Incurable Sequel-itis: X-Men case study

“To safeguard against the vagaries of popular taste, studios have banked increasingly on sequels and spinoffs, with diminishing returns. “ (Variety)

I came across this article on Box Office decline on Variety and thought I’d take a stab at a response.

If you look at the Now Playing section at any movie theater, you’ll see a number of sequels, adaptations and reboots …and maybe one original film, if you’re lucky. We’ve all complained about the lack of originality in Hollywood, but why does the trend continue?

Let’s look at some numbers, shall we? I’ll use the X-Men franchise as a model.*

  • 2000: X-Men. Box office gross: $157,299,717. Rotten Tomatoes score: 81%
  • 2003: X2: X-Men United. Box office gross: $214,949,694. Rotten Tomatoes score: 86%
  • 2006: X-Men: The Last Stand. Box office gross: $234,362,462. Rotten Tomatoes score: 58%
  • 2009: X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Box office gross: $179,883,157. Rotten Tomatoes score: 38%
  • 2011: X-Men: First Class. Box office gross: $146,408,305. Rotten Tomatoes score: 86%
  • 2013: The Wolverine. Box office gross: $132,556,852. Rotten Tomatoes score: 69%
  • 2014: X-Men: Days of Future Past. Box office gross: $233,921,5304. Rotten Tomatoes score: 91%
  • 2016: X-Men: Apocalypse. Box office gross: $155,442,489. Rotten Tomatoes score: 48%

*data courtesy of BoxOfficeMojo.com and RottenTomatoes.com

That’s 16 years worth of X-Men films.

If we look at the numbers, we see a few of the sequels really ramped up the box office earnings. Enough so that it seemed that as long as you kept making X-Men movies, people would go see them. Everyone likes Wolverine, right? Let’s give him a solo film!

Oh, but that didn’t work. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was an abortive attempt to create a prequel series of films. Fans complained about the irresponsible treatment of Wolverine’s true origin from the comics, and the dreadful version of Deadpool used as a villain in the final act. Origins performed so bad that it nearly could have killed the franchise. In fact, it did kill any other Origins prequels. Magneto’s was slated next.

So, Wolverine got another solo film. That one didn’t do spectacularly, but still was miles ahead of Origins. Now there’s yet another Wolverine movie slated for 2017. (Oh just give his claws a rest, will you?)

The Wolverine cost $120 million to produce. It made $132,556,852 according to the handy-dandy BoxOfficeMojo.comBut, if you look at IMDB and really dig through the numbers, you’ll see that the film actually made $413,562,477 (Worldwide) as of November 2013. The studio made money. And that’s why sequels keep getting made.

Another great quote from the Variety article:

“It may be a fantasy of mine as a creative producer, but I hope this will remind the studios that you could make five really good movies for the cost of one sequel to a movie that didn’t merit a sequel,” said Matt Baer, producer of “Unbroken.” (Variety)

See, this is the dilemma posed to my Producing class by our professor. He pointed out that many studios look at things in one of two models: You can make a number of cheaper, smaller films and hope to make some money on all of them, or bank your success on one or two big blockbusters that are expensive but hopefully have huge returns.

But remember, even as you and I are condemning Hollywood’s practices of going the easy route and re-­hashing old ideas – we are part of the problem.

The reason the bigwigs in Hollywood keep doing sequels, reboots and adaptations is that there is a built ­in audience.

There’s the bad ones too. The ones that make you scratch your head and wonder where it all went wrong. Why did Independence Day need a sequel 20 years later? Why did we reboot Ghostbusters? Couldn’t we have done another female led buddy film?

I read a book on writing adaptations and the one lesson that stuck with me is this: You owe nothing to the source material. That opened up possibilities but also worried me.

It’s when you owe nothing to the source material like flops like The Last Airbender offend our silver screen. On the flip side, you can also get fantastic adaptations such as Deadpool, which mixed characters from the comics spectacularly. Wade’s buddy, for one, was a blend of two characters, and Negasonic was only taken from the comics by name and given cooler superpowers.

There needs to be an appropriate amount of give and take, and a willingness from the Powers That Be to create new, different things. If you build it, they will come. You just have to have something good. You can’t throw Jupiter Ascending at us and then whine that nobody wants originality.

At the heart of it all: You need to tell a good story. All other factors – budget, high profile actors, licensed characters – should be secondary.

Audiences are not stupid. Everyone has consumed enough media to be a bit of an amateur critic themselves, and in these days of social media omnipotence, you want those mini­critics to extol the virtues of your film. It’s the ones who gush about how hilarious Deadpool is that swell a box office to $363,070,709 in gross ticket sales, with an opening weekend that blew the entire pantheon of X-Men films out of the water.

If a story is all over the place and a main character is not interesting or sympathetic, you better hope there’s enough ridiculous action and adventure to keep a couple rounds of audience members mildly amused. If you don’t, they’ll ruin you.

Sources:

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