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Offline Reginald Hudlin

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Familiarity Breeds Hollywood Sequels
« on: December 29, 2011, 06:45:32 am »


December 28, 2011
Familiarity Breeds Hollywood Sequels

LOS ANGELES — Moviegoers might think of next summer as a test. The results will tell whether Hollywood should bother to have an original thought.

As the books close on 2011, the year turns out to have been a remarkable exercise in cinematic repetition. So far the top seven pictures at the domestic box office have been sequels, an alignment that appears unmatched in movie history.

In terms of ticket sales the most popular seven films to date have been “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2”; “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”; “Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1”; “The Hangover Part II”; “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”; “Fast Five”; and “Cars 2.”

The strong opening for “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” suggests that it may well join a list that also includes “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” from yet another film series, in the ninth position. If “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” or “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” gain traction, the year’s entire Top 10 may turn out to have been sequels (and their titles will have exhausted the well of awkward punctuation).

Studio executives fed this year’s trend with a flight to financial safety that has been building for a decade. At least 10 of about 30 major studio films released in the spring-summer blockbuster season were sequels or remakes, and another three — “Thor,” “Green Lantern,” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” — were based on comics whose kinship with existing films allowed them to play like parts of a “franchise.”

In 2012, much like this year, the major studios will offer about 10 sequels or “reboots” (wherein a familiar series starts again, from the top), featuring the return of proven draws like Spider-Man and the Bourne spy cycle, this time with Jeremy Renner as a new hero.

But there will also be some startlingly fresh propositions on display. One is “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” from Fox — the title says it all. Fox will also put forth “Prometheus,” directed by Ridley Scott, a science-fiction thriller that probes deep into the origins of man. (“Prometheus” may have some kinship with the “Aliens” series, which has inspired debate as to whether it might be a prequel, though its makers have said it is not.)

“We need to reinvent the business, the way television did in the 1980s,” said John Davis, a studio producer whose dozens of credits include “Gulliver’s Travels,” “I, Robot” and “Predator.” “There’s just not enough risk taking.”

(In the 1980s the pay-television service HBO began to experiment with original series and mini-series like “Fraggle Rock” and “Tanner ’88” and eventually revolutionized television with sophisticated fare like “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City.”)

Mr. Davis took a risk this year with “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” a family film that starred Jim Carrey with a cast of penguins but had no movie predecessor to warm the seats. “Popper” fell flat when 20th Century Fox released it in June into a marketplace that found viewers hurrying to the “Cars” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels.

But if familiarity prevailed in 2011, the consumer was complicit. One after another the more original studio films in a variety of genres failed to draw a really large number of viewers this year.

The best-performing comedy, “Bridesmaids,” took in $169 million but fell far short of, say, “Fast Five,” which handily crossed the $200 million mark. “The Help,” so far the top drama, similarly stopped at less than $170 million, and remained outside the Top 10.

Meanwhile the more inventive propositions — “Super 8,” “Cowboys & Aliens,” “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” “Moneyball,” “Real Steel,” “Contagion” — some critically acclaimed, some not, never got close to the first rank, as viewers flocked to what they already knew. The pattern snuffed what had seemed to be a swing back toward originality in 2010, when the defiantly innovative thriller “Inception” was a hit, and new propositions like “Tangled” and “Despicable Me” cracked the Top 10.

“In an unsettling world people may gravitate toward the familiar,” Martin Kaplan, the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, suggested of this year’s film consumer.

“There may be pleasure to be found in something new and different, but there’s also the risk of being disoriented or disappointed,” Mr. Kaplan wrote in an e-mail recently. “Sequels are a kind of comfort food.”

Still, Hollywood is uneasy with a repetitiveness that must eventually exhaust itself — there could be no “Avatar 2” without the original “Avatar” — and is deeply unsatisfying to many of the bright and driven people who still spend their lives making studio movies.

In addition to profits they strive for the kind of inventiveness that was commonplace back in the early 1990s. In 1993, for instance, all 10 of the top performers, including “Jurassic Park,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “The Fugitive,” were freshly conceived films, whether based on an original script, like “Sleepless in Seattle,” or adapted from another medium, like “The Firm.”

In May, as the popcorn season gets going, the audience will again begin to vote with its collective wallet on the more inventive films that will accompany high-octane sequels like “Men in Black 3,” “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “The Bourne Legacy,” and “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Besides “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” and “Prometheus,” the offerings include “Premium Rush,” from Columbia Pictures, an action film about, of all things, bicycle messengers; and “The Dictator,” from Paramount, a new outrage from Sacha Baron Cohen, who delivered shock and awe five years ago with his “Borat” frolic.

If viewers are curious enough to take a look, it could be a fresh start for a future round of sequels.