Is this a trend I’m looking at?

“We’re doin’ a sequel! That’s what we do in Hollywood!
And everybody knows that the sequel’s never quite as good”

Here’s a challenge you have probably heard a million times – name a sequel better than the original. I think it’s safe to assume that if you’re generally interested in film, you have probably had more than one conversation on that topic, which usually spins out of a casual talk about movies in general, preferably over a pint of beer with a bunch of friends… It’s such a cliché question that it even featured in the mildly received (but still enjoyable) “Scream 2” during a film class scene, so I’m not going to bother stating the obvious examples (they’re all in that scene, by the way). Despite some people’s best wishes, the history has always seemed to indicate that ‘the sequel’s never quite as good’, as it is exemplified by the lukewarm reviews of the new Muppets film, from which this line was directly pulled. But is it really? Continue reading

A glimmer of hope in the age of clones and do-overs…

Reading the film-related news every morning has been a struggle for me lately. Not that I don’t enjoy staying on top of things and even the sheer volume of articles to flick through is not the problem – the content of said news, on the other hand, usually is the problem. At this point in time I think my stance on the state of mainstream cinema is pretty clear and I just might tip my hat to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ prognosis that the industry is now speeding towards a brick wall. I might disagree with their premise of ‘if people like Spielberg and Lucas find it hard get money to make films, then the industry is in a pretty bad shape’, because what I think will bring about the inevitable is the obsessive sequelitis that has been going on in Hollywood for years now, and while the point they’re making still illustrates the problem, it lacks dimension. Additionally, the blind faith in throwing more money at established box office blockbusters and turning everything into trilogies is only going to speed up the process of decay. The recent news of green-lighting “Taken 3” and rebooting “The Terminator” franchise already into a stand-alone trilogy can only testify to the trend I find most repulsive. With these two titles being added to the 2015 release slate, that already includes a massive amount of high-profile sequels, like “Star Wars Episode VII”, “The Avengers 2”, “Independence Day 2”, or “Jurassic Park 4”, I think this might be the summer of apocalypse Spielberg was referring to, when we would all call the film-makers on their bulls**t and this house of cards would crumble to the epic tune of Hans Zimmer’s score.

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While I’d like to rant a bit more about that (and I actually might, but we shall see), the reason I’m here now typity-type-type-typing away is because for once somebody out there in the sunny California might have been listening to us, the movie-goers. This morning the news broke out that Pixar – the pioneering studio in the field of CG animation – has decided to scale back on the sequel production and focus more on creative new IP [standing ovation on my part]. Now, that’s just music for my ears, because it would seem that somebody in Pixar noticed that their audience needs more than just another “Toy Story”.

Believe it or not, but this is a business of making money and a film’s goal is to make a profit (that excludes the indie projects, so stay where you are). However, while the mainstream opinion in Hollywood might be along the lines of ‘diminish the risk, increase the reward’, it not always pans out, as illustrated by Pixar’s case. I don’t think these guys need much of an introduction past the fact they had single-handedly kicked off a major revolution in the world of animation back in the day. They have not been the most prolific of studios out there with only 14 titles released to date (starting in 2006, averaging one theatrical release per year), because they claimed to have been focused on the quality instead of the volume of releases… and good for them.

Nevertheless, right around 2009 they have fallen victim to peer pressure and have jumped on the sequel bandwagon hoping they would get filthy rich in no time. And so, out of all 14 releases in Pixar’s portfolio, 4 are direct sequels, or prequels (“Monsters University”, currently in theatres), and while their first sequel on record – “Toy Story 2” – was released in 1999 as both an attempt to make up for a disappointing “A Bug’s Life”, and a genuine answer to the demands of the fan-base, the remaining 3 sequels have been released nearly back-to-back starting in 2010.

