Hollywood has the summertime blues. Box-office revenues are down nearly 20% compared with last summer's. The one bright spot for the beleaguered film industry? Sequels.
Four of this summer's top six box-office performers have been franchise follow-ups: "X-Men: Days of Future Past," "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," "Transformers: Age of Extinction," and "22 Jump Street." This weekend, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" became the latest example of the successful sequel -- a critical and commercial hit that lifted spirits in the industry.
Sequels have long played a crucial role in anchoring studios' slates during the critical summer season, of course, but this year they've been more important than ever, as original fare such as the Tom Cruise sci-fi film "Edge of Tomorrow" and the raunchy western comedy "A Million Ways to Die in the West" have struggled to connect with audiences.
Only two films not based on existing film properties ("Neighbors" and "The Fault in Our Stars") have managed to surpass $100 million at the box office this summer compared with 10 in 2013, including such breakout hits as "The Conjuring" and "Now You See Me."
But not just any sequel works, industry experts point out. To a noteworthy degree — and perhaps a surprising one in risk-averse Hollywood — many of the most successful among this year's crop have taken unexpected creative routes to try to broaden their audience and strengthen their franchise.
"This summer, sequels that innovate are being rewarded," said Simon Kinberg, who wrote and produced "Days of Future Past." "Usually with a sequel, if you do your job, you do about the same business as the last movie. But to actually expand your audience in a big way, I think you have to do something radical."
Before the summer kicked off, April's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" fused a dark political thriller with a superhero movie, earning widespread raves and the highest grosses of the year ($258 million). "X-Men," the summer's top earner ($229 million), injected a time-travel plot into the comic-book series. "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" killed off one of the franchise's central and most appealing characters. The comedy "22 Jump Street" skewered the very idea of its existence with a stream of knowing jokes about sequel clichés.
Even Michael Bay's critically panned "Transformers: Age of Extinction" took the extreme step of wiping the slate clean of all the series' familiar human characters (though some critics might argue Bay should have kept on wiping).
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is the latest sequel to follow this path. The film, which arrived in theaters Friday on a wave of strong reviews, grossed a better-than-expected $73 million in the U.S. and Canada.
"Dawn" director Matt Reeves said that, with the eighth entry in the simian sci-fi franchise that stretches back to 1968, he was aiming for something mythic, a film that would explore themes of loyalty, betrayal and our propensity for violence — with talking chimps, of course.
"I thought, 'Can we do a Shakespearean ape drama?'" Reeves said. "When it comes to sequels, for me what matters is ambition."
Sequels aren't typically thought of as the most ambitious of cinematic endeavors unless you're simply talking about the ambition to make enormous sums at the box office.
"I think a sequel is a waste of money and time — movies should illuminate new stories," director Francis Ford Coppola recently grumbled. (Never mind that he made one of the most acclaimed ever with "The Godfather: Part II.")
Trying to create a new story within an existing framework brings its own set of challenges. Stay too close to the original material and it feels like a repeat, stray too far and you can lose the core audience.
"On the one hand, audiences want what's familiar," said Greg Foster, chief executive of Imax Entertainment and senior executive vice president of the Imax Corp. "On the other hand, more of the same doesn't work."
The tension has bedeviled many a filmmaker, and the result is that truly great sequels have been few and far between. For every "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," there are a whole lot of "Sex and the City 2s."
"When I go back to the sequels that inspired me, it's always 'Terminator 2,' 'Empire Strikes Back,' 'Aliens,'" says Alex Kurtzman, who co-wrote "The Amazing Spider-Man 2." "They were their own movies, divorced from what came before, and you could step into them and have an unbelievable experience. I think that's probably the best you can hope for with a sequel: that it stands on its own as a great film."
Many credit Christopher Nolan's 2008 smash "The Dark Knight" with setting the bar creatively and financially for all tent-pole sequels since. Charles Roven, who produced the "Dark Knight" trilogy, argues that, at a time when moviegoers are tempted by endless digital distractions, giving them a compelling reason to stick with a franchise is more important — and more difficult — than ever.
"When you give audiences a sequel, you need it to have a certain freshness to it so it's not just the same characters doing the same thing," Roven said. "They've got to be growing or challenged."
In recent years, the threshold for which movies get sequels has been lowered, as studios hunt for perceived built-in audiences anywhere they can find them. But Neal Moritz, who has produced the "Jump Street" and "Fast and the Furious" franchises, cautions that there is a danger in green-lighting sequels based solely on box-office calculations.
"Most of the time in Hollywood, people make sequels to movies that did a lot of business, but that doesn't necessarily mean that people really liked the movies," Moritz said. "My overall philosophy is, don't make a sequel where you don't have characters people love and want to follow."
That said, even when there are beloved characters, a sequel can flounder. Comic-book icon Frank Miller, who wrote and co-directed the upcoming sequel "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," points to his own experience writing 1990's misbegotten "RoboCop 2" as an illustration of that fact.
"'RoboCop' was a very self-contained movie, and it didn't really want a sequel," Miller said. "It's just that economics forced their way in."
Given this summer's results, you can expect the industry's dependence on sequels to continue to deepen; next summer's slate is already packed with follow-ups like "The Avengers: Age of Ultron," "Pitch Perfect 2" and "Ted 2."
To bring new creative juice to ongoing franchises, studios are continuing to recruit filmmakers from independent film backgrounds: Next summer's "Jurassic World," for example, is being directed by Colin Trevorrow, whose last film was the low-budget comedy "Safety Not Guaranteed," while "Looper" director Rian Johnson has been tapped to helm "Star Wars Episode VIII."
"It's a huge system that makes these movies, and a lot of times you get kind of homogenized [sequels] — and that's where people get cynical," director Reeves said. "But if you have a strong point of view, you can actually make a movie that has a point of view to it. You can actually make a movie about something."