Two and Out: When Directors Abandon Trilogies Before They’re Over

These franchises and series have launched with big name directors who decided two movies was enough for them.

Over the last 20 years Hollywood has realigned itself around franchises that come with built in audience awareness of the intellectual property the movies are based on. Super heroes have lead this movement but also included are science-fiction and action series, many of which are reboots, remakes or reimaginings of older IP, trying to freshen up stale material for new audiences and wring maximum value from series that may have gone dormant decades ago and need a shot in the arm.

Often the pitch to the audience is that the studio has signed a well-known, “visionary” director to helm what otherwise might appear to be a soulless cash grab devoid of artistic merit. The idea is to attach some credibility to the endeavor, earning some cache among cinephiles who might dismiss or ignore it.

Because these are almost always designed to be series and not just one-off films, directors are often asked – or contractually obligated – to return for the sequel. There are quite a few instances, though, where after two installments a big-name director who attached the reputation they’d earned up to that point walks away for one reason or another, turning the reigns of the franchise over to someone else to close out or continue.

I’ll admit that these are, by and large, exceptions that prove the rule. There are countless instances where a single director has overseen every chapter in a trilogy. But almost all of those examples are stories the director had at least a significant hand in developing, usually about something personal or otherwise important or relevant to them. Only Alan Parker was going to tell The Barrytown Trilogy. Only Richard LInklater was going to make the Before Trilogy or Francis Ford Coppola the Godfather Trilogy.

Instead, the below examples represent cases where a well-known filmmaking talent has been brought in to provide a creative spark to help revitalize or launch a franchise, only to find they were indeed a director-for-hire all along, disposable because their name isn’t as important as the brands’ once things are back on track.

Star Trek

J.J. Abrams was brought on by Paramount to revitalize a Star Trek franchise that, despite a few TV shows here and there, had lain fallow on the big screen since 2002’s Nemesis, marking the last outing of “The Next Generation” characters. Abrams embraced the opportunity to bring his “Mystery Box” approach to the series, offering an interesting twist in the 2009 relaunch and a far less interesting one in 2013’s Into Darkness. His involvement in a third film was cut off when he was offered the chance to relaunch another franchise, Star Wars.

X-Men

2000’s original X-Men kicked off a new wave of super hero movies, saving the genre from the regrettable camp the Batman series had fallen into and offering a more mainstream approach than that taken in the Blade movies. As good as that first one was, 2002’s X-Men United was even better, offering more nuanced takes on the characters and setting up a third movie that promised some form of “Dark Phoenix” adaptation. Sadly that promise went unfulfilled when Singer was lured the chance to make Superman Returns, allowing Brett Ratner to nearly dismantle the franchise with a terrible third installment.

Iron Man

Among the reasons the first Iron Man movie was not universally expected to be a success (don’t let anyone who didn’t follow the press narrative of that time tell you different) was that Jon Favreau was not exactly a mortal lock as a director. He had a couple decent outings under his belt, but nothing on this scale. His light tough and ability to simply control and aim the explosion that is Robert Downey Jr. made it work enough that he returned to helm the sequel. When it came time for the third movie, though, he was too involved in other projects and so turned duties over to Shane Black, who essentially made a Shane Black movie featuring Iron Man, which isn’t a bad thing.

The Avengers

Many of us totally got why Joss Whedon was a good pick for the first team up of the Avengers. While some dismissed him as “the guy from ‘Buffy’,” those of us who had watched both “Firefly” and Serenity and who read his “Astonishing X-Men” run knew how well he could balance characters and create believable team dynamics. According to Whedon his experience on 2015’s Age of Ultron kind of broke him, though, and so he stepped aside and allowed the Russo Brothers, who had just directed Captain America: The Winter Soldier to much acclaim, to take the reigns.

Jurassic Park

It seems director Steven Spielberg just kind of exhausted his interest in directing stories of dinosaurs running amok after the first two Jurassic Park movies, diverting his attention instead to original projects. While he remained on as a producer, he turned directorial responsibilities over to Joe Johnston, a protege from the days of Indiana Jones. He turned in a third movie that has some silly moments (the talking velociraptor) but also features the same pop and sizzle he’d brought previously to The Rocketeer and would again display in Captain America: The First Avenger.

