Freditorial: How I Became Franchise Fred

If you have been reading my reviews and articles, or following me on Twitter, for a few years, you probably know that I am Franchise Fred. I truly believe there should always be sequels to everything, indefinitely, no exceptions. So I thought it was time to give the origin story of Franchise Fred. I have always been Franchise Fred, but I didn’t get my name until a few years ago.

Growing up as a movie fan, I liked sequels more than their predecessors for a simple reason. A sequel didn’t have to waste any time on setup or establishing the characters. It could just get right to it. Now that I’m a more sophisticated film viewer, I understand what those sequels were doing. They did still have setup, but it was building off the first movie. It was showing what happened to the characters between movies and letting them begin the sequel in an interesting place. And yes, bigger action and special effects than before.

The history of the original movie gives any sequel a more interesting foundation than if it had just started from that point. We are now watching something that means something in the context of what we’ve already experienced for 90 minutes or more with these characters. Their actions have more motivation because we know what decisions they made before and what their consequences were. So every sequel I watch is loaded with the history of all that came before it. Sure, every movie has backstory, but backstory is exposition. History is something we experienced with the films.back_to_the_future_part_ii_ver3

When this all started for me though, it was simply the joy of seeing characters I loved again. It was admittedly more rare, so it was a special occasion when Marty McFly, Robocop, John McClane, Rocky or The Terminator got another movie. I knew Die Hard 2 wasn’t as good as Die Hard but it wasn’t about qualitative comparisons. It was just about having more than one Die Hard movie to choose from. It never even occurred to me that people didn’t like Ghostbusters II. It was the ghostbusters solving another slimy mystery, why wouldn’t I want to see that? And Bill Murray still had hilarious lines in it. I didn’t learn that sequels in general were actually frowned upon until much later.

The World Is Not Enough teaser posterOne joy of sequels growing up is now lost to me. In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, if a big sequel was coming out, it gave me a reason to experience the original. I caught up on the Rocky trilogy when Rocky IV came out, as well as the Nightmare on Elm Streets and Friday the 13ths. I only saw Raiders of the Lost Ark after The Last Crusade! God, I remember when I got to discover 15 James Bond movies for the first time. And I was only introduced to Highlander and F/X by the 1991 sequels.

Now that I’m an adult, I’ll never have the experience of seeing a sequel I like and going back to discover the original. I’ve already seen any original that’s ever going to get a sequel, at least Hollywood movies. I can still find some foreign franchises that are new to me, but it gives me joy to think that this generation might watch The Terminator, The Road Warrior, National Lampoon’s Vacation, or even The Fast and the Furious just because there’s a new one coming out.

Even if there’s a movie I don’t like, a sequel to it automatically makes it more interesting. Now they’re doing something with the history of this which may make the foundation pay off. Blair Witch 2 actually used the fraudulent documentary minimalism of the original to satirize the phenomenon it became, so that’s a way more interesting story to me. The Paranormal Activity franchise developed the mythology of the possessed family and made it way more interesting than the original, which featured long takes of Katie Featherston standing over a bed. And the original Step Up was a bore, but the sequels were awesome. That’s thanks mostly to way cooler dancing, but Channing Tatum passing the torch and Moose sticking around gets a little credit.

indy3So I’ve never had a film where I said, “I don’t want to see any more of this.” Wherever one movie leaves a character off, more stuff still happens to them later. Even if one of the sequels is bad, keep trying. Make the next one better. Hell, if I didn’t like the movie, a sequel makes me like it more, so imagine what it does for movies I already like! This goes for books and TV series too, any storytelling medium really, and I’m getting my wish with the return of shows like 24, Arrested Development, Coach and Full House. It’s a great time to be Franchise Fred.

