When “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” debuted in May 2007, many critics derided the third installment in the Disney franchise, calling its plot incomprehensible and 169-minute running time torturous. Newsweek prayed it was the final movie in the series; the New Yorker said a monkey delivered the best performance in the film; and Time suggested an alternative title for the picture: “Pirates of the Caribbean: At Wit’s End.”
Yet rather than sheath their swords, Johnny Depp and Co. restocked the eyeliner supply and relaced the corsets, signing on a little more than one year later for a fourth go-round. The copious haul of doubloons that Capt. Jack Sparrow pocketed worldwide suggested that with a little freshening of the franchise, audiences might be lured back aboard for yet another film.
“Even though the reviewers weren’t crazy about the third one, it did almost a billion dollars. That’s a big movie,” says “Pirates” producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who, along with Disney, a new director (“Chicago” helmer Rob Marshall) and a new supporting cast, including Penélope Cruz, will bring another adventure in the eye-patch saga to theaters this week. “If we do a little less [money] on the fourth one, we’d be happy.”
The return of “Pirates of the Caribbean” on Friday (this one is titled “On Stranger Tides”) is part of a major shift in Hollywood, with studios now routinely pursuing a fourth picture in a series, often after an extended layoff — or even a fifth, in the case of Universal’s current hit “Fast Five.”
Long-running film series featuring such characters as Tarzan and Charlie Chan were a staple in the early decades of Hollywood. But those faded as TV became popular, giving viewers regular installments of favored heroes. In the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, three tended to be the magic number when it came to sequels: Michael Corleone whacked his last pigeon in “The Godfather Part III,” Neo would outwit no more Sentinels after the third “Matrix,” Ellie Sattler will no longer study — or battle — rogue dinosaurs after “Jurassic Park III.”
The roots of the custom run deep — three-act storytelling, after all, goes back millenniums. After a third film, the conventional wisdom used to go, audiences move on, and the material has lost creative steam. For years, producers of film franchises typically made deals with actors to star in three films.
But now, four and more is becoming common. Besides extending the “Fast & Furious” series, Universal has also given a new lease on life to the “Bourne” movies, reviving them with actor Jeremy Renner and director Tony Gilroy when star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass said they were out of ideas after a trio of films. Sony has done the same with “Spider-Man” — after three installments pairing Tobey Maguire with director Sam Raimi, Andrew Garfield is taking over the webbed wonder role; "(500) Days of Summer” director Marc Webb is helming the film, which focuses on Spidey’s high school years and is due out next year. Also in the works: new editions of “Spy Kids” and “X-Men.”
Yet as studios extend franchises, they’re raising questions about whether they’re sacrificing creativity for profit. Are there new stories to tell in a fourth film? Do actors, writers and others want to commit so much time to essentially a single enterprise, or can a new cast and crew grab the baton and infuse new energy (and still please fans)? And will audiences embrace these efforts, or see them as naked grabs for cash?
“Both ‘Spider-Man 2' and ‘Toy Story 2' broke the stigma of sequels and proved that a sequel doesn’t necessarily have to be a lame rehash of the first movie,” said movie critic and historian Leonard Maltin. “There are no rules.… But then there is the third ‘X-Men’ and ‘Spider-Man’ and the third ‘Pirates,’ which may still be running. I left the theater after two hours.”
When Melissa Rosenberg, the screenwriter on the first three movies in the “Twilight” saga, was asked by novelist Stephenie Meyer to return for a fourth film, she reacted unenthusiastically. “I thought, ‘You know, I’m done,’” she recalled in a recent interview. “I felt like, ‘I’ve done three. How am I going to do this any better?’”
Rosenberg was eventually persuaded by Meyer and studio Summit Entertainment to stay on; there was, at least, a fourth novel to draw from. (The studio eventually split that final book into two films, both scripted by Rosenberg.)
On June 3, Fox will release a fifth “X-Men” film, a prequel of sorts starring James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, but in a different universe than that depicted by 2009’s origin film centered on the series’ most popular mutant, Wolverine. Critics have wavered over the series’ history, but fans have rewarded the decade-old franchise with close to $800 million in grosses worldwide.
Emma Watts, Fox’s president of production, said she was drawn back into the “X-Men” universe by a pitch from producer Bryan Singer that placed the mutant superheroes in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis — something she hadn’t seen before. She said the focus on the young superheroes doesn’t preclude the studio from returning to the original X-Men world. Audiences surely haven’t protested the studio’s unusual tack of taking the franchise from a linear progression of sequels to a web of interrelated movies.
Still, she said, “It’s tricky. If it wasn’t hard, then we’d always get it right.” (Sometimes even knowing what to call these extensions can be confusing. “It’s not a reboot, and it’s not a fourth in the series,” Watts said of the new “X-Men.” “It’s an expansion of these characters into another world.”)
In August, Robert Rodriguez will look to keep the youthful-espionage magic going with “Spy Kids 4,” which has Jessica Alba playing a spy forced to juggle motherhood duties.
