywood blockbusters have, on the whole, been taking a bit of a battering over the past year or two. Outside of the Marvel cinematic universe – the model that seemingly everyone is trying to ape, but can’t – there’s basically stuff from Disney that works (Star Wars, animated movies, live action fairytales), Fast & Furious films, and the odd risky franchise movie (Logan and Deadpool being the obvious examples). Lots of other films, meanwhile, are seeing their global box office land between $250 million and $500 million, where the investment involved sees studios arguably looking for at least double that. It’s an area where meetings need to take place, to decide whether to stick, or gamble on the planned sequel.

And I think this obsession on franchise is one of the problems. Sacrificed at the altar of many of the movie universes we’re seeing is plain old fashioned storytelling. That the need to get sequels moving quickly is seeing the need to come up with a good, justifiable story first thrown overboard as collateral damage. With good reason – at least until lately – Hollywood studios have known that some loud effects and an expensive marketing campaign could paper over cracks.

But I wonder if things are turning.

It seems no coincidence to me that the more impressive blockbuster films of recent times – Logan, Wonder Woman, Mad Max: Fury Road – had prolonged gestation times. That in the case of each of those films, there was a sense that a story and approach was being locked down before filming began. And in the case of the latter in particular, adequate time was afforded to shape said story in the editing room.

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Appreciating that character can sometimes trump storytelling and still work very well, I still enjoy a good narrative, and I don’t think I’m alone. And when I see a film patently existing to set up sequels, I’m running out of different ways I can roll my eyes.

It strikes me that the best way to guarantee a lucrative sequel is to make your first film as good as you possibly can. That you strip out sequences that are designed purely for future movies or, as a compromise, lump them after the end credits. If you go into making one feature film looking to spread the story over six, I’d politely suggest in most cases that you should be looking at serial television rather than cinema as a home for your project. Episodic storytelling works great on the small screen, and the cinematics of modern TV needn’t downgrade any visual flourishes or ideas that you had planned. It also means that when we go to the cinema to see a story told really well, we’re not distracted – and crucially, neither is the filmmaker – by a few segues that are there purely for business reasons.

Edge Of Tomorrow is a great example of doing things right. It wasn’t the most lucrative blockbuster in the scheme of things – indeed, its box office was notably south of Terminator: Genisys – but it was a very good one. It had ideas, it had character, it had story. Thus, word of mouth has continued to spread following its release. It’s telling, I think, that we’re getting Edge Of Tomorrow 2, but not Terminator: Genisys 2.

Universal is now the latest studio to face that conundrum that the likes of Sony and Paramount have had to face in recent times. With The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Sony was clear it was looking to launch a Spider-Man movie universe, to the point where the movie was festering with Easter eggs and teases of things to come. It went as far as to announce release dates for two sequels, and the existence of spin-off movies. When the film then underperformed against expectations, it had to go back to the drawing board. The Marvel Studios emergency button was pressed, and it’s only now that the Spider-Man spin-offs are back on the agenda.

Universal’s Dark Universe will likely resist whatever box office damage The Mummy ultimately takes (and its worldwide numbers, rather than its US opening, will offer a little encouragement for Universal), because monster movies can work independently of each other. But I do wonder if it’s going to take the lesson of The Mummy: that for future films, concentrate not on the potential dinners around the corner, but on the meal in front of you first. Throw all those resources you spent on your Dark Universe planning into getting one film right, excite your fan base, and then fire away.

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I think most of accept that cinematic universes and multiple sequels are the short to medium term future of blockbuster cinema, and the movie press is joining in with the game. When a film doesn’t get a sequel, it’s quickly pinned as a badge of dishonor for some reason. I believe that ethos and that thinking has to change.

As things stand, we’re not getting The Amazing Spider-Man 3, King Arthur 2, Power Rangers 2, Terminator: Genisys 2 and a host of planned other sequels and spin-offs. With several movie franchises failing over the past year or two – Ice Age, Alice In Wonderland, Divergent, Snow White & The Huntsman, Independence Day, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are the ones that stumbled heavily in 2016 alone – I do wonder if something has to give. If nothing else, studios keeping quiet about follow-ups until they’ve got the first film absolutely right…