Dylan O’Neill investigates how the recent plague of sequels began, and where it might lead us from here.
A Jewish prince has been sold into slavery by a supposed Roman friend; after regaining his freedom, he embarks on a journey of revenge. This is, of course, the plot of Ben-Hur, which won 11 Academy Awards in 1960, grossed over $74 million in the U.S., according to IMDb, and is a certified classic film.
In 2016, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount Pictures financed a remake of this epochal classic. The film was received by critics and audiences alike in a drastically different light than the original; grossing only $26.4 million domestically, the production lost its studios approximately $120 million.
Critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes states that the ill-fated Ben-Hur had “too few [ideas] of its own,” and was made no better by lacklustre editing and the garish use of CGI. So what brought about this failure of biblical proportions?
It’s an unwritten rule that the sequel is never better than the original. Sequels have the unenviable job of building upon an original, existent world, of tying up loose ends, of introducing new characters and conflicts, and resolving said conflicts within a 2-hour time frame. That’s a lot of work for a movie to do; perhaps too much.
Horror movies are particularly guilty of this; the first Saw movie was a perfectly terrifying psychological thriller, yet the plot deteriorated through 7 films—soon to be 8. As more characters with half-fleshed out origins and conflicts were introduced, the franchise ossified, locked in repetitive motion, churning out sequels for a diminishing fanbase.
Remakes face a similar problem—the audience goes into the theatre expecting to see a masterpiece that elicits the same emotional response as the original before it, a film that captures the same imagined “magic.” Over time, these expectations are failed so often that even a vague return to form is celebrated as the second coming. (Ahem, Star Wars.)
“Sequels have the unenviable job of building upon an original, existent world… introducing new characters and conflicts, and resolving said conflicts within a 2-hour time frame.”
Most remakes will try to change a small aspect of the original, in a bid to brew some new kind of magic. Often this decision aligns with the incentive to make the film appealing to a younger audience. This can come across as a cheap gimmick. Take the recent Ghostbusters remake that included a new all-female cast. Its feminist nod fell short, not due to its politics, but due to a poor script and a childish lack of subtlety or class.
So why has Hollywood chosen to resurrect the dead, despite frequently worsening returns? Perhaps they can’t resist the urge to stand on the shoulders of giants. The potential of an intellectual property is weighed, while the hard work put into its proper execution is taken for granted, and later written off in favour of the bottom line.
Metrics also play a prominent role. Predictive models hope to determine what will be profitable in advance, and often the desires of the franchise fans are taken into account.
If you go onto any social media platform, you will be inundated with fan-fiction, predictions, and all manner of franchise worship. It makes economic sense to give the fans what they want. The problem, of course, is that you’re essentially giving a fundamental part of the movie to a group of people, whose sole focus is on one small part of the original, and doesn’t factor in correctly how this change will affect the overall movie in terms of the central issues addressed.
“Perhaps studios can’t resist the urge to stand on the shoulders of giants.”
Ben-Hur is only one in a long line of failed remakes and sequels that Hollywood has produced in recent years. The sequel of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles played on the audience’s interest on the original television series, which failed to live up to the buzz that the original had created. But why are original scripts overlooked for these seemingly doomed projects?
Like with any corporation, investors expect to see a return on their investment. Studios are constantly under pressure to meet deadlines and produce a marketable product. In this case, a summer blockbuster.
Superhero movies end with a post-credit scene, to tease a follow-up movie. This allows producers to plot a timeline of sequels that will encompass a wide range of possible story lines. Everybody needs an origin story.
From just one movie, a large number of ideas are spawned for possible sequels—a massively lucrative property, akin to mining a vein of gold—and the studios have to act fast to keep up with the audience’s demands before their interest is lost and with that, the large return on investments. Despite the best efforts of a production team, a rushed product is necessarily a flawed one.
The influence of capital on Hollywood, the possibility of a steady inflow of cash on a large franchise, crushes uncertainty and turns innovation into risk. It’s clear that successful movies are experimenting more and more and taking risks, however. Remember who won the Academy Award for Best Picture this year, eventually?
We as an audience expect to see less odes to Old Hollywood Glamour, and rather new and thought provoking films. The recent success of Moonlight suggests that the industry may yet pull out of its reboot death spiral before it crashes and burns.