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What I think stands behind Pixar’s decision to concentrate their efforts on new ideas, can be explained using pure calculations. If you have a look at how Pixar’s films did in the box office against their respective budgets, you should immediately notice the trend. Note that the worldwide box office is missing from the graph, as it only adds to the noise; however, it has to be noted that, in total, all Pixar films have made a profit. Upon examining Pixar’s financial results, I could make a couple useful observations that feed into their plan for future releases. First of all, it seems that the more money Pixar has dished out on a given project, the worse the revenue was (with a notable exception of “Toy Story 3” that breaks the trend). Additionally, in their case, attempting to recreate the financial result of a given release (again with the exception of “Toy Story” franchise that has made continually bigger profit, but on increasing budgets) with a sequel has not been all that fruitful; “Cars 2” required the non-US revenue in order to break even. Even a new IP – “Brave” – that was released the following year seems to have suffered from the bad rep Pixar has garnered in the wake of “Cars 2”. Therefore, with constantly growing budgets and dwindling revenues, Pixar has noticed they needed to go back to their roots and rake in the money with fresh ideas in order to stop the decline.

Much has been said about the apparent sad state of affairs in Pixar and their financial results I have shown here only corroborate other people’s observations. Quite recently Christopher Orr over at The Atlantic has published a piece that illustrates how bad things are going with Pixar films by plotting their respective Rotten Tomatoes scores. While the declining trend can be noticed if you disregard the concept of an outlying value, the whole idea lacks substance, in my opinion. I believe that an average score awarded by film are not always the most reliable measure of a film’s quality, because it’s the tickets that ensure its success in the long run (at least in the mainstream cinema). Such approach certainly is informative, but I wouldn’t draw any conclusions from it.

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What will better illustrate the problem than simple numbers again? If you divide film’s box office revenue by its budget, you should theoretically obtain a numerical value that shows this film’s financial potential, with best results being produced by the films with the smallest budgets. Applied to all Pixar films, the trend clearly shows that only “Toy Story” (made 6 times the budget domestically and 12 times worldwide) and maybe “Finding Nemo” (4 times the budget domestically and 10 times worldwide) have been at all successful, but the general trend is headed towards disaster.

I find it most welcoming that the guys over at Pixar have noticed they need to listen to us – people who buy the tickets – if they want to be successful. Positive reviews are crucial as well, but for the most part (unless your name is M. Night Shyamalan) good reviews are usually reflected in the box office. So, how long before the rest of you, people, wake up and smell the coffee? I, for one, don’t want to live in the world where every single release has a number on it and I count on Pixar to lead the crowd towards improvement.

Rant over.

On the proclivity of Hollywood to put numbers on things…

While browsing through movie-related news couple of mornings ago I couldn’t help but notice that a huge part of what is going on in the world of film is related to various sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, re-imaginings, resurrections and such. I’m sure someone more proficient in English language than me could find some more words that start with ‘re’ that reflect on the sad state of things in the movie industry. Just as I’m writing this, “Star Trek 2” (A sequel to a reboot to a reboot) is slowly making its way towards the big screens, together with the third “Iron Man” only to make way for another “Thor” and “Captain America” this year. We all know that the “Star Wars” franchise is being dusted off by J.J. Abrams and another “Transformers” movie is in the works. Oh, and another remake of “Godzilla” is being shot right now as well. I thought for a second that something’s not right in here, because it would seem that almost every other major project made in Hollywood could easily have a number after its title, so I decided to have a look for myself.

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I took the time to plow through all the major movie releases (thanks to Wikipedia) in the last decade (2002-2012) and fished out all the films that were either sequels, prequels, remakes or reboots to any other movie. Plus, I also included the re-releases as well, because I think they are the most blatant examples of one’s lack of creativity. That’s right, if you want to make more money without lifting a finger, release “Titanic” theatrically once again. It will cost you nothing, but surely you’ll find people, for whom the DVD was just not enough.

chart 1 Anyways, in my search I managed to find 374 such movies. Now, bear in mind that I might have missed some here and there, as the Internet isn’t perfect and neither am I. Especially the further back in time you go, the less reliable these numbers might get, simply because 10 years ago the number of people taking their time and effort to put something up here was much smaller than nowadays and I can’t simply assume perfect linearity in data collection in the Internet, now can I? Nevertheless, I think the trends would stay unaffected even with growing statistical uncertainty here, so I think I’m fine and I can continue rambling. One more thing, these 374 films I found among wide releases in the US. If I had to flick through all the Bollywood pictures I’d probably kill myself instead.

