Hollywood’s endless belt of unoriginal content, usually manifested in the form of superhero movies, blockbuster book adaptations and new instalments in long-running franchises, generates familiar criticisms.
“Not another sequel,” cinephiles grumble. “Not another prequel. Not another remake!”
In the movie business, milking familiar brand names for everything they’re worth is far from new or novel -in fact, sequels are older than sound – but there’s no doubt tinsel town has upped the ante since the turn of the century.
It doesn’t take an economist to understand why: the money is in them ‘thar franchises. Sequels, prequels, remakes, adaptations account for 16 of the top 20 most successful films of all time (18 if you count The Lion King, which spawned a sequel, and Avatar, which has one in the works).
Funded by taxpayers, the Australian film industry is a very different beast. If its existence were predicated on smart business decisions (given the plethora of terrific films we’ve made over the years that haven’t been profitable, thank god it’s not) the whole thing would have blown up decades ago.
Late last week a tidbit of very Hollywood-esque news came out of the local industry. It was announced Kriv Stenders’ 2011 family film Red Dog will be expanded into a “Three Dollars Dog” trilogy. A charming tale of a stray kelpie called Koko who became an adored member of a small Western Australian mining town, the film was a surprise critical and popular hit. The pooch took $20 million at the Australian box office and Best Film at the 2011 AACTA Awards.
While news of Red Dog sequels may have caused cinephiles to grumble (“Not more sequels! Not us too!”) it can remind us why they are made in the first place. If the American film industry produces too many unoriginal concepts, there’s a good argument to say the Australian film industry doesn’t produce enough. And, when we do, decisions are often signed off on so late we run the risk that audiences may have moved on.
Building popular movie franchises creates opportunity to leverage the power of big titles in order to invest more heavily in more daring ones. Given Australian film funding bodies are not corporations with responsibilities to shareholders, capital can be redistributed with an emphasis on content over commerce.
If Red/Blue/Yellow dog isn’t your thing, perhaps take solace in the knowledge that proceeds generated from audiences wanting nothing more than mainstream entertainment about a personable canine can feed into productions that might be more your cup of tea (a challenging art house film, perhaps).
This isn’t dissimilar to how the Hollywood pipeline operates. The assumption that most movies that come out of tinsel town are financially successful is incorrect: the industry survives not by the breadth of its releases but by a small number of titles that do exceptionally good business.
Pushing aside the obvious financial benefits of building cinema franchises, it’s worth remembering that criticism of sequels as a concept is too easily a form of elitism not necessarily in line with assessment of quality. And, like it or not, audiences tend to be gratified by returning to characters and worlds with which they are familiar.
If one acknowledges the benefits (or even the need) of building franchises, one should also acknowledge the need for a degree of timeliness in the decision making. The Australian film industry moves at a slower pace than Hollywood; it is less capable of tapping into current trends and “flavour of the month” style productions. What it can do is identify which titles connected with audiences and expand suitable ones into multiple offerings. The big challenge is to do so without letting too much time slip away between drinks.
Director Greg McLean’s massively successful thriller Wolf Creek – a film conducive to sequels if ever there was one — was released in 2005. It took almost a decade to see Wolf Creek 2, which opened in February this year. You might not have dug Nick Giannopoulos’ goofy comedy The Wog Boy, but general audiences did – it was a big hit in 2000. Wog Boy 2: Kings of Mykonos opened in 2010.
The process doesn’t have to take this long, and quick turnaround times give sequels a greater chance of success. Mad Max 2 arrived in 1981, two years after the first. Crocodile Dundee II came out in 1988, the original in 1986. Crocodile Dundee II and Mad Max 2 are currently in the top 25 most successful Australian films of all time.
News reports about Red Dog’s new litter neglected to mention one interesting aside: the idea for a trilogy was floated only months after the original premiered.
“Nelson (the film’s producer) did joke that we could have a Red, White and Blue Dog trilogy,” Kriv Stenders said in November 2011. It took two and a half years for that idea to be actioned, and it’ll be a long time yet before anybody yells “cut.” Fingers crossed that audiences will remain happy to throw the dog a bone.