A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see an advanced screening of Pixar’s Monsters University, the upcoming prequel to the studio’s beloved Monsters, Inc. While Disney’s current review embargo prevents me from telling you anything specific about the film itself, the experience prompted me to return to an issue that has been on my mind since I learned of Pixar’s acquisition by the media giant which has now come to ownership of both Marvel and Lucasfilm as well. That issue is the new direction Disney has been leading the company down in terms of the studio’s reliance on sequels.
Over the past 18 years, Pixar has released 13 feature length films, of which only three have been sequels. In comparison, two out of the four upcoming films the studio has announced are sequels to existing material, a ratio which looks to be Disney’s planned new norm for Pixar’s future. What this means for the future remains to be seen, but judging by the incredibly wide gap between the quality of the studio’s existing sequels (Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3 vs. Cars 2) the results could either be a modest step forward or a monumental step back.
Let’s take a look at two things; why Disney is pushing for more sequels from Pixar and why that push is wrong for both the studio itself and the people who love its products.
At this point, the general view of sequels seems to be that they are an expression of Hollywood Greed and little more. Franchises like Shrek stand for many as an example of how studio executives will do whatever it takes to milk the a film’s cash cow until it is financially and qualitatively dry. What people seem to often forget or ignore is that the movie industry is a business, and like any business it would not exist without consistent profitability. Movies aren’t cheap to make, distribute or market, and as a result studios require a certain amount of assurances of the returns on a project before they pump millions of dollars into its creation. Unfortunately, in this sense the movie business and the entertainment industry as a whole is comparable to meteorology; even the best Weather Man is going to be wrong half the time, and even the most conscientious studio executives are going to finance a bomb or two. When these decisions carry burdens of upwards of $100 million dollars, the difference between a 50% and 60% probability of a film’s success can be huge. It remains a statistical fact that sequels produce more consistent returns on investment than original projects do, and therefore carry a lower amount of risk. Bottom line, referring to a sound business decision as “greed” makes no sense for anyone who recognizes what kind of world we live in.
Having said all of that, sequels aren’t always the slam-dunk that studios hope for them to be. After all, people go to see movies because they intend on enjoying the experience. When a movie is well made, people enjoy the experience more, leading to more positive word of mouth, overall higher grosses for that movie and therefore increased likelihood for future sequels. This is a harsh reality that Pixar encountered when it released Cars 2 back in 2011, also known as the film that broke Pixar’s infamous winning streak. The thing is, for a film that was intended to ride its sequel status to higher Box Office numbers, its earnings were less than spectacular. When adjusted for inflation, Cars 2 finished off its run with the lowest domestic gross of Pixar’s history, its final tallies failing to even match the $200 million production budget. Admittedly this was offset by the increased merchandising revenue the film brought in, but nowhere near enough to make up for the damage done to the supposedly infallible Pixar brand.
Finally, this brings us to the subject of this article; why Pixar is the exemption to the Sequel Rule. The reason is that rather than Cars, or Finding Nemo, or even Toy Story, it was Pixar that people kept coming back for. Other movies might reel people back in with their favorite actors, their favorite characters, or any number of other franchise specific offerings, but the star of every one of Pixar’s first eleven films was the studio itself. After all, even your favorite actors or directors have had their weak outings, yet Pixar had not a single significant blemish on its record. The amount of trust this gave audiences for the studio is the reason why it was consistently able to take some of the weirdest and least relatable material imaginable (i.e. Ratatoullie, Wall-E, Up) and turn them into box office smashes beloved by critics and audiences alike. We felt like Pixar could take any premise and turn it into a great experience, and as a result we were willing to follow the studio wherever it planned on taking us. It’s that sort of creative freedom that felt completely absent in Cars 2 and, without serious work, will continue to feel absent if upcoming sequels like Monsters University and Finding Dory follow the same path. No matter how well made those films may be, the simple fact that we’ve already been to each of those worlds will never recreate the magic of experiencing them for the first time.
With all of that in mind, I’d like to leave off on a happier note. That happier note is that I can say from first hand experience that Monsters University is about as close of a return to form for Pixar as I could have hoped. It may not be enough to change my mind about the subjects above, but it’s at least enough to keep me coming back for more. I highly recommend that you give it a try when it comes out this June.
Now I’d like to hear from all of you; what do you think of Pixar’s sequel-filled future? Are you looking forward to seeing the characters you love or are you afraid that their legacy might be soiled by unneeded sequels?