Does Hollywood have a Sequel-ly Transmitted Disease?

Exploring the REAL Reasons for Sequel Madness and Episodic Film

By Pastor James Harleman

“The franchise rights alone will make us rich beyond our wildest dreams.” – Peter Venkman, Ghostbusters

In a previous post, my compatriot in cinematic critique commented on the franchise glut and corollary lack of creativity in Hollywood. Some of the blame was assigned to a sequel heavy summer, or obvious serial films, plus a lack of creativity in the source material stemming from comic books to theme park rides. While not an opponent of blockbuster franchises or sequels myself (I’m not convinced that a shoe-string budget and a screenplay written by a waiter about people drinking coffee and smoking for two hours is somehow more “artistic” than Peter Jackson and the power of New Line Cinema) I DO find myself wondering why so much of Hollywood’s offerings have evolved into this form.

Elliot asked, “How much longer can Hollywood continue dragging on various series, sequels and franchises of former glory?” It was interesting, because a recent trip to PAX the Penny Arcade Expo, not the religious channel prompted a meditation on narrative that might suggest WHY Hollywood is dragging on so many series in the cinema. Looking to other successful forms, they’ve adopted other media traits to survive.

At one PAX panel, a writer was articulating the challenges of writing video game narratives. One thing he noted was that games were becoming more interesting to craft because writers were no longer looking at movies as their inspiration for style and format. They were finally exploring what the unique artistic medium would let them do, instead of relying on the template of a typical movie and simply adding a joystick. Even he wasn’t sure where this would truly or ultimately lead them, but was excited by the prospect. Though not a big gamer, I found myself fascinated as well.

Backing up to look at cinema, Hollywood has been in business since 1910, telling stories and entertaining the masses. Most films were traditionally self-contained stories, save for serials short films, from which we get the term cliffhanger that would precede the main feature and were generally regarded for children. Sometimes actors would reprise similar characters (Abbott and Costello, John Wayne, all the way up to the advent of James Bond) but the narrative arc in each film was predominantly self-contained.

Then came the home screen. Though available before the Second World War, television viewing skyrocketed after its conclusion. Most television followed a film format of self-contained episodes; programs were not ongoing save for soap operas, which were generally regarded for housewives. This predominance lasted through the 80s; in fact, most television shows I grew up with (The A-Team, Magnum P.I., Knight Rider, Murder She Wrote) changed the characters so rarely that almost any episode could be watched in any order. They were interchangeable. The same was true of most children’s fare, with the rare exceptions like Star Blazers and other imports from Japan.

Prime time soaps like Dallas, however, were emerging on the scene. The longer character arcs, and “what might happen next”, became water cooler conversation. Over in the movie world, George Lucas had patterned a successful trilogy after the old film serials, and sequels began to grow. The franchise and continuation templates had emerged, but television weekly, or in some cases daily has pushed it harder, faster, and further.

Fast Forward to 2007, where a wealth of kids cartoons from Pokemon to Ninja Turtles are almost ALWAYS continued. Adult programming is not immune either; from sitcoms to lawyer dramas, from medical shows to science fiction to Jack Bauer, people are talking more about the character arcs on television than what’s playing at the multiplex. How a character changes, or how much you discover about the world they live in, has become more intriguing than each week’s villain or plot.

On the other side of the creative exchange, even movie stars have begun to find this alluring. Kiefer Sutherland, James Woods, Glenn Close, Forest Whitaker, Hugh Jackman, Steve Buscemi, James Spader, and more have made the move from big screen to small, enticed by the ability to explore a role over time and reveal a more multi-faceted character through more than one season of life. Ongoing, episodic storytelling has gained cultural dominance, and I think Hollywood is looking at the success of Lost and other television giants, aping the art form in a desperate desire to keep up, even hiring television creators like J.J. Abrams to make feature films.

