Arts & Life

Hollywood and the sequel complex

May 20, 2015, 1:06 p.m.

On a deliciously sunny L.A. afternoon nearly four weeks ago, I stumbled upon a baffling billboard. “Insurgent! In Cinemas Now.” Wait — hadn’t “Divergent” come out only a few months before? After a speedy Internet search, I realized my notions of time hadn’t actually been all that accurate. “Divergent” had been released March 21, 2014; “Insurgent,” on the other hand, was scheduled to hit theaters on March 20, 2015. I guess 12 months could qualify as more than just a “few” months. So I tried to put the shocking discovery past me. For some puzzling reason, though, I couldn’t.

Twelve months — this just felt like a ridiculously brief period of time to me. I bet “Divergent” had barely been released on DVD by then. The finding soon began to plague my thoughts, and I eventually discovered that I had come across a gargantuan industry — one that was cashing in billions of dollars annually by hooking its viewers with the belief that more of the same was better.

In one word: sequels. I learned more about the phenomenon through the writings of Mark Harris, the author of several books on Hollywood and the broader American entertainment industry. In a recent article on movie franchises, Harris argued that follow-up films are not “the biggest part of the movie business.” Instead, “they are the movie business.” In 2014 alone, he asserted, 12 of the 14 highest-grossing full-features were (or would advance) sequels; for example, “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1,” “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” “22 Jump Street.” You get the gist — the list goes on and on.

One can easily take a look at all of the sequels that will be coming the public’s way within the next five years. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) has an entire page dedicated to listing all of these upcoming films. There are over 100 features in the count. How did this come to be? Contrary to my original beliefs, the “Divergent” series was not alone in its frantic desire to boost its franchising potential. The steadfast release of “Insurgent” was a mere ripple in the deep ocean of toxic intentions behind the box office business. What does this obsession with sequels have to say about our culture? What are moviegoers asking for, and what are moviemakers willing to put forth to their audiences? With my recent “Divergent” episode still in my mind, the answer to these questions — at least personally — got off to a bleak start.

For starters, I believe that one of the most significant causes of sequel frenzy is the cult of personality that envelops celebrities. (This could actually be considered an aftereffect as well. Sequels and personality cults together form a vicious cycle.) Actors and other entertainment personalities are viewed by ingenuous youngsters and mature adults alike as demigods. This is partly due to the fact that the same faces appear in the features that we get to see in the big screens over and over and over again. Shailene Woodley, star of the “Divergent” series, serves as a remarkable example of sequels’ power in securing fame and media recognition. Before last year, Woodley was a talented and promising actress, having been featured in at least two critically acclaimed films, “The Descendants” and “The Spectacular Now.” Today, Woodley is much more than just a performer — she is a trademark who goes by the name of Beatrice Prior, the “Divergent” series protagonist.

Alternatively, the accelerated growth of film franchises can be regarded as highly representative of the information age. People want their news delivered by the millisecond, with single clicks. That would surely explain the mere 12-month wait period between “Divergent” and “Insurgent.” Even the cult of celebrities has benefited from this era. With personal Twitter and Instagram accounts, entertainment artists have managed to actively contribute to the media craze surrounding their personas. They powerfully support the brands that propel their careers in the first place. At least on a basic level, these attributes would seem to explain the rising prevalence of sequels.

Additionally, the intensification of sequels can be regarded as a reflection of the lack of creativity amongst individuals from the entertainment industry. It shows instead a keen affinity for big bucks. Market-savvy Hollywood has cracked the code to its viewers’ pockets, all the while pursuing an uninteresting filmic formula that is repeatedly executed for its lucrative results. Historically, it started with the legendary “Star Wars” series, as Harris points out, with each feature being released a minimum of three years after its prequel. (The teaser trailer for the newest continuation of this narrative, by the way, was released April 16. The adventure lives on.) It proved to be financially profitable, and it soon began to be mimicked by others. With a total of two features released — and still two more to go — the “Divergent” series has already grossed over $558 million worldwide. The industry that we’re dealing with is a behemoth.

When I saw that disquieting billboard one month ago, I didn’t run to the theaters. I haven’t watched “Insurgent,” and I don’t think I ever will. The first segment of its two-part finale, “Allegiant,” is scheduled for release on March 18, 2016. The culmination of the series is expected to come out on March 24, 2017. All in all, there will have been four installments at 12-month intervals. The IMDb page with the list of “All Upcoming Movie Sequels” includes the following blurb:

“Sequels are awesome, plain and simple. Returning to familiar characters and worlds we love is like covering yourself with a warm blanket, although, when a sequel is bad, it can be like a blanket covered in potato bugs and lice.”

To me, sequels will always fall into the latter category. A blanket so unappealing and distasteful that I don’t ever want to have anything to do with it.

Contact Ena Alvarado at enaalva ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Ena Alvarado hails from the boisterous city of Caracas, Venezuela. She is a hopelessly undecided freshman who enjoys reading literature and watching films as much as understanding science and studying math. Someday, Ena aspires to learn how to whistle, improve her current juggling skills, and compose a full-length music album. In the meantime, she finds solace in books and nutella crepes. Writing about documentaries and foreign cinema never hurts either.

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