THB #8: Trilogy Madness

Halloween Kills and Dune and Newark, oh my!

Did Jason Kilar just save Legendary Entertainment, as it is currently constituted, by paying to force Dune to a day-n-date HBO Max launch?

I kinda think so. What does the already troubled Legendary look like if they take a $75m - $100m loss on Dune?

I’m not reviewing Dune here. I am a huge fan of Denis Villeneuve. The film is stunningly beautiful. It does what most big action movies fail to do… it takes it’s time and it pulls the audience into the movie… slowly. And I get why an artist, with a capital A, who has found success with his style when others questioned whether it would sell, would want to do Dune his way.

I would love to see Denis Villeneuve’s complete take on Dune. But I don’t have to pay for it.

The only way there is a second Dune movie from Denis V. is if Legendary is so shook that it bets the entire company on whether the second film in the trilogy is an action masterpiece that can become am $800m+ worldwide grosser in 2024 or so. This film is not going to be a giant audience pleaser.

The hardcore Frank Herbert fans may wet themselves over it. The many homages to classic cinema, from Brando in Apocalypse Now to Anthony Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia are catnip for film obsessives like myself. And it is… can‘t say it enough… gorgeous… always magic hour with a golden hue and so many variations of the yellow-brown side of the color spectrum.

Unless the China theatrical is off the charts good, Dune is a movie that would have grossed, in my opinion, in a pure theatrical release, of $250m worldwide or less. That means a likely loss of more than $75 million (all in).

But this piece isn’t really about Dune. It’s about the choice to make a first film that is so very clearly the first film in a trilogy or any number of films. This is a disease that is proliferating in the streaming era. It goes into that category of The Artist vs The Man. The Artist has a vision of what they want to make. The Man wants to keep things budgeted conservatively and spend more with success.

None of this is truly new.

Pete, Fran & Phil’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was a giant fight about how much movie should be made. One movie. Two movies. Three movies. Worked out pretty well for everyone. But even in that case, the first movie didn’t complete the story, but was satisfying enough to drive people to want what the second film was dishing out.

But the combination of the IP Era and the Streaming Era seem to have driven both filmmakers and film funders to distraction.

Another recent victim of this mindset is The Many Saints of Newark, which was not positioned at the first of a series, but is undeniably meant to be the first of a series of “films” in the pre-Sopranos era.

The movies are the movies are the movies. Some are better. Some are worse. But the audience understands what they are seeing, even when they can’t quite put it into words.

In the case of Newark, the audience knew something was askew. In my opinion, it was that the promise of the film as a prequel to the beloved series that left the audience hanging, not the content of the story in the film. The next couple “Soprano stories” might well have built into that prequel. The way David Chase laid out sketches of the characters we would come to love on the series screams to me that he was expecting to dig deeper into the psychology of most of them. And he still can, if he so chooses. But if those happen, they will be made-for-streaming movies… which maybe they should have been all along.

My point remains, the idea of a movie trilogy, with the exception of a very few proven franchises, is a self-indulgence. The success of the Rings trilogy was a singularity.

The Matrix trilogy (about to add a 4th) was not originally conceived as a trilogy. And The Wachowskis were required to make a whole other successful, smaller movie in order to get clearance to make the first film, which worked as a standalone. The Wachowskis built 2 more films onto the original, exploring various religious ideas amidst the mayhem. But had they built the trilogy as a trilogy, no doubt that Neo would not become Superman at the end of the first film. This closer of the first film was perfect… but a burden on the other 2 films to come. And audiences reacted to this, again, whether they realized it or not.

Mad Max, Indiana Jones, Toy Story, Alien, Rush Hour, Beverly Hills Cop, The Karate Kid, X-Men, Spider-Man, Bourne, Iron Man, and Back To The Future were not conceived of or produced as trilogies.

Star Wars was made as a one-off, though George Lucas had ideas about a trilogy.

The Dark Knight was conceived as a trilogy by Christopher Nolan & company. But this was frickin’ Batman, arguably the single most popular movie character ever.

The Chronicles of Narnia was conceived of as and made it through 3 films in spite of declining box office, but a lot of that happening was on the personal commitment of Philip Anschutz, the billionaire behind Walden Media.

Matthew Vaughn is very aware of playing the franchise game, but did he really expect Kingsman to become a trilogy? No.

Jim Cameron made Avatar as a one-off, then created a trilogy, then a quadrilogy, and even a quintrilogy. COVID seems to have slowed his roll… a little. Production, for now, seems to over on the Avatar 2 and 3 and have they shot anything for Avatar 4 or 5? No idea.

Perhaps this all goes back to 2004’s Van Helsing, which was meant to be a franchise starter. I can’t say that the film held anything back. But that was one of the first times a studio tried to launch an original-ish idea that was clear on its intent to be a trilogy or better. It really seemed to want to be a “classic horror villain” version of James Bond. So maybe we should chalk it up as one of Universal’s many attempts to reboot their classic horror monsters (their millstone like WB’s DC flailing).

Universal was also the studio that made The Fast & The Furious as a one-off in 2001, made a sequel in 2003, rebooted with Tokyo Drift in 2006, then found the magic formula in combining it all with Fast& Furious in 2009. They have fired that thing up every 2 years since, with the 2023 edition already shot. Once they found the “family” formula, they just keep adding new pieces with each film, raising the bar, waiting for audiences to bail on them. (ha)

Thing is, the eye is not on the prize… which is almost always the thing that is right in front of you. Make one movie. Make it great. Make the audience love it. Movies are not TV shows… dead episodes can (and probably should) kill your franchise.

The final film trilogy on my mind today is the reboot of Halloween with David Gordon Green at the helm and Jamie Lee Curtis back as Laurie Strode. I’ve seen Halloween Kills and all I can think is… WTF?!

When David took on Halloween with Jamie Lee and the idea of Laurie finally killing off Michael, I don’t know whether he or the folks at Blumhouse thought it might be a trilogy. But after a massive opening, it became a trilogy.

So after Laurie and her daughter and her granddaughter thought they killed Michael in 2018, perhaps we thought it was finally over. It was not. But the undeniable engine for this series - and this trilogy in particular - is that Laurie needs to kill Michael. So what do you do with the movie in between that absolutely final ending and the last one?

Halloween Kills feels like it was outlined, but 90% improvised. Michael does stuff he has never done before. New characters are thrown into the mix with contexts that seem utterly superfluous. What seems like a real-life bar that David & his crew fell in love with during production becomes a central location. A lot of things make no sense for longer than 30 seconds or so. The photography is skillful, but unusually random. It’s a mess… to the point of distraction. I had a lot of inside baseball laughs. But it’s a crazy sidebar of a movie.

Still, if it grosses 50% of what DGG & Blumhouse’s first of the franchise grossed, it will be a massive profit center.

But there is a problem. The final film of the trilogy, which I suspect will be a LOT more focused, and offer a satisfying conclusion, may suffer seriously from people being irritated by this film. This film is filler… a romp for the filmmakers. I cannot believe that David Gordon Green and Danny McBride were not just sitting on the sets with the talent and throwing lines and ideas like it was a silent movie and letting a very talented cast try everything and anything out. Bless them. They are talented, decent people and I enjoy them getting to experiment.

But is it good for the franchise… for movies… for theatrical… and for everyone’s bottom line?

Until tomorrow…