Heavily hyped retreads, lacking individuality, are in the box-office tank, gobbled up by the clever Finding Nemo and other inventive films. It's a pretty scary proposition, but is it possible that the average 16-year-old has better taste in movies than the rich, Ivy League-educated studio executives who've flooded us with a deluge of movie sequels this summer?
Ever since the arrival of The Matrix Reloaded in mid-May, which was a box-office success but a huge disappointment to most fans and critics alike, the retread market has taken a nasty bearish turn. Consider the numbers:
The Fourth of July weekend, which featured the release of two new sequels, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde, was a big disappointment, as the box office dropped 15 percent from last year's numbers. Terminator 3 not only fell considerably short of last year's Fourth of July sequel, Men in Black 2, but in terms of actual admissions, it didn't even match the 1991 opening of Terminator 2.
After an embarrassing $37 million opening weekend, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle dropped 62 percent last weekend, despite weeks of mind-bending media hype.
The Hulk dropped off a horrific 70 percent in its second weekend, the worst drop for a No. 1 movie ever. It had another big drop this past weekend. The failure of The Hulk reinforces the suspicion that young moviegoers viewed the film as a less-than-compelling sequel to such Marvel epics as Spider-Man and X-Men.
It was quite a June swoon for other retreads too. Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, a crass stab at making a crasser version of the original, bombed. Rugrats Go Wild, a feeble attempt to kick-start a fading kids franchise, barely made a box-office dent, nor did Hollywood Homicide, which though not a sequel, felt like "Buddy Cop Film No. 83."
From Justin to Kelly, a quasi-sequel to a TV reality show, hardly registered in its opening weekend - and then dropped off an astounding 77 percent. Even 2 Fast 2 Furious, despite an impressive opening weekend, is fading so fast that it won't do as much business as the original, a lackluster showing for a film that cost twice as much.
The pall of sequel overload is everywhere. Always keenly attuned to the pop zeitgeist, Entertainment Weekly has been running a poll on its Web site, asking fans to select "What summer movie is the biggest disappointment so far?" Three of the four leaders are sequels. Even Variety weighed in with an editorial, saying that if the sequel-packed summer had a title, it would be "The Audience Strikes Back," asking "could it possibly be that Hollywood has finally eaten too much of the devil's candy?"
Many industry experts are gloomy. "There's something really wrong right now," says Terry Press, the marketing chief at DreamWorks, whose new animated film, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, had a grim five-day holiday opening, making only about $10 million. "There's $2 billion worth of movies yet to come, and if something doesn't jump-start the summer there's going to be a lot of disasters."
The only sequel that profited from consistent word of mouth was X2: X-Men United, which had an emotionally involving story to tell, something missing from the flyweight Charlie's Angels, whose narrative arc seems determined largely by its actresses' fondness for costume changes.
The reason box office isn't down even more is that moviegoers have eagerly sought out films that offered a modicum of originality. Hits so far include Finding Nemo, which has already topped The Matrix Reloaded as the year's highest-grossing film; Bruce Almighty; Daddy Day Care; The Italian Job (a remake that actually stood on its own); and 28 Days Later, an $8.7 million horror thriller that made $20 million in its first 10 days of release.
All of this has the studio brass scratching its collective head: Why is our core audience, which in the past has been all too willing to show up like lambs for the slaughter if we sold a movie hard enough, suddenly playing hard to get?
One key reason is that most of the Big Event movies have lost any glimmer of individuality. The problem isn't just that they're sequels, but that they're all bulked-up, 1950s-style B-movies, crawling with sci-fi mutants, cyborgs, military experiments gone awry, drag racing and Vargas-like pinup girls. Even The Matrix Reloaded, for all its futuristic visual effects, was weighted down with the kind of pseudo-intellectual blather that would've been at home in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series of '50s sci-fi novels.
Of course, teen filmgoers dig cheap thrills, and they'll come out in droves for movies like the coming Bad Boys 2 that promise to deliver them. But nothing robs a pop event of its mystique like repetition. The motto of most sequels seems to be: Why do it when you can overdo it? Why fight one Agent Smith when you can battle 100?
Too many of this summer's sequels feel as if they've been dosed with cinematic Creatine, from the oversized high-tech weaponry and screeching decibel levels to the muscle-bulging bodies of the stars, be it Arnold in T3, Tyrese in 2F2F or Carrie-Anne Moss in Matrix.
But even young moviegoers crave more than pure sensation. They want heroes who have an emotional vulnerability to accompany their special-effects swagger.
"The studios have misread what movies teen-age boys want to see," says ICM agent Robert Newman, who represents Baz Luhrmann, Robert Rodriguez and 28 Days Later director Danny Boyle. "It's not about the blue-screen spectacle. Kids are going to see Finding Nemo for the same reason they went to see Spider-Man or Titanic. They relate to the unabashed romance and emotion and the complexity of the characters. That's what makes you want to go see a movie again and again."
The people who run movie studios aren't dumb. But they've fallen into the habit of underestimating their most devoted fans. It's a dispiriting strategy that has resulted in some embarrassing busts this summer, and it's safe to say more are on the way.
Patrick Goldstein writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.