What Transformers Teaches Us About Movie Sequels

Does anyone remember the days when trilogies seemed like the limit of a proper movie series? Most movies were lucky to get any kind of sequel, let alone a complete story arc through the magic number of three. Sure, there were the exceptions like the Bond movie line, but for the most part that was it. Three original Star Wars, three Back to the Futures, three Indiana Jones, etc.

The tides have changed. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides has even passed. Movie studios have no problems sticking with formulas they believe work or at least can milk for all they are worth. The magic of three is largely gone, replaced by the seemingly endless stream of sequels, prequels, and reboots. Don’t forget the crossover movies too. Why settle for one movie when you can have five with every known superhero crammed together?

The latest movie following this trend is Transformers: The Last Knight. There have been plenty of reviews of the movie (spoiler alert: it hasn’t done too well), so this article isn’t a rehash of how the movie has performed. Instead, this is a detailed look at how the trend of the endless franchise is going and where it might end up in the future.

Why Bother with Movie Sequels in the First Place?

Logic seems to suggest that movies with a ton of sequels will eventually run the course. With the latest Transformers movie raking in record low numbers so far, this particular case would suggest the logic holds. In reality, sequels are often a paradox. Most sequels rarely make the same amount of money as the original and often see decreased returns on the investment. At the same time, they often still make more money than the average one shot, original movie.

For major studios, sequels numbering past five can still be a good investment, even if they see diminished returns. Hollywood has long followed the “don’t fix what ain’t broke” entrepreneurial rule. That’s because movie making is, first and foremost, a business. If a series can produce good enough revenue movie after movie, it’s going to stay on a studio’s production schedule for a long time.

This has obviously led to a lot of criticism from many die-hard fans. People can only take so many Transformers, LOTRs, or Fast & Furious movies before it feels like the movies are beating a dead horse. Many people have criticized Hollywood for running out of original ideas.

So is originality dead?

The Profitability of Being Original

Not quite. It’s just not as profitable as it used to be. New movies are always a risk. Even if they have striking — perhaps plagiaristic — similarities with more successful movies, success is never a guarantee. Original hits like La La Land or — god forbid — the first Sharknado aren’t common. Even Guardians of the Galaxy was a risk at first and it had the benefit of an already established, successful cinematic brand.

Since movie making faces the same challenges as any other entrepreneurial venture, they are limited by the risks they can take. It might seem like hit movies make millions — and they do — but the ever growing costs don’t leave a lot of wiggle room.

Is it right? That’s a personal decision to make. If you are a true believer of the magic of movies, watching yet another movie where Optimus Prime kills, dies, comes back to life, and does some more killing is probably like nails on a chalkboard to you. Unfortunately, the realities of business don’t support the level of artistic creativity some people seek.

All Hope Is Not Lost

If you are a fan of true originality, don’t fret just yet. On average, almost 40% of new, top performing movies are considered truly original. Less than half is certainly lower than previous decades, but it’s a sign that some originality is still possible and potentially profitable.

Even originality within movie sequels isn’t completely far fetched. The recent Star Trek and Nolan Batman movies were reboots that brought new life to long established franchises. Disney’s purchase of Star Wars was largely celebrated as a smart movie — mainly because it took the franchise out of the hands of George Lucas. Some people are even hopeful that the next Transformers movie will be good. Yes, even without a Wahlberg or Bay onboard, they are still going to squeeze out yet another one. Oh, did I mention Bumblee is getting a solo shot as well?

Like it or not, the trend of the never ending franchise will continue until it no longer works. Leave it up to Hollywood to beat a profitable dead horse. At least they know how to do it with style and lots of explosions.

Originally published at DevAD Magazine.

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