OK, so where was I? Out of 6558 movies noted in box offices (according to The-Numbers.com) in the last ten years, 374 were based on an already existing movie and that constituted 5.7% of the pool. Note here, that the percentage might be slightly higher, because of my inability to find all of those pesky sequels out there. Out of those 374 movies 62% were direct sequels, 29% were remakes, 4% were reboots, 3% were re-releases and 2% were prequels. If one decides to group them together, we end up with 64% (continuations and the like) against 36% (re-imaginings and such). That already says that Hollywood likes to put numbers on things more than it likes to dig out old corpses to revive.

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It’s fine and all, but those numbers didn’t reflect the trends I was looking for, so I broke them down by year and that’s when the patterns emerged. While you can clearly see the upward trend in the number of ‘sub-creative movies’ across the decade (with the profits following a similar, yet more moderate trend), one can already see that the most decisive rise in production of those films commenced right around 2008. When the movies are further broken down into sub-categories, the pattern becomes almost impossible to miss. While it would seem that number of remakes fluctuates across the decade peaking in 2004 and 2010, the number of direct sequels remained steady throughout 2002-2009 and then suddenly jumped in 2010 by nearly 20% and stayed there until the present day. Now that’s something to think about.

chart 3 I can actually understand the behavior in the number of remakes, because these used to be often subject to fads and related band-wagon mentality. For instance, I believe that the surge in remake productions of 2004-2005 can be attributed to the wave of Asian terror cinema that swept the world around the turn of the century and Hollywood labels wanted to capitalize on that phenomenon. These were the years where “The Ring”, “The Grudge”, “Dark Water” and the like got released. Shortly after, the American horror cinema of the 70’s and 80’s got revived to contrast all the long-haired girls walking out of TV sets, which sparked a new wave of horror in Hollywood and contributed somehow to the increase in sequels that followed. However, none of the “Wrong turn” or “Final Destination” franchises can explain what happened between 2009 and 2010. A flat bump by 20% has to happen for a reason.

If you have a look at how the total number of movies registered in Box Offices during that time looked (thank you again The-Numbers.com), you would notice immediately a sudden drop in produced movies that took place around 2008/2009; Hollywood’s output got reduced by well over 30% within two years. At the same time – which really takes the biscuit here – the percentage of ‘sub-creative’ cinema doubled (from 4% to 9%). These further emphasize the importance of a short period of 2008-2009. What could have possibly happened to effectively derail widely-understood creativity in Hollywood?

chart 4 I think everybody knows that this was the time when shit hit the fan and – thanks to banks, mind you – we all got slapped on the wrists; some more than others. People lost their jobs and houses, the global economy shrank substantially, countries went bust… Just turn on the news. It would seem that while all this was unfolding, all the producers in LA went ‘oh crap, we’re going to get poor now’. Surely, when people have to save their money, the luxuries like going out (including cinema) get axed first. In order to prevent that from happening, some things needed to be done. Gone were the artsy risky passion projects… Out with cerebral story lines  What we needed were movies that guaranteed box office success. And what can be more reliable than a well-executed sequel? chart 5

If you look at the Top 20 highest grossing movies of all times, 14 of them can be classified as sequels. And yes, I counted “Skyfall” and “The Avengers” as sequels that they are – deal with it. If you look at the last 11 years (2002-2012, the bracket for my investigations), 9 out of 11 highest grossing films each year were sequels. I’m now not at all surprised that in late 2007 and early 2008 all the studios decided to devote much greater funds towards producing ‘numbered’ movies. After all, they bring revenue. As a result, with the total number of movies produced yearly cut by 30% post-2008, the revenue managed to retain its growing trend. So, yay… Thumbs up – producers, you are getting richer. At the expense of us, lowly ticket-buyers who want something more than another “Iron-Man” (who am I kidding; I’ll probably go and watch it anyway). At least now I know that I can point my finger towards the bean-counting producers, for shame! Why is the movie industry in such a sad state? Apart from what others already pointed out, it’s simply because the studios desperately wanted to get rich while everybody was getting poorer.

Desperate times – desperate measures… and suitably disenchanting results. Now, let’s see what’s happening with the new Star Wars…