The 2000s: Decade of the Sequel
A few weeks back in the New York Times Magazine, A.O. Scott asked the following question:
The rebel Hollywood of the ’70s gives way to the blockbuster-mad ’80s, which is followed by the rise of the indies in the ’90s. And then?
And then Frodo and Spider-Man, Mumblecore and midbudget Oscar bait, Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen, “The Dark Knight” and the Transformers movies, along with everything else.
Which is more smorgasbord than answer. So let’s answer the question Scott wouldn’t. What were the 2000s to film? How did this decade differ from previous decades? How will it be remembered?
Here’s my quick-and-dirty answer: the 2000s were the decade of the sequel.
Yeah, I know. The sequel? What year are you stuck in, idjit—1978? Sequels have been the driving economic force for Hollywood for years, for decades, and you’re saying that now, suddenly, this decade, we’re in “The Era of the Sequel”? Get a clue!
Except I’m talking less about how many sequels were made than how well they performed. Sure, they’ve almost always performed well; that’s why they keep getting made. But this decade? They’ve performed really well.
Here’s a chart of no. 1 box-office hits of the year that were sequels, per decade, for the last 40 years:
The two no. 1 sequels in the 1980s both came from the “Star Wars” franchise: “The Empire Strikes Back” in 1980 and “The Return of the Jedi” in 1983. Ditto his prequel, “The Phantom Menace,” in 1999. The only non-“Star Wars” sequel to go no. 1 during this period was James Cameron’s “Terminator 2” in 1991.
So basically the only time a sequel reigned atop the annual box office chart from 1970 to 2000 was when it happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
In 2002, Lucas’ second prequel, “Attack of the Clones,” actually became the first of the “Star Wars” movies not to be the year’s most popular movie. It finished third to both “Spider-Man” and “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” So it seemed we were entering a new age.
We were. The following year, the sequel to “Two Towers,” “Return of the King,” was the biggest hit of the year, and it’s been sequels ever since:
2003: “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”
2004: “Shrek 2”
2005: “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith”
2006: “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”
2007: “Spider-Man 3”
2008: “The Dark Knight”
2009: “Transformers 2”
An argument can be made that this isn’t that big of a change. Sequels have gone from finishing second or fourth for the year to first. Big deal.
But it is different. Here’s how things used to work. Some new movie would come along and everyone would say, “Oh, dude, you gotta see this!” and everyone would go. These movies would become the no. 1 movies of the year: “The Exorcist,” “Jaws,” “Rocky,” “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Batman.” And, yes, all generated sequels. But with the exception of “Star Wars”—actually even including “Star Wars”—these sequels didn’t do as well at the box office. There was usually something original people wanted to see more.
No longer. Now the original film is merely a stepping stone to the vast wealth of the sequel. Sure, the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” made $363 million inflation-adjusted dollars in 2003, but the second made $464 million in 2006. Sure, the first “Shrek” made $339 million in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2001, but “Shrek 2” brought in $510 million in 2004. And, yes, “Batman Begins” made $230 million in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2005. Three years later, “The Dark Knight” brought home $533 million.
Instead of something original, we now want the same characters, doing the same thing, in a story that either improves upon the original (“The Dark Knight,” “Spider-Man 2”) or doesn’t (“Spider-Man 3”: any of the “Pirates” sequels).
The question is why.
Part of it has to do with the way movies are rolled out now. Word-of-mouth means less, critics mean less, opening weekend means more. It’s a spectacle and people pay for the spectacle. Search the New York Times archive for the term “opening weekend” and for most of the 20th century you’ll get references to the “Wood, Field and Stream” columns of Raymond R. Camp. “Opening weekend” isn’t used to refer to the movies until 1980, in an article anticipating the release of the first “Star Wars” sequel. And opening weekends didn’t truly become currency until “Spider-Man” broke the $100 million opening-weekend mark in May 2002. That’s when even the average moviegoer took notice. Since then, Spidey’s record has been broken five times—all by sequels.
Movies are made differently now, too. Sequels are anticipated. They’re planned along with the originals. Sometimes they’re filmed along with the originals. The word “sequel” isn’t even effective anymore since we’re really dealing with four types, maybe more:
- The traditional sequel: These usually come out once every three years. Each film contains its own dramatic arc and more-or-less ends. Examples include the “Spider-Man” movies, the “Shrek” movies, “X-Men,” “Lethal Weapon,” etc.
- The double-whammy sequel: Several years after the success of the original, these sequels are filmed together and released within a year of each other. Usually the second sequel is of the “to be continued” variety and everything’s tied up (more or less) with the third sequel. Examples include “Back to the Future,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “The Matrix.”
- The episodic sequel: These are often released every year. They’re based on popular books and follow the path of the books. Examples: “Harry Potter,” “Twilight,” possibly “Lord of the Rings.”
- The “Wait! Let me squeeze out one more” sequel: Shows up 15 to 20 years after the last one, when the stars and/or director don’t have the options they once had, and are relying on past glories to resurrect careers. Examples: “Indiana Jones,” “Rocky” and “Rambo,” “The Godfather.”
Even if the studios are better at making and marketing sequels, however, it doesn't answer the question why are we going as often as we’re going? Because the studios are better at making and marketing sequels? Because theaters, and thus box office, are for blockbuster sequels, while the dramatic movies that don’t generate sequels are now for home viewing via PPV or Netflix? Because in the age of the Internet, we no longer see star-driven movies (“Forrest Gump,” “Jerry Maguire,” “As Good As It Gets”), or director-driven movies (Spielberg) but character-driven movies (Shrek, Batman, Harry Potter), which are easier to sequel-ize? Because after 9/11 we all became a bunch of wimps and just wanted daddy to tell us the same story over and over and over again?
All of the above?
No. 1 sequels used to be George Lucas’ province but now we’re all living in George’s world: special effects are everything, actors are nothing, things whiz by, the fun never stops. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, we used to go to the movies to see how people behaved on the roller coaster ride. Now we go for the roller coaster ride. If it has people on it, even better.