Same Old Story

Sequels, prequels, and threequels headline Hollywood 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 instead concentrate on cloning them, with sequel after sequel after 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 talks may begin in January but could mean squat. 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 digital age.

Both Hannibal Rising (the fourth Hannibal Lecter pic, this one a prequel) and The Hills Have Eyes II will serve as foreplay for next summer's sequel orgy, rounded out by Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, another Pirates of the Caribbean, Hostel: Part II, Fantastic Four 2, Evan Almighty (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, orgasming at the end of the year (get that Marlboro Ultra Light ready) are 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 non-sequel movies, but those are mostly remakes, biopics or book adaptations. (At least we can all be thankful that, unlike in 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 to make Oscar movies, which might please Academy voters and film aficionados but not necessarily the public at large. Instead of attempting something — hell, anything — new, studio moguls are more content than ever to do, and re-do, and re-do yet again the familiar, especially after the disastrous movie going year of 2005. But don't blame them; blame their bosses, those hedge-fund-loopy tools who find it easier to schmooze Wall Street about another Fantastic Four than to debate a greenlighting decision 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).

See, it simply takes too much moolah to create awareness for new concepts — 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 overall budgets of movies (as of 2005) stand at $96.2 million each and marketing costs $36.2 million per pic, it stands to reason that studios are loathe to gamble on non-proven product. 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.

Studios used to be embarrassed by their sequels. 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. (Supposedly, Depp was doing his best Keith Richards in the first film....)

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 Hallstrom'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: 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, better known for their Page Six performances than 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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