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Dr. Toon: Sequel Justice

This month the Doctor examines the unpredictability of Hollywood suits.

Happy Feet. Image © 2006 Warner Bros. Ent. Inc. All rights reserved.

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.

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.Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation.

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.

Think again.

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).

Ice Age. Image ™ and © 2002 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.

Therefore, in a box office range from $440 to $217 million, only 29% of the animated films on that exalted list have had an actual sequel produced. Add the other three projected, and the percentage rises to 41%...less than half. It is rare for any film to earn in the $200 million range in 2012 and not have a follow-up. However, the original Ice Age clocks in at $170 million, sits in 176th place on the list, and has multiple sequels.

Popularity and critical success also do not seem to be a guarantee that a sequel will be produced, either. To date, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, despite undying rumors, still has no “2” 4 U. The Incredibles? Incredibly, no. The Iron Giant? Again, rumors and nothing but. The latter two films may actually be orphans, since Brad Bird is determined to make it a go as a live-action director, but piddling details like that have never stopped the Hollywood profit machine from making a stretch.

Some films appear to have sequels because there is a misguided expectation that they will succeed on reputation alone. Such is the apparent story with Cars 2, which should have gone to the junkyard prior to pre-production, and Happy Feet 2, the sequel to perhaps the weakest Oscar winner in animation history. Yet, this formula sometimes works; the aforementioned Ice Age and the “Madagascar” series have had multiple sequels on the studio expectations that the characters are likeable enough to have “legs” (four of them, in the case of these films).

The Toy Story trilogy, beloved by audiences and critics alike, checks in at a total of $852 million dollars. Image © Disney/Pixar.

The Toy Story and Shrek franchises are by far the most successful, managing to capture that rare confluence of critical success, popularity with mass audiences, and overwhelming financial success. The Toy Story trilogy, beloved by audiences and critics alike, checks in at a total of $852 million dollars. The four Shrek movies boast earnings of a mere $1.3 billion dollars. They are perhaps the only two series to which slam-dunk rules of sequels apply. No other film can expect “sequel justice” with any degree of certitude.

There is a good reason why predicting theatrical sequels is difficult, or understanding why less than half of high-profile animated films get a “2”. Simply put, sequels have become a multi-presentational phenomenon. Studios now carry the process of making sequels to direct-to-video markets, and more recently, to television. For example, Disney made the (ill-advised) decision to issue sequels to their classic films in direct-to-video format, incensing purists and putting inferior material on the market. The furor ceased after Disney shelved a Dumbo sequel and vowed to sin no more. That did not stop the company from making DVD sequels to recent films like Tarzan, The Little Mermaid, or Aladdin. Even non-classics like Atlantis and Brother Bear got DVD sequels. Timon and Pumba and Hercules (among others) were made into television fare. Paramount Studio teamed up with Nickelodeon to produce a televised version of Barnyard.

Consider the case of DreamWorks: After the rousing success of How to Train Your Dragon, we will be seeing both the theatrical sequel and the TV show. Some successful films get sequels in the form of TV/DVD holiday specials, as was the case with Madagascar’s madcap penguins, or the Monsters vs. Aliens bunch. Some serial films exist mostly as direct-to-videos; The Land Before Time series, which may have been started in 1910 by Winsor McKay and Emile Cohl, has almost as many Roman numeral entries as the Super Bowl but virtually none of them in theaters.

How To Train Your Dragon. Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

It would be hard to believe, however, that these developments completely spell the doom or eventual extinction of theatrical sequels. Audiences really do like and expect them. Very few of them have been misfires; for every The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat there is a Toy Story 3 to more than atone for it. If the only problem is their unpredictability, that’s really not much of a problem at all. Except that we don’t have an Incredibles 2. And now, here’s something you’ll really like. The addendum.

(Note: A “2” and “3” is counted as a sequel to the preceding film. It makes sense. If you watched Toy Story 3 without seeing 2, you would have to guess at who Jessie is and where she came from.)

Animated Films in the Top 100 All-Time Box Office Grosses, with Place and Take.

S = Theatrical Sequel made

P = Theatrical Sequel announced or in production

R = Theatrical Sequel only rumored at this time

Place Film Gross (Millions) Status 7 Shrek 2 $441 S 10 The Lion King  $423   12 Toy Story 3 $415 R 24 Finding Nemo $340 P 28 Shrek the Third $323 S 45 Up $293   56 Shrek    $268 S 58 The Incredibles $261   65 Monsters, Inc.    $256 P 67 Despicable Me  $252 P 72 Toy Story 2      $246 S 73 Cars  $244 S 79 Shrek Forever After $239   86 Brave      $230   92 WALL-E      $224   96 Beauty and the Beast   $219   99 How to Train Your Dragon $218 P

It’s hard to believe, but this column marks my thirteenth year as a journalist for AWN. I have only you, my wonderful readers, to thank. Your hits, responses, and interest in my humble opinions have kept the show going longer than I ever dreamed it would back in 1999. Let’s stay tooned together!


Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.