You can’t blame Hollywood for its non-stop deluge of remakes, sequels, and prequels. Audiences keep showing up for them, and they take one of the most difficult parts of art—the idea—out of the equation. What’s unforgivable though is making a movie under the assumption a sequel will be made after it.
That’s what happened this summer with Duncan Jones’ Warcraft. A year before the film was released, Jones himself said he wanted to turn the franchise into a trilogy. It was a noble thought, especially tackling a property with so much history. The problem is the first film is so busy setting up the world, explaining the history, and preparing for these future stories that the story in the movie we’re watching isn’t particularly interesting. It’s like reading the first chapter of a book and then having to stop.
It sounds counterintuitive, but the key to a great franchise is not expecting it to be a franchise. With a few, extremely rare exceptions, a sequel should never be required to enjoy a movie. Filmmakers should use every trick in the book to make the first movie as good as possible. Build your story to a place where a sequel feels impossible. Back yourself against a wall. Then, don’t worry about it. Release the movie and, if it’s a hit and audiences want a sequel, then you figure the rest out. That’s how a franchise is created. Very rarely does a great one start as a self-aware entity.
A year before Warcraft, Terminator Genisys that tried to kick off a brand new Terminator trilogy. (Given that it went back to the very beginning and effectively reset the franchise, it can only be considered a sequel in the most technical sense, but is better classified a reboot.) It was so busy trying to explain its new timeline and setting and status quo for future movies that it became impossible for viewers to care what was happening in Genisys. If the makers of that film just looked more at James Cameron’s originals, maybe there’d still be Terminator movies coming out. (Side note, this was also the second time Terminator did this. Remember Terminator Salvation? Oof.)
Think about your favorite sequels. Almost universally, the first film is incredible and wholly complete on its own. Films like The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather Part II, Aliens, Terminator 2, etc. all have predecessors that tell a single satisfying story. Few of them answer every question, but the sequels aren’t required to understand or enjoy the first movie. And if you take all of those great sequels on their own, those movies again tell their own complete story. With the exception of Empire, none of them necessitate a follow-up. The filmmakers, again, went by the proven strategy to make the current movie as good as possible without assuming another sequel.
The Hobbit films are another, if slightly skewed example of franchise assumption. Each Hobbit movie chronicled a part of Bilbo’s journey, just as the Lord of the Rings trilogy did with Frodo. But for The Hobbit, director Peter Jackson sacrificed the quality of the individual movies to ensure the sequels by awkwardly extending the story far beyond what each movie could handle. The result was a trilogy of films, certainly, but one where each individual part of the fantasy adventure was strangely boring. (Another side note, Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies are a great example of franchise assumption working, but that’s a whole other essay.)
And now, this is happening even before scripts are written. Producers of a hypothetical Tetris movie have already announced it will be a trilogy. Why? “Purely because the story we conceived is so big.” No, it’s not. And it sure as hell shouldn’t be. If we have to have a Tetris trilogy, it should not tell one story; each Tetris movie should tell its own story and if three films end up happening? Fine.
You know who did this right? George Lucas. When he first came up with the idea for Star Wars he conceived it as the story of a boy named Anakin Skywalker, who became a hero, turned into a villain and was ultimately redeemed by his son. A story, at the time, Lucas had broken down into TWELVE MOVIES. What did he do? He assumed that would never happen,and picked out the best part (hence, “Episode IV”) and made just that. The rest was history.
And now, thanks to that history, we have an example of a movie that does exist purely to start a new franchise, actually working. It’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. However in that film, which leaves almost every storyline dangling to be picked up later, you are satisfied with what you saw on screen. There’s a complete story, and also still a ton of questions left to be answered. It works because Force Awakens is already a sixth sequel itself so there’s a long, lucrative history there. It’s a very rare exception to the rule.
Marvel has also found an almost perfect way to do deal with this idea of building a franchise. Make the movie we’re watching as good as it can be. Complete that story, leave a few strands open, then throw a tease in the credits. This way the movie feels complete and the little bit extra is almost hidden—it’s not a complete framework for a sequel, but rather a tease of what may come.
The idea of a big franchise is so sexy to a studio’s bottom line that it’s doubtful the trend will ever end. In fact, on the release schedule right now are not only dozens of planned sequels, there are new franchises that already have their sequels in the works. Films like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Justice League aren’t out yet and already have their sequel release dates in place, assuming audiences will show up and want to see more.
But these viewers are going to need to like what they see in the first movies if studios want them to buy tickets to these second installments. The best bet is to make sure Part One is a movie actually worth seeing on its own. You can worry about the sequels later.