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Have movie sequels run their course?

MODELS OF THOUGHT

The summer movie season means plenty of film sequels are at your local multiplex. What does this mean for a moviegoer looking for a creatively well-done movie?

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    'Finding Dory' includes the voices of Ed O'Neill and Ellen DeGeneres.
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Movie fans know that warm summer weather outside means a plethora of sequels inside the air-conditioned movie theaters.

Have you seen “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows,”  "Alice Through the Looking Glass," or “Independence Day: Resurgence"?

No? Exactly.

As the summer flops pile up, some are asking: Has the era of the sequel finally come to an end? 

Following up a box office hit with a sequel makes sense financially. Hollywood adopted this model decades ago and has milked it for all its worth. But there are indications that the audience appetite for film sequels has run its course. Sequels are increasingly associated with mediocrity.

"I can't think of an instance in the last couple of years where the critics have really been excited about one of these movies," Thomas Schatz, an author and media professor at The University of Texas at Austin, says. Hollywood execs must admit that there have been few if any true sequel box office and critical home runs of late.

"Independence Day: Resurgence" became the latest example of a tepid response to a sequel. So far, it's grossed less than a third of the original movie's domestic box office. In addition, critics panned the film, with the movie currently holding a 32 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Professor Schatz observers that sequels have been an integral part of the Hollywood model since the 1970s, when blockbuster films like "Jaws" and the first "Star Wars" film appeared, although movie series likes "Tarzan" and "Thin Man" had already become hits long before. 

Following "Star Wars," "there was a much more systematic turn toward sequels and it just accelerated in the ensuing years and decades," Dr. Schatz says.

And there have been sequels that were hits in their own right. Among the films that fans cite as being as good as or better than the original: the 1974's "The Godfather: Part II," the 1980 movie "Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back," and the 1982 movie "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." 

But note the dates of such sequels.

This summer, so far, one possible exception is "Finding Dory," which has become a smash hit financially ($722 million worldwide, so far) while being mostly well-reviewed. 

Animation studio Pixar, which has released some of the most acclaimed films of the past decades, avoided sequels early on, releasing only one, 1999's "Toy Story 2," out of their first 10 films. However, the studio then released a series of sequels, including those for "Cars" and "Toy Story." While 2011's "Cars 2" was one of the worst-reviewed films released by the studio, 2010's "Toy Story 3" was very well-received, earning a Best Picture Oscar nomination. 

In some ways, the bar for a sequel is set higher that the original. A new narrative is crucial to the success of a sequel, says Paul Levinson, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University and author of the novel "Unburning Alexandria."

"The sequel has to be at least as good as the story in the original," he says. "You can't just bring out the characters and, you know, put them in the same boring situations … is the story genuinely new enough and original enough?" 

Ross Brown, an associate professor of film and media arts at Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, agrees and points to one of the recent James Bond films, 2012's "Skyfall," as one that justified its existence. 

"Sure, they delivered many of the traditional aspects of Bond, of international intrigue and action and sexy women and all that kind of stuff there," he says. "But the story was compelling on its own." 

Brown says that coming to the conclusion that audiences are tired of sequels is overstating the case, however. 

"I don't think audiences are tired of sequels," he said. "I think they embrace them if they're done well. My adult daughter took … her 8-year-old son to see 'Finding Dory' and they loved it. And my adult daughter, who's 40, said 'It was great, I thought it was better than "Finding Nemo."' I thought 'Finding Nemo' was really good, myself, and so that made me say, 'OK, I'm willing to go see that movie because that individual movie worked.'"

Schatz agrees.

"We've heard all this before," he says, noting that his own 18 year-old twin sons and their friends loved "Finding Dory." "I don't think people are getting tired of sequels at all," he says. 

In addition, he sees a sequel on the horizon that he say could be worth seeing.

"I'm OK with the [upcoming] 'Jason Bourne' movie because I thought the [director Paul] Greengrass/[star Matt] Damon combo and [co-writer] Tony Gilroy's scripts, I always thought those were far above average in terms of franchise movies," he said.

Following this summer's duds, some studio executives may have gotten the message that those behind sequels need to focus on the storytelling aspect.

"Audiences are challenging us to make excellent movies,” Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures, told Variety. (Paramount released "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.") “The fact that it’s part of a franchise or sequel doesn’t let you off the hook. You need to raise the bar and make the story exciting, compelling and fun."

The business rationale for the sequel remains solid, says Brown. A sequel can attract attention from audiences perhaps more quickly than a new story because they already know the characters and the fictional world being depicted. This can be crucial in an entertainment world where there are so many other properties fighting for moviegoers' attention. 

"Having a franchise or a sequel is a tool to try and cut through some of that clutter and get people to pay attention to your product, whereas everything that you have to start from scratch is, you know, rolling the rock back down to the bottom of the hill again," Brown says.

Another question Hollywood execs must ask when green-lighting a sequel: How will it play globally?

International box office, a now-integral part of a film's financial performance, can hurt or help. Independence" may have below expectations in the US, but it did fairly well overseas. The new "Ghostbusters" remake cost about $144 million. Add in the marketing costs, and the Hollywood Reporter says the movie needs to pull in about $375 million to break even. Comedy films don't tend to play as well across global markets, and China has denied Sony from showing the movie in the world's second largest film market. In this case, it was reported that government censorship wasn't an issue, but rather Chinese audiences weren't familiar enough with the original movies to be drawn to the new Ghostbusters film. 

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