IS there anyone besides me who is depressed by the news that Steven Spielberg, a great filmmaker with the clout to get any project he wants off the ground, is going off to make ... “Indiana Jones 4"?
Due to start filming in mid-June, the latest installment in the long-dormant “Raiders” series is simply the latest example of the movie industry’s maniacal devotion to sequels. With “Spider-Man 3" leading the way last weekend, making $151 million in domestic box office, this summer boasts an average of nearly one sequel a week. According to figures from Media by Numbers, there are 14 summer-release sequels in all, up from seven last year and three in 2005. The inflation is striking -- there were only 14 summer sequels made from 1998 through 2001.
Hollywood makes sequels for one good reason: They make money. The biggest summer hits of the last three years were all sequels. After its record-setting weekend, Sony Pictures chief Michael Lynton boasted to the BBC that the “Spider-Man” series may continue ad infinitum, saying. “Everybody has every intention of making a fourth, a fifth and a sixth and on and on.” Geez, is that a promise or a threat?
The blind urge to make money might let studios off the hook, since there are few people left in Hollywood who expect great films to emerge from the primeval ooze of studio development. Studio chiefs are at least up-front, if you read their interviews about their desire to manage risk, create multiplatform franchises and generally treat movies as a form of brand advertising.
That leaves two culprits: the filmmakers who sign on to make the movies and the millions of filmgoers who line up to see the latest extension of the brand. I’m not a lunatic idealist. I have no beef with a journeyman taking a gig, like TV actor turned director Fred Savage doing a sequel like “Daddy Day Camp.” What I find demoralizing is that so many of our most gifted filmmakers are behaving as much like careerists as anyone running a studio.
There’s a list -- a short one, but still an impressive one -- of filmmakers who refuse to turn themselves into brand managers: Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Baz Luhrmann, Danny Boyle, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne, David Fincher and M. Night Shyamalan, to name a few.
Then look at the great talent who’s on the sequel beat: Steven Soderbergh has done two “Ocean’s” sequels. Bryan Singer, the wunderkind behind “The Usual Suspects,” has done “X-Men 2" and is at work on a sequel to “Superman Returns.” Christopher Nolan has left behind the raw originality of “Memento” to do “Batman” movies. Robert Rodriguez, who burst on the scene with “El Mariachi,” has done two sequels for “Spy Kids,” with a “Sin City” sequel on its way. After making “Darkman” and “A Simple Plan,” Sam Raimi seemed poised to be our generation’s dark prince of meaty thrillers but has turned himself into an impersonal “Spider-Man” ringmaster instead.
Sequels are not automatically crass or derivative -- just ask anyone who’s seen “28 Weeks Later,” the new sequel to “28 Days Later” directed by the gifted Spanish filmmaker Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. But that’s an exception. Francis Ford Coppola may have struck gold with “Godfather II,” but you can’t use that as a fig leaf when you’re doing “Hostel 2" or “Alien vs. Predator 2.”
So why spend the best years of your creative life doing something that’s already been done? Some filmmakers truly have a sense of artistic proprietary: Once they’ve started a franchise, they don’t want the material slipping into someone else’s hands. Others are clearly eager for a paycheck. “But it’s not always about the money,” says Brett Ratner, who’s finishing “Rush Hour 3,” one of this summer’s many sequels. “I get the same fee for directing an original script as I do for this.”
Ratner, who also did the last “X-Men” sequel and “Red Dragon,” an installment in the Hannibal Lecter series, admits that franchises aren’t creative high points. “I know that Soderbergh’s great film isn’t going to be one of the ‘Ocean’s’ sequels,” he says. “But I don’t feel like I’m slumming. If Ridley Scott could do a sequel [“Hannibal”] to a movie than won an Oscar for best picture and hold his head up high, then why couldn’t I?”
Ratner insists that sequels are challenges. “You have to make the film feel fresh and keep the audience’s expectations satisfied, all at the same time. Trust me, it isn’t easy.”
But other filmmakers are leery of sequels. “It’s kind of sad,” says Wayne Kramer, who has directed several critically praised thrillers, including “The Cooler.” “It’s one thing for studios to not want to make personal films, but now it’s some of our best directors too. I thought Sam Raimi did an amazing job with ‘Spider-Man,’ but I can’t imagine why someone that talented would still want to be involved with a third film. I thought he would’ve gotten it out of his system after No. 2.”
Kramer says he keeps turning down sequel offers, preferring to work on something original. “I just don’t want to be someone’s sequel bitch,” he says. “It’s very seductive because you know the material is financed, you’ll get a big payday and you’ll have all the movie toys and extra shooting days that come with it. But why would you want to spend all that time on someone else’s story? I want to speak with my own voice.”
So why would Spielberg, who sees every great script, want to go back to the “Indy” well? It obviously isn’t for the money, since Spielberg and “Indy” producer George Lucas have enough loot to last a hundred lifetimes. According to DreamWorks Co-Chairman Stacey Snider, David Koepp’s “Indy” script made all the difference.
“It was the best script we saw all year -- by far,” she says. “To me, it’s not so much a sequel as an affectionate reprise of a beloved character and his story. It has much more in common with the feeling you had when the ‘Star Wars’ movies were coming back than what you feel about a lot of sequels, which is, ‘How do I wring one more dollar out of the franchise?’ ”
Other Spielberg watchers say that the idea of bringing “Indy” back to life one more time -- with soon-to-be 65-year-old Harrison Ford as the aging hero -- must have an emotional resonance for Spielberg, who is 60 himself. Spielberg has never apologized for being an entertainer -- he directed the sequel to “Jurassic Park” himself. But he also aspires to greatness. And the directors who had the best careers after turning 60, be it Robert Altman, John Huston or Akira Kurosawa, were all mavericks who refused to repeat themselves, preferring to explore the unknown rather than revisit past triumphs.
On the other hand, if there is anything that Spielberg understands, it’s what audiences want. And people today have made it clear that when it comes to pop culture, they have a craving for comfort food. Surely it is no coincidence that music fans are being deluged with almost as many rock band reunions as moviegoers are with sequels. This year the list of groups either touring or making a new record include the Police, Genesis, Squeeze, the Stooges, Van Halen, Smashing Pumpkins and Rage Against the Machine.
Once again, the motivation is complicated, but as with sequels, money is clearly a major factor. The Wall Street Journal reported that a Van Halen tour would be a blockbuster, generating sales of up to $34 million. But something else is at work. We seem to have a need to relive the same thrills over and over, as if our culture has become a real-life version of “Groundhog Day.” Filmmakers often say they do sequels to earn capital to make more original films. But in their eagerness to reach as large an audience as possible, it’s hard to tell where artistic aspirations end and mercenary territory begins.
From “Spider-Man” to “Shrek” to whatever Spielberg has in store for Indiana Jones next summer, mass appeal has become synonymous with cozy and reassuring. Maybe I’m missing a nostalgia gene, but coziness gets old pretty fast. When it comes to entertainment, I’ll take excitement and unpredictability over familiarity every time.
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