The lack of originality in the mainstream film industry is certainly not a new occurence, but it is bothering me as much as it always did. Which is quite a lot. Of course, from a financial point of view, I completely understand it – after all, everything that is produced has to strive to make a profit, whichever way it can. And, if a certain formula has made steady profit in the past, chances are that any future iterations which do not stray too far away from the initial idea should also do fairy well, as far as financial rewards go. Because of this, we end up with hordes of more or less identical content – superhero movies, for instance – which try to milk the cash cow for as long as possible, before new leading trends emerge and re-orientation has to occur.
Such continuation efforts differ markedly in terms of approach, but can be broadly categorised into three: sequels (events set after the predecessor’s plot), prequels (events set prior to the predecessor’s plot) and spin-offs (events take place in the same universe, but with little or no link to the predecessor’s plot). Let’s take a more detailed look into each of these.
This is by far the most commonly employed method and, in my opinion, it’s the laziest approach. It rests on the idea that audiences like continuity, and thus the open-ended finale of one film serves as the perfect premise for the next one, especially since the project basically markets itself as a result. It’s also easier in terms of plot-writing, I would imagine, as you can go in pretty much any direction you wish, without any major concerns.
An example of sequels which were taken too far could be the Paranormal Activity series, which just announced its 7th project after a 4-year hiatus, or the SAW franchise, which underwent a process of yearly releases and declining quality back when it was in the peak of its popularity. Both the initial films of these two franchises were quality productions with an indie feel, which exceeded all expectations and grossed extraordinary amounts of money, especially considering their budgets. And while SAW kept the quality steady until the third iteration, Paranormal Activity went on a downward slope immediately, producing worse and worse sequels, while still making good profits.
Somewhere on the opposite pole lies the Mission Impossible franchise, which from its first iteration in 1996, only spawned five more sequels to date, with two more being planned for the near future. These were not sequels which did their best to keep the hype train going, but actually took their time, with enough thought and effort being put in each and every one of them. This long-term approach paid off, with almost every final product topping its predecessor not only in terms of box office revenue, but also in terms of critic aggregate score and viewer aggregate ratings.
Prequels have more recently started to gain more popularity and momentum, and results have been, as expected, quite mixed. The Hobbit managed to achieve a healthy amount of box office revenue, while also delivering a good product, however without at any point surpassing the production value of any of the three Lord of the Rings films. Work on a new Game of Thrones prequel is rumored to have already started, but it remains to be seen if it will be able to match the impact which the original series managed to have during the last decade.
My positive case study for prequels would be Breaking Bad, and its prequel TV series, Better Call Saul. What the latter did was take two characters which almost all fans of the original liked, and made an entirely new show out of them – set, of course, prior to the events of the original. However, the great thing about this approach was that it didn’t try to emulate Breaking Bad’s success by doing basically the same thing, instead it managed to create its own unique flavour. It was respectful in terms of marketing, too: it didn’t call itself ‘Breaking Bad: A Saul Goodman Story’, but instead walked a healthy distance away from the original material, while remaining respectful to it and more or less matching its quality. It was not a drug-centred crime story, but more of a courtroom drama story about loyalty and friendship, and while success was harder to come by, due to the narrowed audience niche, it was a clear success.
And finally, we have spin-offs. If a universe is interesting and offers plenty of potential for exploration in a differential manner than the source material, then by all means, it might be a great idea. However, if it doesn’t, then it will probably end up being a cheap cash grab, no matter how ultimately successful. Fear the Walking Dead. The original Walking Dead was still in full swing (it still is, even today), and yet, apparently there was a need for a spin-off, one which would give fans their necessary Walking Dead dose even when The Walking Dead was not under release. Probably encouraged by the success of the Telltale videogame, which took a host of new characters and dragged them through hell, Fear the Walking Dead attempted the same… and largely failed. While still entertaining at times, it was more of the same, but without the same quality in terms of story, acting and directing.
Instead, series such as Fargo or True Detective manage to always stay fresh and offer something new alongside a pre-defined formula. While the approach, atmosphere, style and underlying philosophies of the three seasons stay rather constant, and some loose links between the seasons exist, each one of these ‘chapters’ is its own self-standing, independent project. Sure, they use the same name for marketing purposes, but they do not depend on one another, and certainly do not try to emulate one another. This is how a successful spin-off looks like, at least in my book.