The one movie I thought should not have a sequel out of respect and good taste was The Crow. Not for story reasons, but when your lead actor dies due to negligence on the set, maybe don’t continue to profit off it. But they made three sequels anyway, and now it’s been over 20 years and I’m actually emotionally ready to revisit The Crow. It can be remade by and for a new generation and the Brandon Lee movie will always exist as a memorial to him. So there you have it. The one exception I would have made was invalidated.

The Extreme Manifesto

The conventional wisdom I later found myself up against was, “Sequels usually suck so they should stop making them.” That’s a pretty extreme position to take. “It might not work so let’s not do it at all.” Imagine how many discoveries would not have been made if the visionary thought, “This might not work, so let’s not try.” It’s also suspect reasoning. We can name as many bad originals as bad sequels, but no one says, “This movie might not be good, so let’s not make it at all.” Artists deserve the freedom to fail, because through failure comes even greater success.

ghostbusters-2-posterSo I thought there should be at least one person taking the extreme opposite position: There should always be more sequels to everything, no exceptions. Since I truly believe this it’s an easy position to champion, besides the fact that there is literally no downside to making a sequel. It employs a lot of people for a year or more, and if it turns out badly you never ever have to watch it. Even if it loses money for the studio, the grips and technicians all fed their families for a year. Maybe an executive gets fired, but they’ll bounce back.

If you’re worried that every sequel takes a production slot away from an original, I hate to break this to you but it’s not between a sequel or an original. It’s between a sequel and not making anything at all. Studios make the movies they want to make. If they think something can make money, they’ll make it. More likely it’s a choice between one sequel or another. No executive ever said, “We’d love to make this spec script, but we don’t have the money because we’re putting it all into the sequel to this other franchise.” Well, they may have said it but they were lying. They didn’t really want to make the spec script. They’ve already decided they want to be in the franchise business.  We still need originals to create new franchises so I’m not worried about that. I expect to see another Spy, Home and maybe even Pixels (although that was based on a short) after this summer, and we’re already getting more John Wick, Neighbors and Lucy from last year.

toy_story_3_teaser_poster_002I’m more surprised by narrative resistance to sequels. “There can’t be a sequel. The story ended definitively.” As if anything is definitive in fiction. Characters can die and come back, so even death isn’t the end. But the main point is one story ends and another begins. So yes, the movie you saw does have a definitive ending (one hopes, if it’s a good narrative). That’s why the sequel will begin a new story with those characters. Toy Story 3 ends with Andy giving all his toys to a little girl who will grow up with them having an entirely different female experience. I’m already envisioning Toy Story 4 before the credits role, so how could they not make that movie?

How to continue a story is every bit as creative a question as how to begin a story. In fact, given how many standalone films are derivative of the same plot, I’d say a sequel has a better shot of being more original. In most cases, you can’t just do the same story again (although sometimes it’s fun when they do). They say there are only seven original plots anyway. Chances are the first film was one of those seven. Another original is probably also going to be one of those seven, but a sequel has to push forward.

Back when movie theaters showed a slideshow before movies, I used to see a quote from Steven Spielberg that said, “Stories don’t have a middle or an end. They just have a beginning that never stops beginning.” Looking up that quote again, I’ve learned it was a misquote. Spielberg was criticizing movies that don’t know story structure. He actually said, “Stories don’t have a middle or an end anymore.”  Too late. I already agreed that stories just keep beginning and beginning and beginning. terminator-genisys-poster-arnold-schwarzenegger

I started championing this position very intensely on Outlaw Vern‘s site when there was talk of a Terminator 5, that Arnold Schwarzenegger would star and they would somehow explain how the now 67-year-old star could still play a robot built 30 years ago. Many said they should leave it alone. I said I want to see the reason they come up with to allow Arnold Schwarzenegger to keep playing The Terminator. This position led Outlaw Vern to jokingly name me Franchise Fred. I appreciated the celebratory nickname though and ran with it. I hope I’m doing Vern proud.

Quit While You’re Ahead?