The Terminator

James Cameron couldn’t make another Terminator movie, at first because he was too invested in developing 1997’s Titanic and then 2008’s Avatar. Since then he’s been very busy not making further Avatar sequels while also finding time to criticize other people’s movies while a string of other directors tried to tackle this material. Cameron is returning to the series with a reboot/sequel now in production, but only as a producer.

Batman

It’s hard to describe just how much Warner Bros. openly and actively turned against director Tim Burton when Batman Returns didn’t turn out to be just as massive a hit as 1989’s first Batman movie. Returns looks and feels more like a Tim Burton movie, dealing with many of the same themes as his other films, but that didn’t translate into a plethora of cross-promotional and merchandising opportunities. While he reportedly was developing a third installment he was removed from the project in favor of Joel Schumacher, who took the series in a direction with more potential for colorful toy lines.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – Marketing Recap

jurassic world fallen kingdom posterI make this point at the end of the full marketing write-up for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom at The Hollywood Reporter, but it’s worth reiterating here just how much the campaign seems completely uninterested in conveying any information about the story. From the first teaser, which didn’t explain the “why” behind any of the mayhem ensuing on screen to posters that barely even included any of the human characters and more, there seems to have been an active effort to keep the story out of view.

Whether or not that’s because someone realized the story was the weakest selling point or they just decided the audience would be wooed by spectacle, it’s kind of extraordinary.

Here are the parts of the recap not included in the THR post.

Online and Social

The movie’s official web presence is as a section on the Jurassic franchise’s bigger site. That section has information like a story synopsis, all the trailers as well as some other videos, a gallery of stills and details on the cast and crew. There are also links to the general Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat profiles for the movies, all of which have been dedicated to this installment over the last year, though there have been occasional references to the previous films as well.

Media and Publicity

Treverrow shared the first glimpse at footage from the movie just before Thanksgiving last year, showing Pratt’s character sharing a tender moment with a baby dinosaur that doesn’t look at all dangerous.

As is par for the course now, the first trailer was teased a few days in advance both with new footage and with clip complications from the earlier films in the series. Some took a more meta approach, showing Pratt and Howard reviewing marketing materials before things get weird. Some were more along the lines of a behind-the-scenes featurette. All that work had the opposite impact of what the studio was intending. Instead of building anticipation there seemed to be an attitude of “Get on with it!”

An EW cover story containing new photos, interviews and other material came out a couple months out from release and was timed to hit at the same time as the second full trailer. Around the same time the movie was a big part of Universal’s presentation at CinemaCon, including cast appearances and the screening of additional footage. In a separate interview, designer Neal Scanlan talked about creating the looks of all the dinosaurs – both old and new – that show up in the story.

As the poster boy for the new non-star movie star, Pratt was given the MTV Generation Award at the MTV Movie and TV Awards.

The studio kept up a steady beat of featurettes like this one, which teased how there were going to be more dinosaurs than in any previous Jurassic movie. Pratt and Howard filmed a short “Funny Or Die” video as a different version of their characters trying to take Blue aboard a plane as a service animal, something that doesn’t go well. Along the same lines, Goldblum appeared as himself in a “don’t talk during the movie” video for the popular Alamo Drafthouse theater. Pratt showed up as a contestant on a popular YouTube-hosted game show.

Pratt, Howard and others shared their thoughts on how the movie fits in with the series as a whole at the premiere. Meanwhile B.D. Wong was interviewed as part of his involvement with the Dorito’s cross-promotional campaign mentioned above about how he views the evolution of his character Dr. Henry Wu.

Goldblum was finally uh given the star on the uh Hollywood Walk of Fame he uh so richly deserves, which gave him the chance to talk about the Jurassic movies, his career and his internet fame. At the same time Treverrow, Bayona and others involved spoke about how they wanted to approach the story and expand the world of the franchise a bit in this and the other “World” movies.

The “Jurassic World Week” NBCUniversal arranged on “The Tonight Show” culminated in appearances by both Pratt and Howard. A bit by host Jimmy Fallon was also used for a paid social media campaign by Dairy Queen, one of the movie’s promotional sponsors.

