In partnership with the blog ScreenCraft, we’re publishing “First Draft,” a fortnightly series on everything to do with screenwriting. New articles, written by the team at ScreenCraft, will be posted every other Monday.
Whether you love them or hate them, sequels are the bread and butter of Hollywood. As of 2015, 30 of the top 50 all-time box office grossing movies were sequels, prequels or spin-offs. That said, as of 2015, only three of the top 50 best-reviewed movies of all time (according to Rotten Tomatoes’ adjusted scoring) were sequels.
You have standout sequels that are often considered superior to the original films with the likes of Aliens, The Godfather: Part 2, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight, X-Men 2, The Road Warrior and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Then, on the opposite end of the spectrum, you have direct sequels to the original that are considered horrible by most with the likes of Highlander II: The Quickening, Speed 2: Cruise Control, Exorcist II: The Heretic, Grease 2, Caddyshack 2 and many more.
Next to those, you have later franchise sequels that didn’t live up to those that came before them with the likes of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Batman and Robin, Spider-Man 3, A Good Day to Die Hard, Rocky V and so many more.
And in the middle of all of those, you have sequels that are more of a mixed bag. Some love them. Some hate them. Some are indifferent. They often follow some of these below commandments, but not all of them.
So what makes a great sequel? Where do so many sequels go so wrong, and why do so few manage to live up to expectations set forth by their predecessors?
As a confessed sequel-holic, I’ll attempt to explore the key directives to writing a great sequel.
Most screenwriters in Hollywood write on assignment. Within the studio system, when an original film does well—or, ironically enough, a sequel does well—it warrants another installment, because in the end, the studios need to make money. What most people don’t understand is that the real reason the studios develop so many sequels, prequels, remakes, or reboots is because that is what the audience often wants. We see these results time and time again. Just last year, Jurassic World went on to become the third-highest grossing film of all time. Audiences love sequels, and thus, so do studios. They love something familiar. It gives them insurance for the multitude of money being spent at the theater on any given family or date outing.
All too often, original movies comes and go with little to no audience: movies like Edge of Tomorrow that warrant big box office numbers with excellent casting, an excellent concept, and a great script to match it.
That’s not to say that screenwriters and the powers that be shouldn’t create original films. They should. It’s just an explanation as to why studios feel the need to push sequels, prequels, remakes, and reboots: because the audience demands them.
So for screenwriters that really want to become professionals, one of the best things they can do is acclimate to the system and be ready to tackle any assignment that comes along if they’ve garnered some major attention from their writing. And hopefully such screenwriters can muster the success from such films and earn the freedom to pitch and write great original films. Such is the nature of this crazy business.
The 10 Commandments of Writing a Great Sequel
Note: We will forgo mention of sequels based on previously released source material—i.e. The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games franchises, etc. Also, beware of spoilers!
1. Thou Shall Ensure that the Original Warrants a Sequel.
OK, this primarily falls on the studio and producer; however, it’s one of the deciding factors of the eventual greatness—or lack thereof—of any given sequel.
Look no further than Highlander.
Highlander was an outstanding breakout genre film with the then-unique premise of immortal warriors meeting across time to duel to the death by swords in a game where there can be only one. At the end of the film, the hero, Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, wins the final dual and receives the gift—whatever it may be. The signature tag line of the film is “there can be only one.” He’s the last immortal standing.
Due to the success of the film, the studio eventually wanted to capitalize, thus they green-lit Highlander II: The Quickening, a film that is virtually incoherent as a sequel. There have since been many followups, all of which have been better than the second film in the franchise, yet which also suffer the same fate. The original story never warranted a sequel.
Films like Steven Spielberg’s E.T. almost attained a sequel, obviously due to the success of the original. Thankfully, the powers that be were wise enough to put a halt to it. Why? Because the original didn’t warrant a sequel.
2. Thou Shall Not Simply Remake the Original.
Too many sequels suffer from this mistake. The Karate Kid franchise quickly tanked due to the regurgitation of the same premise. While the Rocky franchise managed to find its way around that problem well (see below), The Karate Kid films became weaker with each installment.
Chances are the original film was like most great films in the end—lightning in a bottle: a culmination of a great concept, a great script, a great cast, a great director, and debuting at a time when audiences were looking for something special. It’s very difficult to simply replicate that.
3. Thou Shall Know that Audiences Want Something New, but the Same.
Yes, this is where that fine line exists between something new and something different. Screenwriters have to find a solid balance between the two.
The original was a success for a reason. Audiences responded to the concept, the characters, and the story. So what you have to do is to find the core of those elements and retain them.
Why do we watch Rocky movies? Well, we want to see Rocky as an underdog win the big fight. It’s no fun seeing him at the top of his game beating some schmuck, right? But how do you tell that same story over and over and not lose an audience, which is what the Rocky franchise expertly managed to do from when it launched in 1976 into the 1980s through its first four films (and then the sixth film in 2006, and latest spinoff Creed)?
It’s rather simple. You take the core of the original’s concept (underdog boxer), characters (Rocky, Adrian, Paulie and Apollo), and story (struggling with the task of winning a seemingly unwinnable fight) and you give those elements new mass to tack onto that core. In the second film, it was about Rocky overcoming fame/infamy and actually winning the fight. In the third film, it was about succumbing to false success, getting soft, getting beaten, and making the comeback. In the fourth, it was about the purely impossible fight, but this time under the added guise of revenge.
Give audiences the familiar aspects of what they remember and then take the core of those very things and add additional mass to them with the likes of larger conflict, new character arcs, etc.
4. Thou Shall Not Dismiss What the Characters Accomplished in the Original.
This is perhaps the worst offense of any sequel in my eyes—dismissing what the character(s) fought so hard to accomplish in the original or predecessor.
Look no further than the mixed bag that is Ghostbusters 2. While we have a strong element returning, as far as the chemistry of the characters (see below), where the film went wrong is having the characters back right where they started, or worse. In the end of the original Ghostbusters, Peter got the girl and the Ghostbusters were heralded as heroes, saving the great city of New York.
In the sequel, they’re right back where they started. Worse even. Peter and Dana aren’t together. The Ghostbusters aren’t only disbanded, they’re left shamed because of some negative fallout from their heroic efforts in the original. So not only is the sequel trying to remake the original, it’s jumped a few steps back after the leap forward that was the original.
That kills an audience. That breaks their heart. And they immediately disengage.