There is the sentiment that good stories have endings. That’s true, they do. That’s why the sequel starts a new story, and that story has its own ending too. And then the next one starts a new story. Stories have endings, but there are no limits to the amount of stories one can tell. I’m not a fan of the Part 1 and Part 2 model franchises have taken to split one story into two halves, but that’s another Freditorial. Each sequel should feel complete, but there’s no limit to how many I want to see.

I know some people feel that if a story has a perfect ending, that should be preserved. I can’t relate to that, because I’m always thinking, “But what happens after that ending?” What is a perfect ending anyway? You believe this is the ideal resolution for these characters, and they go on as you last saw them with nothing else ever getting in their way? I know it’s not as simple as happily ever after. It could even be tragically ever after, but it still doesn’t mean their lives are over. They will still do more stuff.

Few filmmakers rule out sequels. The diplomatic position is “if we can think of another story worth telling.” However, Laika Animation CEO Travis Knight takes a hard line.

“We don’t want to repeat ourselves if we’ve told the story,” Knight told me at Comic-Con in 2014 while promoting The Boxtrolls. ”There won’t be a Coraline 2, there won’t be Paranorman 2, there won’t be a Boxtrolls 2. It’s because we want to tell new stories. Once we’ve told the story, and the story should be the pivotal moment of your character’s life, what’s part two? The other pivotal moment? The second most pivotal moment of the character’s life? Unless it’s a saga like Lord of the Rings or Hunger Games where it is a bigger story, I really think there’s few reasons to make a sequel other than to line your pocket. For us it’s really about making beautiful works of art.”

This is where Knight and I differ. There’s no one most pivotal moment in a person’s life. And the pivotal moments are not the only interesting stories to tell. Sometimes larks are worth exploring and sometimes other pivotal moments only reveal themselves when you start thinking about them. But his heart isn’t in it so he’s not the one who should be pursuing sequels.

freddysdeadIf you do value a certain end point, you always have the choice to stop right there. The viewer can end a story at whichever point they choose to. If they make a bunch more sequels you don’t like, you only need to recognize the ones that mater to you. Or never even watch the sequels after the point you believe the story ends. We’re talking about fiction here. It’s not documented history that has to be recognized. There’s canon, but that’s flexible too. Subsequent filmmakers may pick and choose from canon. So if you prefer to believe Jesse and Celine never saw each other again after Vienna, you can if that makes it a better story for you.

If a franchise manages to create that ever elusive sequel that’s superior to the original, some might say quit while you’re ahead. But there’s no “ahead” in storytelling. It’s not like gambling or investing, where bad decisions can set you back. For the audience, we only have to decide to watch a sequel or not, and if we do, the worst that can happen is we don’t like it. Studios may experience diminishing returns with sequels, but it’s up to them to figure out the finances. I’m talking about why we should welcome sequels as an audience.

I understand some people feel a lesser sequel sullies the predecessor, but it doesn’t to me.If you prefer trilogies or single stories, you have the advantage. No mater how many sequels they make, you can always choose to ignore them. But for people who like sequels, they have to make the sequels. We can’t enjoy the sequels that are never made, but you can always ignore the ones that are.

Conclusion (Not the Ending)

Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone in Creed
Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone in Creed

The good news is, I’ll never have to worry about franchises continuing. There will always be a studio looking into their vaults to see what they can bring back. Stallone brought back Rocky and Rambo long after he’d sworn them off. Even after Stallone was done, Ryan Coogler had the idea for Creed.

There are only a few I’ll really have to say goodbye to. The creators of Back to the Future are dead set against continuing that series in film. Stage musicals, sure, but no more movies. And the perfect opportunity with the real year 2015 has come and will soon be gone, so okay.

The world of franchises has fascinating nuances to explore. It’s getting further complicated by the existence of reboots and the phenomenon of debooting or unbooting (another Vern word!) after a remake. I’m happy to continue exploring the wonderful world of franchises in my writing and interviews. Now look out for part two of this Freditorial, because of course there’s a sequel. I’m Franchise Fred.