The worrying, shortening gap between blockbuster sequels

When did it come to pass that only two years should be left between blockbuster sequels, and what are the consequences of that?

Iron Man

The other week, my seven-year old son hit me with the kind of question that any nerdy parent dreads: “Has there ever been a Batman film with Mr Freeze in it?”

Naturally, I did the only fair thing I could in such a situation, and told him that I wasn’t sure there had been, although I do recall an animated movie once. And then I hoped for dear life that he didn’t uncover my little white lie anytime soon. I figure I’m doing him a favour.

There’s lots, of course, that’s been written over the years about just how poor a movie Batman & Robin is, although I’d always contend that Batman Forever is just as bad. But one thing is lost when discussing what went wrong with Batman 4, namely that it was one of the films that shoehorned in the two year gap between blockbuster sequels.

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From Batman in 1989 onwards, the law appeared to be that three years was the bare minimum you needed to bash a good quality sequel together. Thus, there’s three years between Batman and Batman Returns, a regular, sizeable gap between Star Wars and Star Trek movies, the Mission: Impossibles, the X-Men films, Jurassic Parks, Bournes and Toy Story movies. Plus, there’s an even longer gap between Alien and Aliens, Terminator and Terminator 2… it’s not tricky to track down examples.

To be clear: we’re talking big blockbusters here. Comedies and horrors have always worked on different rules, thus something like Home Alone 2 doesn’t fit the template. And also, it’d be remiss not to suggest that many sequels that have taken years to come together have still been terrible. Still, a longer gap surely increases the chances of things coming together that bit better.

We should do the exceptions first. Die Hard 2 followed Die Hard by two years, and just about got away with it. The first two Lethal Weapon movies had a similar time gap between them, but I wonder if that says more about how much more straightforward it used to be to turn an action movie around, before the advent of extensive post-production CG. That said, Fast Five took a couple of years to put together, and still delivered.

But these are nonetheless the exceptions to the norm.

Look at the recent examples of where sequels have been turned around quickly. This is achieved, when the process is at its best, when a script for one instalment is being worked on before the preceding adventure is on cinema screens.

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That’s not always the case, though, as studios look to capitalise on a franchise as quickly as possible. But you have to ask: did the two year rush serve Iron Man 2, Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen, Transformers: Dark Of The Moon and Quantum Of Solace particularly well? In the case of Iron Man 2 and the 007 movie, both followed really strong films, yet simply didn’t have enough to add or say when it came to the sequel.

Is it reasonable to suggest that the truncated development time had something to do with that?

We’ll get a clearer answer to whether that’s a trend or not in the year or two ahead. For look what’s coming. A sequel to Clash Of The Titans has been turned around in a two year window. So has one to Sherlock Holmes. And on the launchpad, we have Thor 2, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, The Expendables 2, Resident Evil 5 and The Smurfs 2. Each of these has a confirmed release date already (Green Lantern 2 would have been readied for 2013, too, had the first movie been strong enough).

In animation terms, the three-year cycle is the equivalent here, and that’s what the DreamWorks Animation franchise model is based on. Look at how Pixar left sufficient space between its Toy Story films, to allow the franchise to flourish, and then contrast that with the slow descent of Shrek, from something interesting and full of ideas, to something to keep the kids quiet for a couple of hours. At best, the three-year cycle with animated movies gives you a chance of bashing out a three star movie it seems, and I struggle to find a single exception to that. Maybe the How To Train Your Dragon or Despicable Me follow-ups will have an answer.

Looking ahead, I’d wager right now that it’s the sequels that have given themselves more space that stand more chance of earning the praise from audiences that match their inevitable box office riches. So, that’s JJ Abrams’ Star Trek sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, even G.I. Joe 2, where an extra year should allow the time to sort out what was wrong with a pretty shitty first movie.

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If the truncated franchise – and you can see the advantage from Hollywood’s point of view, by trying to making as much cash as possible while interest is at a high – is the way forward, at the very least the model needs to be adapted.

Films that are planned to shoot back to back, or to overlap, have shown a way forward for this. The three Lord Of The Rings films, for instance, or the eight Harry Potters, where a full infrastructure was put in place to support what Warner Bros was looking to do. Few doubt that the two Hobbit movies will be worth watching, but just look how much preparatory work was done for both films before a single camera was switched on.

With franchises overtaking movie stars as the magic bullet of the box office that Hollywood always seeks, the pressure to deliver sequels faster is dwarfing the pressure to make them good. And while this isn’t a new trend, it’s never been this intense.

The goal, as dictated by an Excel spreadsheet, is to generate a three star, successful movie in as short a time as possible, to keep the cash coming in. The goal, from a film maker’s point of view, is to ensure the quality of the film will retain ongoing interest in a franchise, no matter how long each movie takes to make.

Right now, it’s hard to lose the feeling that, more than ever at the blockbuster end of the scale, Excel is winning…

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