Sequels Symposium I: The BeginningA reflection on Hollywood's obsession with sequels and a candid guide to making 'em better

UNLIKE FINE WINE, some things just don’t age well at all. A glass of milk on a warm day; clothing from H&M; that hot, cigarette-smoking chick from your high school—each may have it’s moment as the object of your desire, but it’s all downhill from there. Perhaps more disappointing than any of these haggardly maturing archetypes, though, is the foul stench of a slowly dying movie franchise.

There isn’t much worse than helplessly watching as a once well-spun story spins listlessly into superficiality and eventually irrelevance; it’s one of the most frustrating aspects of being confined to the consumer side of the entertainment industry. Yet it happens again and again to far too many good films. How many times have you slunk down in your cushioned seat at the theater, hand over your eyes in empathetic embarrassment for the veritable train wreck in progress onscreen in front of you? And as you commiserate with the actor whose career the film will surely kill, you can’t help but think, Damn, even I could’ve done a better job than THIS.

I know it happens to me far more often than I’d like. In reality, of course, I might not be able to actually put together a more satisfying movie than something even as putrid as Dumb and Dumberer. At the very least, though, I think I would’ve had the foresight to stop such an abomination from ever seeing the light of day.

And therein lies the real problem: industry execs will always and forever chase the dollar signs attached to big name movies. If the studio fat cats think they can use some sort of name recognition to squeeze out a (financially) successful sequel or two, they surely will. Wu-Tang really said it best: cash rules everything around [us]. As long as that principle holds, we’re going to continue to see decent, unassuming movies get blown full of holes, wrapped in a blanket, and left for dead by their lesser (and, at least proverbially, more violent) sequels, prequels, and threequels.

Whether we like it or not, sequels are simply a fact of life. These days, studios are pumping ‘em out like they just swallowed a huge chunk of franchise Ex-Lax. If we’re going to have to live with them, we might as well try to make them better, right?  There are a few simple rules that separate the unwatchable installments from the entertaining ones.

Of course, we aren’t here to judge those film series that have been meticulously crafted as separate parts of a greater whole. The Lord of the Rings, for instance, was conceived as a sum greater than its parts, and there simply wasn’t enough room on one reel of film for its story to play out in full. The trilogy deserved all thirteen hours of hairy-footed screen time it doled out. Instead, our guidelines are targeted directly at the flicks that have been slapped on as an unplanned addendum to a movie that’s already played out its initial narrative—the ones that are more of a cash grab than an artistic statement.

1) Keep the talent close…: Continuity is essential in long-running franchises. When you’ve grown to love a particular character, it’s always annoying to see a different actor playing the role in the subsequent installments. This goes for the folks behind the camera too—keeping a stable team of directors, writers, set designers, and other production staff together will go a long way toward retaining the aesthetic and atmosphere that made the first movie a success.

2) …But know when someone’s getting a little long in the tooth: That said, injecting a bit of fresh blood into the group can go a long way toward keeping a series successful and creatively fresh. It’s hard to see when a change is necessary, especially when you’ve seen success in the past with a particular team. But things need to be switched up from time to time – how many times have the Yankees won the World Series in back-to-back years with the same exact squad? None, that’s how many. Even if the club retained the same core stars, the role players have to be swapped out to give the team a new dynamic. It’s the same way with film – some parts are interchangeable and others aren’t. Knowing which ones are will go a long way to making a great piece of cinema.

3) Make sure you’re starting out with good material: Yes, this is kind of obvious. And yes, film studios are going to keep making sequels to shitty movies that make a ton of money. But we can dream, can’t we? If you’re going to make a great second (or third or fourth or fifth) movie, you need to make sure you have a protagonist strong enough to carry a franchise—characters that are timeless and relatable, more than a collection of flashy costumes and catchphrases. Think of James Bond (we’ll forgive and forget Quantum of Solace – my eyes, my eyes!) and Woody from the Toy Story triumvirate. Well-scripted and endearing personalities like these exemplify one of the best reasons that sequels exist in the first place. Bond’s suave machismo is nearly bursting through the seams of his well-tailored tuxedos, while Woody’s down-home manners and undying loyalty to his owner Andy make him the cowboy that we all wished we had by our side. That’s why these two characters are icons whose magic screenwriters in Hollywood are forever trying to capture in the scripts they craft.

4) Don’t let the plot get too convoluted: Spiderman 3 proved that adding more villains won’t equal a better movie—just a bigger headache. A lot of filmmakers think that because the characters have already been introduced, it allows them to pack more action/drama/comedy into the second one, but they wind up either making the plot too hard to understand or losing the plot entirely beneath a sea of stunts or jokes.

5) Know when to quit: Characters like John McClane and Jack Sparrow exemplify what happens when studios refuse to quit beating a dead horse. The Die Hard trilogy is classic shoot’em up action franchise with a likeable main character, the flawed McClane, played by a perfectly cast Bruce Willis. Unfortunately, 12 years after the release of the third movie in the trilogy – a perfectly good final chapter to McClane’s story – someone convinced Fox Studios that a fourth installment was a worthy idea. They were wrong. The latest film in the series is like a lame appendage – it just doesn’t work, and we’d all be better off if it had stayed on the drawing board.

The same goes for the Pirates of the Caribbean series. In The Curse of the Black Pearl and Dead Man’s Chest, Johnny Depp brought a natural charisma and humor to the screen that meant he could carry a scene and most of a movie on his own. However, by the time At World’s End was in production, it seems that the movie’s writers, director, and even possibly Depp himself had decided to mail in their performances. The lack of enthusiasm played out very obviously onscreen. The next chapter, On Stranger Tides, really isn’t even worth mentioning—it’s notable only for its complete dearth of substance.

6) Don’t follow the same exact formula twice: While it wouldn’t make sense to abandon whatever it was that made your original film great in the first place, you can’t just recycle the plot and make the same movie over again. The Hangover Part II showed us how disastrously that can go. Instead, it’s all about balance—keep a few successful elements, and thrown in a few curveballs to spice things up.

Think of it like this: After Thanksgiving do you just throw out the left-over turkey, cranberry sauce, and all the other delicious holiday food that you spent hours slaving over in the kitchen the day before? No, you put all that in a sandwich and you eat it and it’s damn good. After a week, however, it’s time to put anything that’s still left in the trash. You can look at these characters and scripts like that left-over turkey; if you cooked the bird right the first time, and don’t try to change the flavors of the sandwich too much, it’ll still taste just as good the next day. Eventually, though, that food gets cold and stale, just like the plot of a tired movie franchise.

All of these “condiments” can be the difference between a good and bad sequel. It’s important to find that sweet spot between originality and continuity. Taking a good character, throwing him or her into a completely new environment, ignoring his or her past history, and then calling the film by the same name just isn’t going to work; but neither would putting that same character into a simple rehash of his or her first onscreen adventure. So what, then, is the right amount of originality and continuity to include in the second or even third volume of a franchise? When is a plot or character played out and not worth exploring any further? These right here are the million dollar questions, and if I knew the answers I wouldn’t be writing this essay. Instead, I’d be writing scripts to sequels from my penthouse apartment in SoHo.

So that’s it, Hollywood. Hope you were taking notes. I sincerely hope that when I trek out to the theater next summer to watch The King’s Speech II: Edward VIII’s Revenge, it’s a captivating, well-paced drama that does the first one justice while holding it’s own as standalone flick. If not, well—at least the popcorn’ll be fresh.

Which sequels do you love? Which do you hate? Follow us on Twitter @handlebarmag and let us know.