Instead of digging in and doing the work to rediscover what can be done with a two-hour snapshot, Hollywood is essentially trying to make television shows on the big screen. with two-year breaks between each episode. What is problematic is that 24 can have a bad hour, yet engage you again in seven days; one bad summer blockbuster “episode” of Spider-man can leave years of bad taste in your mouth and kill a franchise. Let’s not forget the Schumacher stench of Batman and Robin.

I’m not sure this is Hollywood’s solution or salvation; perhaps, like the video game industry, they need to quit looking at other forms of media for inspiration; they need to get over television’s proliferation, stop salivating at the boom of DVD sales for television season packs, and look instead at the distinctives of their medium. From an artistic perspective, they may need to reexamine what once made stand-alone films great, and embrace it once again.

Then again, our culture itself could be shifting in its craving and addiction for narrative, and perhaps franchises are Hollywood’s only hope. We have moved from desiring a daily dip in escapist entertainment to a desire for full narrative immersion. It could be we’re such narrative addicts that we’ve come to see through the redressing of the same themes we share as human beings. At least with the same character, we have a medicating tale of a familiar character experiencing similar joys, similar woes, walking alongside us in life and empathizing with us. It’s an entertainment economy’s version of a Savior, a hero made of yarns spun by our creative class. We may not want to see that character “end”.

Elliot queried and suggested, “How much longer will the consuming populace support these works? Until they grow weary of the characters or stories.” I don’t completely agree; I think we’ve been weary for a long time. We’ve become so saturated with storytelling that even when something isn’t a franchise we recognize Bugs Bunny in the dress.

Example: a young man with his own “big” dreams awakens to realize that the world is much bigger than even he surmised, and that a conflict of cosmic proportions is taking place all around him. Am I talking about Transformers. or The Last Starfighter… or Harry Potter… or The Matrix? How many indie films can be “about nothing” until about nothing becomes something? The thematic repetition makes the average viewer yawn, and the discerning viewer sees why. Change the character’s name, change the setting, change the actor… call him Bond or Bauer… we can see up the narrative skirt.

Franchise folly or Inspirational indie film, we are investing in various forms of narrative for empathy. for comfort. for forgiveness. for salvation. for justification, or for excuses. As always, we’re looking in the wrong place, or at the wrong things.

From the artistic perspective, Hollywood may need help.

From a spiritual perspective, we all do.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are-yet was without sin.” Hebrews 4:14-16

  1. Gregorio D. Rothbard

    The hero archetype is a way to fulfill our great commission. We need to retell the story of Christ again and again. We need to tell our story, sing our new song, and show what is really a hero. We need to see that people desire to hear Jesus heroic journey again and again, serialize, so that we can give our message in a way that moves people to action.

  2. Amity

    Both you and Elliot are absolutey correct in your critiques of the sequely trends of Hollywood. And the Scripture at the end certainly completes the story.

  3. Daniel

    I hated Coffee and Cigarettes as well.

    I think that it all comes down to dollars. Sequels make more money. If a movie succeeds, people will pay to see more of a successfull film.

    If people started to buy tickets to non-sequel movies, Hollywood would adapt.

  4. wrenchey

    I like the references to the beginning of filmmaking as perspective for where we are now…maybe sequels will take a backseat in our cyclical world…but what do we do with these films that come from the little screen and really should stay there?

  5. Andy M.

    You mention “full narrative immersion”–I think this is important when comparing videogame writing to movie writing. The best videogame writing happens when the story is seamless with the gaming experience. (Good examples: Assassin’s Creed, Shadow of the Colossus. Bad Examples: Halo 3, any movie-franchise game.) Even though you don’t physically interact with a movie, I think some of the best movies are able to achieve similar “immersion” both on their own and within a franchise.

  6. Jonathan

    I agree with Daniel – as creative as Hollywood is capable of being, and on occasion is, the driving force is ultimately the money. If a character or film makes money, it seems like you can bet on a sequel (or remake if it’s old enough), even if by all other accounts it doesn’t merit one (Shrek). If it doesn’t, even with bankable elements like a star, author or director involved, it’s left alone no matter its creative appeal (Rushmore).

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