The other day, as I readied my seven-year-old for a playdate at his friend Henry's house, he let me know that Henry had a video camera and that they were planning to make a movie about a lump of bread dough that descended from outer space and attacked people. I said, half-busy with his sunscreen, that was a great idea. But when I offered a creative suggestion, it was instantly rejected. He explained that Henry had already made a movie about the killer space dough, so this one would have to follow the same storyline and characters. "Ah," I said, dismayed, "a sequel." Respectfully I asked the title of the original movie. Alien Run II. Wait, so this would be a sequel of a sequel? With infinite paternal patience I explained that an original movie should not, technically, have a number after it. Because it was, you know, the first one. To which my son scoffed.
"It always has a number, Dad," he said, "if it's great."
At which point I realized the apocalypse is upon us. After years of bemoaning the sequelization of Hollywood, of righteously railing with my fellow writers and producers against the movie industry's increasing reliance on preexisting franchises, I'd come face-to-face with the ungodly new reality. Sequels, to our children, are inherently cool. A generation now believes that films arrive with numerals in the same way people arrive in limos -- because they're just better. And no wonder. Any kid's list of recent favorite movies would be gleaming with such numerical seals of extra-awesomeness, from Harry Potter VIII and Pirates of the Caribbean IV to Toy Story III, Kung Fu Panda II, Men in Black III and Madagascar III. In our world of obsessive upgrades, any toddler can tell you that the iPad 2, Playstation 4, and Mario Kart 7 kick their predecessors' butts. And that whatever numbered knockoff is spewed into movie theaters will be vastly superior to the boringly unadorned original.
I probably shouldn't be shocked. For the past few years, grownups have obviously felt the same way. Nine out of ten of the world's highest-grossing movies last year were sequels. A dozen years ago, that number was one out of ten. Back in 1993, the top performers at the box office were all first-time movie concepts, including The Fugitive, Sleepless in Seattle, Mrs. Doubtfire and Jurassic Park. Today, non-sequels -- Chronicle, say, or Ted -- are considered underdog outliers, sneaking miraculously through the system against all fiscal and corporate logic, and their box office success is heralded as a baffling exception to the rule. In the past few weeks the fourth Spider Man movie has grossed more than half a billion dollars; in a couple of weeks the tenth Batman movie has raked in even more. We live in a time when a what-the-hell comedy is Hangover III, when a quirky low-budget film is Paranormal Activity IV, where chicks have already started lining up for the fifth Twilight in November and dudes are more revved than ever for the sixth Fast and the Furious. All of which has left a dwindling number of slots -- in both studios' slates and the public's attention spans -- for purely invented stories that no one's ever heard. And it's left those of us trying to create those original stories woefully lamenting our fate.
But as I stood glowering at my son, preparing to launch into my fiery stump speech about the evils of copying and the death of creative originality, something snapped. It may have been the boyish excitement in his eyes, despite their watery burn from my sloppy sunscreening, or his rapid-fire patter of plot ideas and production plans for Alien Run III; but as I listened to him, it dawned on me that sequels may not in fact be the sign of our eternal damnation, but rather a naturally occurring phenomenon to accept -- and even learn from. Sure, the knockoffs of knockoffs currently being manufactured of anything remotely revenue-generating can be considered unimaginative and even cynical maximizations of previous success. But doesn't that actually make... sense? When our favorite sports team wins the championship, our passions turn immediately to the next season and the hope that the stupid owners keep the players together to do it again. When we are young, we demand the retelling of our favorite bedtime story, maybe with a new twist. When we are old, we return over and over to our favorite restaurant, occasionally ordering a new item off the menu. During the same past decade-and-a-half in which motion pictures have gone sequel-happy, cable television series from Sex and the City and The Sopranos to Mad Men and Game of Thrones have boomed as well: All of them powered, movies and shows alike, by the fun of watching a cinematic world of characters we love return to our screens again and again to take on new adventures.
I wonder whether the question for our time, and for those of us flailing to launch unprecedented films in this time, has become not how to do away with the sequel system, but how to do it -- Namely, how to create a movie so stunningly novel, so packed full of narrative bravery and flair, that its audiences will demand encore performances. After all, isn't that what sequels, and "franchises," really are? Franchises are not necessarily the enemy of originality so much as overblown testimonies to its power. The Godfather was a franchise. So was Star Wars. As was Indiana Jones. Austin Powers, of all insane things, was startlingly funny enough to become a batch of sequels. Alien shocked and evolved. Terminator did too. The meaty character piece of Rocky. The geeky passion project that was Toy Story. The dark blast of The Matrix. The merry idiocy of American Pie. Die Hard. Meet the Parents. Avatar. Hunger Games. Taken. And now, even Anchorman. Maybe the key to survival and success in this business is not to try and fight the inevitable appeal of mega-franchise properties, but to strive to invent a new one. That's a goal that will take not less creativity, but more. Because the common trait of every franchise idea, every ongoing gravy train of sequels of sequels, is astonishing newness at its origin. Which takes foolhardy bravery. Wild originality. And the good news is that Hollywood's hunger for those qualities -- as well as the multiplicative rewards for it -- have never been greater.
My son emerged from his playdate, despite his glowing sunburn, bearing good news of his own: he and Henry had used a bowl of bananas as the stars of a story that had nothing to do with galactic space dough. I could have wept with admiring joy. A creator with a brand-new vision. A dauntless artist shattering the mold. Who mentioned, then, that Henry had actually made a previous movie about malevolent produce. This was Killer Fruit II.
I sighed and let him know it was time to start coming up with our own movie ideas. He slapped me five in agreement and pitched me thirteen. Henry, he assured me, can help out on the sequels. Let the unbridled childish enthusiasm, and the serious business that depends on it, begin.