We’ll Always Have Paris… How The Business of Sequels Destroyed America’s Youth

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They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. That may be true, but it is also the greatest impediment to progress.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a certain business sense to imitation – and I don’t mean outright theft of intellectual property. I’m referring to the “variation on a theme” that has become a successful marketing trope since well before Beethoven, Bach, and The Beatles.

Companies use the goodwill (and good publicity) generated by a top selling product, give it a tweak here and there, then come out with a “new” product that borrows heavily from the theme of the original. Rarely, however, does this sequel product ever reach the heights of its predecessor.

Here’s an example. Following the tremendous success of its Pepsi soft drink, the Pepsi-Cola company was looking to extend its brand. The “variation on a theme” idea was to introduce a similar version of the beverage with no sugar and no calories. Originally test marketed as “Patio Diet Cola” in 1963, the company formally introduced it as “Diet Pepsi” the following year.

Diet Pepsi thus became a sequel Pepsi. And it was a very profitable sequel at that. Still, the original Pepsi sells about twice as much as Diet Pepsi.

Incidentally, do you think it would have been as profitable if it had kept the name “Patio Diet Cola”?

To answer this question, you need look no further than Coca-Cola’s competing version. It was called “Tab” and it constantly trailed Diet Pepsi in sales. It wasn’t until 1982 that “Diet Coke” replaced Tab as Coca-Cola’s diet alternative. Prior to that, Diet Pepsi was the number one diet pop. Today, Diet Coke outsells Diet Pepsi.

The financial opportunities derived from a true sequel – something that borrows heavily from the brand name and names of the original – has not been missed by Hollywood.

This isn’t a new idea. It was popular during the serial movies of an earlier era. These films, like Buck Rogers, Tarzan, and Charlie Chan, differed from the “On the Road” movies of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and the many Abbott and Costello spoofs. While true serials featured the same characters, the latter group of movies featured the same actors.

Sequels, then, like TV series, contain a similar cast of characters from one episode to the next. While it is true that, especially in large ensemble casts, the series can remain intact through the death of a character, they rarely survive for long when a major character exits (q.v., “Two and a Half Men”).

Which gets us to the business model demands of movie sequels. It has one rule: Don’t kill the franchise. In most cases, the franchise is the characters. Look what happened in the aftermath of what is generally considered the best Star Trek movie. The scene at the climax of The Wrath of Khan brilliantly ends the long story arc of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. It’s brilliant because Spock dies. That death scene represents the capstone of the movie (as similar scenes usually do for most brilliant movies).

Only the fans wanted more Star Trek. And you can’t have more Star Trek without Spock. Well, it’s a good thing science fiction means no one has to stay dead. Spock came back to life in the next movie.

Today, you don’t often see a sad ending in movies. Now, for a sad ending it doesn’t have to end in Spock (or any other character) dying. It could be represented by the bittersweet parting of two soul mates.

Recall the end of Casablanca. To this day, folks dream of an ending that has Rick and Ilsa galloping off into the sunset. But that would have destroyed the movie. Casablanca ascends because there’s a greater cause worth fighting for than that of “the problems of three little people.”

Off went Ilsa with Victor Lazlo, and on went Rick with Renault to begin a beautiful relationship defeating the Nazis.

That’s a movie. That’s a story. That’s an ending.

And never would anyone sully this ending with thoughts of a sequel.

It’s called good literature. A rising dramatic arc that crescendos to climax and settles on a satisfying (even if bittersweet) dénouement.

Here’s the problem. It isn’t the sad ending. It’s that it ends. No more Rick and Ilsa. That relationship is dead. And it should be. But the memories will linger forever. We’ll always have Rick and Ilsa in Paris. That pleasant memory, however, would be erased if we saw Casablanca 2: Sleepless in Seattle.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have Paris than the Space Needle.

Hollywood would rather have the bucks. So movies (and books, too) are now sold with sequels in mind. That means everything – and all the major characters – needs to end neatly wrapped in a bow at some safe place. You can still have a cliff hanger, but the implication is those characters will overcome the obstacle. In the sequel.

See how that works?

Hollywood has been on the sequel bandwagon since George Lucas and Steven Spielberg reintroduced the serial movie in the 1970s. Since then, every producer has attempted to replicate his success.

That means no more Rick and Ilsa not living happily ever after. It means you can’t get away with killing Spock. The only allowable deaths are (like Spock’s) in the realm of fantasy and science fiction. Imagine Star Wars without Luke, Leia, and Han Solo. You don’t have to. It’s already been done (the prequels that bombed) and will be done again (the upcoming sequels that likely will bomb).

You need the characters alive to cash those sequel checks.

In the meantime, we have an entire generation of young adults whose greatest movie memories are from some franchise where everything always turns out OK in the end and everyone gets a participation medal (this literally happened at the end of the very first Star Wars).

How does this prepare them for real life? Will they ever adapt to real life? How many others will suffer when millennials blame them for the failure of real life to live up to their “Hollywood” expectations?

Hollywood needs to wean itself off of its addictions to sequels. It’ll lead to more creativity, better movies, and a better America.

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