Bob Weinstein, president of Dimension Films, which is behind the “Spy Kids” franchise, noted that there can be a redemption factor in going beyond a third film. “Just look at ‘Fast & Furious.’ Four and five were far better than two and three,” he said. “The thing with series [that extend beyond three is] if you don’t make some great, you get a chance to go back and make them better.”
But nothing’s a sure bet. Dimension brought back director Wes Craven to do “Scream 4,” reviving the series 11 years after the third installment. The latest movie got much better reviews than its predecessor, but grossed about $40 million in the U.S., less than half of what “Scream 3" took in. “Maybe,” Weinstein said, “‘Scream’ had its time.”
Still, for studios, the marketing advantages to sequels are obvious. Studios are reluctant to spend anew, across numerous countries, to launch original properties. And with international business an increasingly important source of studio revenue, it’s natural for Hollywood to double down on sequels.
“These aren’t movies. These are pieces of product,” Maltin said. “The only way this trend will abate, or dare I say vanish, is if there is a collision of box-office failures. I don’t see it happening. Even some films that disappoint domestically do so well overseas, they keep the engine going.”
Many who have worked on fourquels, though, say that the public and critics underestimate the creative ambition in these movies, particularly when they’re prequels or origin stories.
“In some ways, it’s more challenging for filmmakers to create a high-quality sequel because it’s on familiar ground,” said Fox Filmed Entertainment Co-Chairman and Chief Executive Jim Gianopulos. “You’re constantly challenged to keep it fresh and exciting.”
Rosenberg will keep “Twilight” going with two more films set for release in the next 18 months by tackling a pregnancy plotline and a story that she says moves beyond “just the love triangle” of the first three movies.
“What I finally realized was I could break the story and take it in an interesting new direction,” she said. “I wouldn’t have come back if I didn’t think I could do that.”
For inspiration, many of those involved in extended sequels look to James Bond, the 22-picture juggernaut that has endured for half a century through changing filmmaking currents, a half-dozen lead actors and even corporate-ownership changes. Like the eight-picture “Harry Potter” series, though, “Bond” had a number of novels — or at least titles — on which to draw.
Neal Moritz, the producer behind the “Fast & Furious” franchise, says that the balance between new and old gets more difficult with each movie.
“There’s a feeling sometimes that if you just put in bigger explosions in a sequel it will succeed, and I don’t think it does,” he said. “At the same time, you have to keep a lot of the relationships and characters because it doesn’t make sense to throw them out,” he said. For “Fast Five,” Moritz kept the trademark car chases and explosions but shifted from a street-racing story to criminals planning a big heist.
Like “Fast Five,” “X-Men,” “Spy Kids” and “Pirates” all have beloved anchor characters like Depp’s Sparrow but also offer new beginnings. Moritz compared fourth or fifth films in a series to the soap-opera model, where “you can drop in on different characters at different times.”
Paul W.S. Anderson, the writer-director behind the horror franchise “Resident Evil,” sees fourquels as more akin to the world of PlayStation and Xbox. “The video game community is ahead of the curve when it comes to franchises,” he said. “What the industry realized is that if you nurture a franchise, there’s an audience well beyond the second or third editions.” (A fourth “Resident Evil” film came out last year, and a fifth is in development.)
Rodriguez, meanwhile, likens fourquels to sitcoms or prime-time dramas. “People love checking in with their characters every week — it’s what’s made television so involving lately. So why not with movie characters?” asked the 42-year-old director.
After “Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over,” in 2003, Rodriguez said he had no intention of making another film in the series. But he reconsidered after a lunch meeting with Alba. The actress was on the way to his house with her baby when she had to contend with a diaper explosion in the backseat of a rental car. “It wasn’t a normal diaper explosion,” Rodriguez says with a laugh. The moment gave him a flash of inspiration — he thought of “Spy Kids,” “and this idea of Alba having to deal with this while on a top-secret mission.”
Rodriguez’s challenge now will be to lure a new generation of fans, considering that the children who initially propelled the franchise are now nearly adults but probably not old enough to have kids of their own. Weinstein is counting on the series’ strong performance on DVD over the years to make it relevant today.
When “Fast & Furious” star Paul Walker heard that producers were trying to keep the franchise going beyond a third movie, he had his doubts.
“By the time the fourth one came around, I thought it was stale. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Really?’ Obviously we made the first one, and that catered to pop culture and a youth-driven audience,” he said. “But trends shift overnight with that audience. Nine years later, I really questioned if there was even an audience for this anymore.”
Walker came back to the franchise. But other actors move on. Keira Knightley, for instance, isn’t returning for the fourth “Pirates.”
“There’s a comfort in seeing the characters you love again and again,” she said. “But I never wanted to play the same character again and again. She [heroine Elizabeth Swann] was great and fun, and I loved the sword fighting. But what I really love about my job is exploring new things.”
Times staff writers Rebecca Keegan and Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.