Hollywood is a tough business. Each “product costs around $100 million to make and market. It is created by a director over whom the studio has imperfect control. It will be “on the shelf for a brief period. Good films can be swamped by popular ones. Bad films die early, killed by almost instantaneous word of mouth.
Were it not for foreign markets, TV and cable distribution and DVD sales, the industry would be a complete crap shoot.
We would expect an industry of this kind to be highly risk adverse. Go with what you know: bankable stars, familiar themes, genre film making. And indeed this has been the slam that intellectuals bring against Hollywood: that it turns out goo.
The trouble is that goo doesnt sell the way it used to. Smash hits, the real revenue spinners in Hollywood, are often departures. They have been exercises not in risk management, but in risk taking.
Here are some recent winners. These figures show the films budget (in millions), the US gross, the worldwide gross, and, finally, where the picture stands in the Internet Movie Database “All Time Box Office list.
Forrest Gump (1994): 55-330-679-13
The Sixth Sense (1999): 55-294-661-21
Home Alone (1990): 15-286-533-23
Shrek (2001): 60-268-455-25
We can only imagine the pitch that had to be made to the studio.
“Youre going to love this. Its about this guy who is, well, hes a little simple. And at one point, this is so great, he runs across the country for no reason at all. And
The Sixth Sense:
“What a story! This guy is dead, right. What? Yes, the hero. Hes dead, but, like, he doesnt know it, so anyhow
Home Alone was about a kid locked in his house and Shrek is about a big, green ogre and a donkey! At the moment of commissioning, these projects did not have “hit written all over them. Nervous studio executives must have been thinking, “What are we doing here? How about a car chase? Maybe, a hero with a brain or just a pulse. The first miracle is that these films got made. The second is that they grossed $2.2 billion.
$2.2 billion, thats the kind of number that gets Hollywoods attention. The trouble is that its hard to pick em. Consumers are hard to anticipate. Tastes change. You just never know. In this marketplace, risk aversion often gets you goo. Risk can get you riches.
The sequel franchise has the advantage of an installed base of consumer familiarity and support. It allows the studio to maximize the up front investment. It gives an additional reward for the initial risk. [Shrek 2 (2004) is 3rd on the “all time box office list (75-436-837). Spider Man 2 (2004) is 9th (200-404-806).]
But theres more. From the intersection of anthropology and economics, we may see sequels as a strategy for dealing with dynamism. For they solve a larger problem. They create a continuity of consumer taste and preference. The world may be bucking and weaving. Tastes may be changing at a furious pace, but this little world, for the moment, belongs to the studio. For a moment, they have a place in the eye of the hurricane of contemporary culture.
Without the Shrek franchise, Hollywood would have had to turn out 4 new distinct movies, each of them an uncomfortable combination of risk and risk aversion (“what if we are risking too much now accompanied by “what if we are risking too little?). With each decision, Hollywood has to be right in touch with consumer taste. If they had the bad fortune to produce Troy ($200 m.), Van Helsin ($140 m.) and King Arthur, they would be well out of touch.
But with a sequel, studios pave their own way. They actually create the taste and preference to which they then speak. (We could think of this as a kind of Bernoulli model of cultural engagement. They create the world into which they effortlessly enter.) One moment of risk (Shrek I) becomes, potentially, 3 moments of safety (Shrek II, III, IV). Where does this safety come from? Not just from cynical repetition, but the fact that the studio has fashioned consumer tastes and preferences instead of merely chasing them.
It is customary to think of sequels as dreary affairs in which the studio tries, cynically, to cash in on their initial success. Certainly, this reading fits and Hollywood, as always, looks good in it. But what is more interesting is that the sequel represents an adaptive response in a dynamic culture.
One last point: I wonder if Hollywood is factoring this in. Do they say to themselves, ‘to get a 4 picture franchise, and the diminished risk of the last three pictures, we will have to take more risk with picture 1. Probably. They may sometimes act like idiots, but that doesnt mean they think like Gump.
Waxman, Sharon. 2004. Summer box Office Hits a High, Despite Lows. New York Times. September 7, 2004. here subscription required.
all movie numbers from www.imdbpro.com. subscription required.