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Orgy of Sequels Climaxing in 2007

IT’S OFFICIAL: HOLLYWOOD HAS RUN OUT of original ideas.

If you thought 2006 was bad, just wait. In 2007, the studios will give up on birthing blockbusters and concentrate instead on cloning them to knock off lame sequel after lamer sequel after lamest sequel. Familiar titles will be followed by so many numbers that filmgoers looking for a Friday-night flick will need a calculator just to figure out which of the threequels and fourquels they want to see — if any at all.

Oh, and if the year of living sequentially doesn’t destroy the movie biz, then the expected labor strike (also a sequel) will. Trapped in a horror of its own making, Hollywood is scared witless by the looming prospect of negotiating not one but two labor contracts in 2007: the Writers Guild of America, whose gangsta refusal to begin negotiating early with the studios already foreshadows a retread of the disastrous 1988 walkout (which shut down production for 22 weeks and cost the industry about $500 million) and the Screen Actors Guild, whose bargaining may begin as soon as January but could still end in a walkout. Both writers and actors are still bummed over being stiffed by the studios during the DVD era and are determined not to be bullied again in this downloading age.

As for next summer’s sequel orgy, both Hannibal Rising (the fourth Hannibal Lecter pic, this one a prequel) and The Hills Have Eyes II will get the foreplay started, followed by Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, another Pirates of the Caribbean, Hostel: Part II, Fantastic Four 2, Evan Almighty (a follow-up to Jim Carrey’s Bruce Almighty, this time starring Steve Carell), Live Free or Die Hard (Bruce Willis as John McClane for the fourth time), Transformers (a live-action sequel to the animated original), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (fifth in the series), The Bourne Ultimatum (No. 3, which is actually No. 4 if you count that cheesy Richard Chamberlain version from 1988) and Rush Hour 3. Then, the sequel frenzy climaxes at the end of the year (get that Marlboro Ultra Light ready) with Resident Evil 3, Mr. Bean’s Holiday (Bean II), The Golden Age (a.k.a. Elizabeth 2), Alien vs. Predator 2, National Treasure II and Halloween 2007 (too many to count).

And those are just the ones I know about.

Yes, in 2007, the very idea of original screenplays will become increasingly quaint, like real butter poured on popcorn. (Good timing, because the writers will be camped out on picket lines anyway.) There will be a few nonsequel movies, but those are mostly remakes, biopics or book adaptations. (At least we can all be thankful that, unlike previous years, there’ll be almost no TV spinoffs. The complete tanking of Sony’s Bewitched in 2005 saw to that.)

The major studios are downsizing their own egos, since they no longer have the luxury of green-lighting unprofitable made-for-Oscar movies: Those pics might have pleased Academy voters and film aficionados, but not necessarily shareholders or even the public at large. Instead of attempting something — hell, anything — new, studio moguls are more content than ever to do, and redo, and redo yet again the familiar, especially after the disastrous moviegoing year of 2005, which heavily influenced green-lighting decisions for 2007’s lineup, since it takes two years to fuck up a film from start to finish. But don’t blame them; blame their bosses, those hedge-fund-loopy tools who find it easier to schmooze Wall Street about another low-concept, comic-book film like Fantastic Four than to debate going into production on a potentially challenging film like Charlie Wilson’s War, the Tom Hanks–Julia Roberts biopic about a boozin’, hot-tubbin’ U.S. congressman that is scheduled to debut in December 2007. These are the bigwigs who insist that their studio’s upcoming slate contain several bankable movie franchises — or else — and whose underlings invented the prequel as a way to invigorate played-out franchises (and, in the process, cast younger, i.e., hotter stars, like Christian Bale as Batman). And just wait for 2008: Universal thinks there’s still life in Jurassic Park, and Paramount is reviving not just Star Trek but also Indiana Jones (and maybe casting a new star for Mission: Impossible after Sumner tossed Tom).

Studios used to be embarrassed by their sequels (known as serials in the old days). No more. When this past summer Disney announced a huge cost-cutting plan to appease financial analysts, the mega-company promised that in 2007 it would devote its resources to those films that have the potential to generate money-minting sequels. And did I mention that sequels are virtually critic-proof? Reviewers who gave thumbs-up to Pirates 1 and flipped the bird to Pirates 2 didn’t affect box office at all. The sequel was beyond huge, and Pirates 3 will be too, even if Johnny spends the entire two hours channeling Lance Bass instead of Keith Richards (who’s playing Depp’s daddy in the threequel). It’s not only the studios who are to blame, but also the actors and directors who used to bail on franchises as soon as contractually possible, but are now addicted to sequel cash. Depp has said he’ll do Pirates 12, and Tobey Maguire, who had to be dragged into Spidey 2, has said he wants to keep going. As for helmers Sam Raimi and Gore Verbinski, they’re staying with the franchises for as long as they want.

See, it simply takes too much moola to create awareness for new product — in marketing parlance, this is known as “audience creation.” It’s a given that with franchises and remakes, the awareness for under-25 males — the most coveted category of moviegoers — approaches 100 percent. But with original stories, that awareness level drops below 60 percent. And, when the average cost to make a movie (as of 2005) stands at $96.2 million, and marketing costs at $36.2 million per pic, it stands to reason that studios are loath to gamble on unproven concepts. Riding coattails takes the risk out of a notoriously risky biz, which means moguls can have fewer Maalox moments in what is tantamount to a life on meth. Production has dwindled to just a dozen films from each major each year, most of them sequels.

Also on the horizon, and with some buzz, is a spate of biopics, most of them set, peculiarly, in the 1970s. Nick Cassavetes wrote and directed Alpha Dog, which debuts in January and is based on the misadventures of Jesse James Hollywood, one of the youngest criminals ever to land on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. Then there’s David Fincher’s Zodiac, a thriller about the notorious San Francisco serial killer starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and Lasse Hallström’s The Hoax, starring Richard Gere as Clifford Irving, who was sort of the Jayson Blair of the 1970s, only sleazier, as if that’s possible. Brad Pitt is the original Missouri good-ol’-boy outlaw in The Assassination of Jesse James, and J.Lo and hubby Marc Anthony bring salsa star Hector Lavoe’s life to the screen in El Cantante.

If little else, it’s clear that the problems plaguing Hollywood will only grow worse in 2007, including piracy, which the movie industry says is stealing $1.3 billion from its U.S. revenues alone; new media, though no one at the studios has yet figured out how to make money online; and young Hollywood, who are becoming better known for their Page Six performances than for their memorable roles.

My prediction? Hollywood moguls will find ways to pay themselves bigger bonuses while cutting the pay and perks for everyone else. And that’s certainly not an original idea.

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