Hey! How excited are you about seeing Real Steel 2? Are you stoked? Are you drooling with anticipation to see what happens next to those memorable characters? No? Well I’m not a bit surprised. Real Steel (part one) is a forthcoming Disney/Dreamworks film starring Hugh Jackman about a washed up former boxer who trains a robot to excel in the sport. From what we’ve seen, it looks like a cross between Short Circuit and The Champ. The filmmakers are so confident in Real Steel that they’ve already begun work on a sequel. Sit back and think about that for a minute or two: a film you haven’t seen yet (and possibly haven’t even heard of) has a sequel in development. It’s the most depressing thing I’ve heard since the 1-2 punch of Cars 2… in 3D.
You might think that Real Steel 2 is an exception. You might think that, even by the standards of Hollywood conservatism gone mad, work on Real Steel 2 is a damning, individual act of hubris. But it’s far from the only example. On numerous occasions (that we know of), studios have started work on sequels to films that haven’t even been released, and in some cases aren’t even finished. And we’re not just talking about three-part stories like the Lord of the Rings or Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films.
It used to work like this: if a film was a hit and a follow-up was appropriate, then, and only then, would we see a sequel. So we saw second chapters to The Godfather, Jaws, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but not to Cabaret, Network, or (sadly) Young Frankenstein.
Then, sometime around the 80s and 90s, it became a case of making sequels to films (usually surprise hits) that didn’t really feel like they needed one. Hence, Father of the Bride Part II, Teen Wolf Too, and Grease 2. Thankfully they drew the line before Large Man Tate and Beaches: The Revenge.
Surprise hits put studios in an awkward position; the dilemma isn’t whether to desecrate the original with a shoddy follow-up (they will), but what to do with a film that has no sequel-friendly ending. The solution is as ingenious as it is crass: now studios don’t bankroll individual films – they green-light franchises.
As well as Real Steel 2, follow-ups were planned for The Hangover, for Sherlock Holmes, for The Hunger Games and The Amazing Spiderman, as well as for Green Lantern before part-one was released. What’s more – even the mediocre reviews and disappointing box office didn’t change plans for Green Lantern 2. Like the eponymous robot in The Terminator, these sequels seem to be unwelcome, unstoppable machines with no “off” switch.
It seems once a studio decides on a franchise, nothing can stop it – not bad reviews (Cars), disappointing numbers (Superman Returns), or bad reviews combined with disappointing numbers (Hulk). A possible, and deeply cynical, explanation is that the studios don’t want to waste all that money that they spent on creating brand awareness; they’ve splurged a fortune telling us what a Green Lantern is, and they’ll be damned if they’re going to spend it all over again on a whole new character. Not only is this insulting to you, the filmgoer (“you’ll eat what we feed you”), but also to the filmmakers themselves (“your film is not a stand-alone product”).
So what can be done? It used to be the case that you could vote with your feet – don’t see a film and they won’t make a sequel. But now it’s too late for that. All we can ask you to do is avoid any films that might have a franchise in mind, and eventually, with a hive mind, nudge the trend back to character-driven, stand alone films. Good luck with that.
As many of you no doubt have read in the trades (Wait, you don’t read the trades? What town do you live in, anyway?), Stephen Gaghan, the writer of such sprawling, multi-narrative films as Traffic and Syriana, is set to adapt Malcolm Gladwell’s latest quasi-scientific non-fiction potboiler, Blink (IMDb). Anyone who’s read the book can tell you, it ain’t going to be easy. Blink follows no central character, takes place in a multitude of settings, and covers such diverse topics as law enforcement, ancient art, and advertising.On the surface, this seems like pure folly, destined to lead to a Charlie Kaufman-esque exercise in navel gazing and postmodern self-reference. This Variety article seems to support this claim (By the way, check out the gaudy sum of money Gladwell pockets in this deal). According to the article, Leonardo DiCaprio is set to star as a jury selection expert who has a sixth sense about people based on first impressions. If that ends up as the plot of the film, it would be the worst adaptation since The Lawnmower Man (IMDb).But the more I thought about it, the more Gaghan seemed like the right choice, maybe the only choice, to adapt the book; furthermore, the book seemed like the perfect project for him. His last time out, Gaghan took two or three paragraphs from Robert Baer’s CIA memoir See No Evil and turned it into a two hour feature film that dealt with practically every aspect of the oil industry. The finished project looked so different from the book that it was nominated for the Academy Award in the best original screenplay category (The official credit says that the book “suggested” the movie, whatever that means). Putting his three major scripts in perspective, it would seem that Stephen Gaghan has hit upon a new and arguably better way to adapt non-fiction to the screen. He doesn’t aim to duplicate every twist of plot, every detail of character, but rather to hone in on the theme, the mood, and the message of whatever material he’s adapting and to riff on it. The result is a movie that works on the same level as the book, discussing the same subjects with a similar tone, but also functions as a work of art separate from its original source material. While this wouldn’t have worked for, say, The Godfather (“What? Why is Sonny’s character now combined with Fredo’s?”), it seems like the only way to tackle a book like Blink. Maybe if Charlie Kaufman had taken this approach, there might actually have been a film version of The Orchid Thief.