Overall

Aside from the complete lack of story on display throughout the campaign what’s most notable is how Universal just kept hammering on things despite widespread dislike. No one I saw was a fan of the week-long teaser campaigns run in advance of the trailers, yet the studio engaged in that tactic not once but twice. There seems to have almost been a concerted effort to defy public opinion, running a marketing push that was “for the fans, not the critics.”

PICKING UP THE SPARE

There’s been a wave of opinion pieces about whether or not the 1993 original Jurassic Park needed any sequels at all. That position is exemplified by Matt Singer’s thinking that a scene from the first movie negates any possibility of additional stories and Clara Wardlow’s take that there simply aren’t that many narrative threads in this universe to pull on.

More on the Kellogg’s promotion for the movie here.

The movie is the next release to get the AR treatment from Moviebill, which is once again handing out periodicals to Regal Cinemas audiences that can be scanned using the Regal app to unlock exclusive content, including interviews (in print and AR format) with star Bryce Dallas Howard and director J.A. Bayona, a welcome message from star Chris Pratt, an interactive “dino-lab” and a sample of the dinosaurs available in the Jurassic World Alive, the location-based AR mobile game developed by Ludia.

That game is built on location and other data from Google Maps, which is helping to promote both the game and the services behind it.

Daniella Pineda has received a few profiles like this after being identified as the breakout newcomer – or at least largely unknown – in the movie. That makes the reports that a scene clearly identifying her as LGBTQ was cut, the latest instance of that happening in a major studio franchise film, somewhat awkward.

There’s also a bit of extra attention coming to co-star Justice Smith.

Director J.A. Bayona was never the focus of much of the press in advance of the movie’s release, but there was an interview with him here and another one here.
Dave & Buster’s is touting how well the VR game based on the movie has performed.

The “Save the Dinos” campaign that accompanied the main marketing has become the subject of a copyright infringement lawsuit.

Title Branding in An Age of Franchises

In his new book The Big Picture, writer Ben Fritz chronicles how, over the last decade, Hollywood has become less a place of rampant creativity and more one concerned with intellectual property management. The rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the revitalization of Star Wars, the continued presence of the X-Men and more all serve as examples of studios embracing the franchise model, churning out new series installments in a way that will satisfy audiences both foreign and domestic.

While there are certainly exceptions to this rule, most studios have more or less consistently adopted a title format that reads Brand Name: Subtitle. That’s a substantial change from 20 or 30 years ago when most sequels just had a “2” or whatever number slapped on the end of the title to demarcate it as something new.

From an outside perspective it seems as if around 2010 studios realized the numbered installments were working against the goal of encouraging people to turn out, making it seem as if the movies were just another sequel they could skip with nothing identifiably unique about them. By switching to subtitles, the movies are more clearly laid out as something individual and different, like chapter titles that convey the theme of that section while still falling under the larger franchise umbrella.

Still, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Not only do the branding tactics sometimes vary from studio to studio but even within one studio’s release slate you can see different approaches being taken. Here are some key examples as to how this year’s biggest have – or haven’t adhered to that recent conventional wisdom.

Star Wars

star wars logoTo quickly recap, 1977’s Star Wars really was just “Star Wars” when it was originally released and continued to be thus for years. The release of The Empire Strikes Back really introduced the episode numbering to the series, though the three movies of the Original Trilogy were pretty much just known by their episode titles. Things got a bit muddled when the Prequel Trilogy came out and suddenly everything was “Star Wars: Episode # – Chapter Title.”

When Disney relaunched the series it opted to drop the “Episode #” from the title branding but retained the “Star Wars: Chapter Title” format specifically for movies that fit into the Sage, the core stories about the Skywalker family and their allies. Because the studio wanted to expand beyond that constraint it needed some way to differentiate between those movies and everything else that focused on new or ancillary characters. Thus the “Title: A Star Wars Story” branding was adopted that has been featured on 2016’s Rogue One and this summer’s Solo, both of which have more in common with the multimedia Expanded Universe than the central saga.

