Deja Vu At Movie Theaters This Summer

Actors Keanu Reeves, right, and Hugo Weaving appear in a fight scene from Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller "The Matrix Reloaded," in this undated promotional photo. The Sept. 11 attacks and the war against terrorism that led to conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have left audiences more primed than ever for big-screen heroes such as those in "The Matrix" and "X-Men" franchises. (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures)
AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures
In Hollywood, the second time around is sometimes much better financially than the first.

"Certainly, the advantage of sequels is there's a pre-sold audience that knows what they're getting," said Harrison Ford, who plans to re-team with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas next year to shoot a fourth "Indiana Jones" movie. "When a film is successful the first time out, they have a better chance in the marketplace with a second one."

Perhaps with that thought in mind, studios this year are delivering a record 25 sequels or prequels, the big onslaught starting with pre-summer releases of "X2: X-Men United" and "The Matrix Reloaded."

Hollywood's never-ending stories also include such wide-ranging fare as highly anticipated installments in "The Terminator," "Tomb Raider," "Charlie's Angels" and "Legally Blonde" franchises to lower-profile horror and animated movies like "Jeepers Creepers 2" and "Rugrats Go Wild."

Sequels used to be hasty carbon copies meant to wring out a few more dollars from an earlier success. Studios today have learned that putting more thought and resources into follow-ups can produce franchises with bigger returns.

Most weekends during this busy summer season bring at least one sequel or prequel, while fall and early winter are packed with such encores as "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," "The Matrix Revolutions," "Barbershop 2" and "Scary Movie 3."

Is there such a thing as sequel overload?

"I think you have to take each movie for its own value. There will be those you'll roll your eyes over and others you can't wait to see," said Carrie-Anne Moss, who returns in "The Matrix" sequels. "It all has to do with the intention. If someone's intention is just to make money and exploit something for profit, then it's not good. If it's thoughtfully done, the proof's in the pudding."

Actors can be reluctant to return and characters often wear out their welcome with audiences if sequels become too repetitive. Sometimes, a new twist can reinvigorate a franchise.

Sequels have been a Hollywood habit almost from the start. In silent-movie days, serials such as "The Perils of Pauline" offered recurring characters, while beloved figures such as Charles Chaplin's Little Tramp had repeated screen adventures.

Then as now, the idea was that whatever clicked with audiences before might again.

And so audiences were treated to a succession of Mickey Rooney's "Andy Hardy" movies, countless permutations of Universal's old "Mummy," "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" franchises, and 40 years of James Bond adventures.

The horror franchises "Halloween," "Friday the 13th" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street" have produced umpteen sequels. The killers of "Nightmare" and "Friday the 13th" even square off this year in "Freddy vs. Jason."

"Star Trek" has boldly roamed where no man has gone before through 10 movies, while the Italian Stallion has duked it out in five "Rocky" tales.

"The reason you see so many sequels is that studios feel it's the only safe thing," said "Terminator" star Arnold Schwarzenegger. "No one's figured out after 5,000 years yet what is a guaranteed hit, so they say, `Hey, let's go back to the proven thing, what's worked before."'

Before 1980, any given year might produce only two or three sequels. The number generally rose through the 1980s, with box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations counting 19 sequels in 1990.

It has ebbed and flowed since then, with the number of sequels and prequels falling to nine in 2001 then shooting up to 19 again last year and 25 this year, according to Exhibitor Relations' Paul Dergarabedian.

In the 1970s and early '80s, "Star Wars," "Jaws," "Rocky," "Superman" and "Star Trek" were among franchises that kicked sequels into high gear.

In those days, sequels often were inferior knockoffs resulting in dwindling box-office returns for successive movies. The franchises generally were turned over to lesser filmmakers, and key cast members often did not return.

Now studios have learned that keeping the cast and director intact, along with much of the support team, can result in well-tailored sequels whose revenues approach or exceed those of the originals.

Said "Spy Kids" and "Desperado" creator Robert Rodriguez, who has sequels to both franchises due out this year: "If you get the original creative team back on a film, they can really fine-tune what they tried to do with the first one, and instead of making a cheap, quick knockoff, actually make a better sequel out of it."

Sam Raimi returns to direct next year's "Spider-Man" sequel. Chris Columbus remains a producer on the next "Harry Potter" movie after directing the first two. Peter Jackson had the unprecedented opportunity to spend nearly $300 million shooting all three "The Lord of the Rings" movies simultaneously.

The sequels craze makes it all the harder for filmmakers to sell studios on new ideas: Even as they consider a fresh script, studio executives often gauge a project's sequel potential.

Filmmakers say that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"Sure, it's great to see original stories, but this isn't the first year of sequels," said Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, director of "Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde."

"Aristophanes wrote sequels. So did Aeschylus and Shakespeare. It's a natural impulse for a storyteller to say, 'Yes, I like this story and want to expand on it.' You just hope the goal would be to do it with excellence."

By David Germain