Dr. Toon: Sequel Justice
Editor's Note: This column marks the beginning of Martin's 14th year writing Dr. Toon for AWN. Each month for the past 13 years, he's been a must read within Animation World Magazine - his insight, humor and appreciation for all things "animated" class up the entire joint. On behalf of Ron Diamond and everyone who has worked with Martin over the years, we thank you for the collaboration and look forward to many more great columns - Dan Sarto.
There is nothing in Hollywood as ubiquitous as the sequel. Throngs of moviegoers have attended films with the numbers “2” or “3” attached to as if they were genealogical markers. Indeed, the sequel’s original ancestry may have stretched back well over a decade, as was the case in Men in Black 3. Although there is almost a critical rule of thumb that sequels rarely match the original in entertainment quality, audiences can count on multiple sequels coming out every year. A peek at the preproduction schedules of most studios reveals that there are more in the planning stage. Animated films have not proved an exception from this trend. Several have topped out at three sequels and several more have the potential to do the same.
However, this being said, there is no slam-dunk rule for the production of an animated sequel. Some of the dreariest, undeserving films got sequels, some of the most popular and lucrative ones have not, and others are stuck in the production pipeline for ages, existing only as tidbits or rumors doled out on various entertainment websites. At this point it’s fair to say that only the most dismal failures (e.g. Delgo) can be safely excluded. The question that should interest us is: What is the reasoning behind a red or a green light? To wit: sequels are the product of a feedback loop between producers and consumers, each holding a set of expectations.
Expectations, dear readers, are the problem with producing animated sequels. Either the expectations don’t match, or the expectations were not realistic in the first place. It was once a cynical maxim that many sequels exist because Hollywood has become lazy, imitative, or bankrupt of fresh and original ideas. To some degree the film industry is guilty as charged, but the true story is more complicated. As for audiences, they are now so inured to sequels that they are surprised when they don’t hear them announced. After voting at the ticket booth, there is often a clear expectation that a 2 or 3 are in the pipeline.
Let’s assume the roles of both the audience and the studio. The audience expects to have the same good fun experienced in the first film, the joy deepened by familiarity with the characters. Their motivation is emotional, moved by the need for entertainment. The decision on the part of the studio to produce a sequel is largely economic. The question for the producers of a highly profitable film is not whether to go back to the well, but how many times. The expectation seems to be that if a certain animated feature makes enough profit, it can do so again in a different permutation.
The studio also has an obligation to exploit a commodity that makes a profit. Along with the sequel itself, there are licensing and merchandising issues to consider. At some indefinable cutoff point known only to those who control a studio’s budget, a sequel almost must be produced. We can make guesses at where that hypothetical cutoff may be by studying box office take, but the public will rarely be privy to the studio’s bottom-line numbers that factor a decision. Given this consideration, one would think it likely that the box office benchmarks set by the original film will dictate whether or not there is a sequel.
If we examine the list of top 100 grossing films to date, we find that seventeen of them are animated films. The highest film on the list at number seven is Shrek 2 at $441 million. The lowest film on the list is How to Train Your Dragon (99, 217.5 million). One would expect virtually all of these films to be generating sequels. How many actually did? Only five. How many have sequels in the pipeline? Three, with another one rumored but not actually in any phase of production as of this writing (See addendum).