Marvel

marvel studios openingDisney/Marvel Studios have tried a little bit of everything with the titles for the 18 movies that have been released in the last 10 years. Let’s look at the studio has taken a number of different approaches to branding the cinematic outings of the heroes:

  • First Movie Named After Character, Sequels Just Numbered: Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3
  • First Movie Named After Character, Sequels Just Subtitled: Thor, Thor: The Dark World, Thor: Ragnarok
  • First Movie and Sequels Featuring Character Name and Subtitle: Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War
  • First Movie Named After Character, Sequel Adding Another Character: Ant-Man, Ant-Man and The Wasp
  • First Movie Named After Team, Sequels Just Subtitled: The Avengers, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Avengers: Infinity War

It’s chaos, but the differing approaches taken don’t seem to be impacting anything. At least they’re consistent within each series and it remains to be seen what system will be in place for sequels to Black Panther, Doctor Strange and other films.

Jurassic

jurassic park logoThere’s been some goofy branding going on with the Jurassic franchise, which this summer gets its fifth installment. The first sequel didn’t use Brand: Subtitle for the title but flipped it for The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The third movie then dropped a subtitle altogether for the simply-named Jurassic Park 3.

When the series was restarted a few years ago it was given a new banner with Jurassic World, a brand name that’s now being continued with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

Mission: Impossible

mission impossible logoParamount has branded the sequels to the 1996 original in a couple different ways that perhaps reflect how the approach to mindset around labeling has changed over the years.

The first two sequels were simply numbered as Mission: Impossible 2 and Mission: Impossible 3. Pretty clear-cut and understandable, telling the audience exactly what to expect, which is more adventures with Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt. Since the fourth installment, though, the studio has put numbering aside and decided to go with a series of subtitles, first Ghost Protocol, then Rogue Nation and this summer’s Fallout.

X-Men

x-men logoFox’s mutant-centric series has taken a fast and loose approach to branding, just like Universal’s rampaging dinosaurs. X-Men was followed by X2: X-Men United, then X-Men: The Last Stand, which eschewed numbering completely but which, in 2006, was a bit early when it came to fully adopting the subtitle structure. Things got weird with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, meant to be the first in a series of stand-alone character-centric movies (not unlike the “A Star Wars Story” films) before settling down with X-Men: First Class, which rebooted the franchise.

Interestingly, Fox’s other X franchise – Deadpool – used a straight numbering for its sequel last month. That was somewhat disappointing since up until shortly before release it was still listed as “Untitled Deadpool Sequel” and it would have been great if that had been the actual title.

Bond

bondIt’s worth pointing out that the granddaddy of them all, the great ancestor of these franchises, is of course James Bond. That series is over 55 years old but has never utilized the character’s name in any of the titles to its 24 films. While the 25th has just been announced it’s likely this will follow suit.

There are a number of other franchise and series that have applied different tactics when it comes to sequels.

  • Matt Damon’s Bourne series inserted the name of the character into different declarations of intent until the most recent chapter, which just used the name alone.
  • The Rocky series used simple numbering until Sylvester Stallone revived it in 2006 with Rocky Balboa and then turned the focus elsewhere in 2015 with Creed.
  • The Fast and the Furious series has thrown all rules to the wind, using numbers, variations on the title of the original over the years. Of course Universal whiffed on an 83 mph fastball right at the belt by not titling the most recent installment F8 of the Furious.
  • After sticking with the Brand: Subtitle format for a decade, the Transformers series is throwing it to the side for this year’s Bumblebee, which surprisingly doesn’t have any Transformers branding in the title.

The funny thing is, this isn’t even necessary for any other reason than name recognition among the audience. Using the same name at the beginning of the title made a certain amount of sense when movies needed to be arranged on the shelves of Blockbuster Video for easy discovery by someone on a Thursday night. Batman Returns could be right there next to Batman.

Now, though, it’s part of the story of the movie as a whole.

As long as Hollywood sees value in studios being brand overseers as opposed to incubators for original stories it’s likely this kind of thing will continue. The tactics may change but the need for the movies released to bear familiar, easily marketable branding in some manner will certainly remain.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.