Why Sequels Fail

"The difference between you and me? I make this look good."

It happens so often it’s practically a cliche: great movie, not-so-great sequel. It’s not that sequels are necessarily awful (though they often are). It’s just that, for the most part, they fail to live up to the original. Men in Black II, Batman Returns, The Matrix Reloaded, the second Pirates of the Caribbean, The Karate Kid Part II, The Boondock Saints II, Kung Fu Panda 2. Sure, there are some exceptions, but nevertheless, this second-act fizzle is so common that audiences have come to expect it.

What gives?

Conventional wisdom says that sequels are just trying to cash in on the success of the first movie. People will go see them on name alone, so why bother to make a worthy successor? Certainly, the lengthy parade of second-rate sequels to Disney classics (Lion King 2, anyone?) lends credence to the idea.

But it’s more than just that. Even when the project’s given ample time, budget, and artistic love, the sequel effect still holds.

There’s something deeper going on here. Why do golfers blow past their competition on day one of a tournament, then falter on the second day? Why do bloggers write a killer post in twenty minutes, then struggle for hours to recapture the magic in a follow-up? Is it the pressure of living up to expectations, as sports announcers would have you believe?

The answer is far less dramatic. It’s a statistical anomaly called regression to the mean.

The idea is straightforward. In almost any performance – whether it’s golf, blogging, or directing a movie – two factors are at work. One is skill. The other is random chance or variation, the everyday fluctuation of circumstance and ability from one moment to the next. If a performance is especially amazing, generally it means you got both: skill and luck lined up. But in the encore attempt, only the skill remains. You’re unlikely to get lucky twice in a row.

Simple as that.

Statistics rule our lives, but our brains aren’t wired to think statistically. We like simple, interesting stories to explain the way things happen. But the truth is often far more mathematical.

What’s the worst sequel you can remember seeing?

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5 responses to “Why Sequels Fail

  1. I’m not so sure about the idea that luck is a part of it- I hold to the theory that nothing in the universe is truly random (With the exception of digital number and data generators, and other such digital anomalies). Everything is affected by diverse factors that, if you don’t know what they are, will seem random. And to be honest, I doubt that the human brain can process all of the those variables at once.
    For example, a dice roll is determined by the way that you hold the die, air resistance, height above surface, interference, etc.
    Back to my original topic. I think that the sequels are also just not as . . . inspired. By which I mean the writers didn’t have the mysterious force that i refer to as auras. When I’m really inspired for a story, my brain can draw upon an image that is usually a fairly good indicator for how I feel about the story, and the mood that the story should have. Sequels don’t have writers that have an aura for the new movie that’s new and fresh. Also, they don’t have as good character arcs, since you can’t just repeatedly give a character a totally new arc and expect it to work. That is why I think that sequels for movies usually fail. The original movie just wasn’t planned to be a series-it was intended to stand alone, and then the the second one falls flat because the characters are already happy.
    That said, there are exceptions. but since this is already a very long comment and I have to go eat dinner, I’ll just leave the comment as it is. What do you think?

    • You’ve brought up several points here, so I’ll answer them separately.

      RE: “nothing in the universe is truly random.” I guess it depends on your definition of “random.” To me, randomness means unpredictable variability. We could predict dice rolls if we could measure precisely enough and calculate physics fast enough, but we can’t, so they’re random to us. Randomness is relative to the observer. For our purposes here, all that matters is that there’s unpredictable variation – fluctuations in movie quality uncorrelated to the director’s skill – and these fluctuations are unlikely to hit a high note twice in a row, leading to the “regression to the mean” phenomenon.

      RE: “you can’t just repeatedly give a character a totally new arc and expect it to work.” This is partly related to what I’m saying, though. It’s hard to know in advance whether any given story will work with any given character. Getting it right once doesn’t necessarily improve your odds of getting it right the next time. I’m not saying it’s purely luck, of course, just that there’s an element of unpredictable variability.

      RE: “The original movie just wasn’t planned to be a series – it was intended to stand alone.” Yeah, I agree this can also be a factor. If you tie up all your loose ends the first time around, it’s tough to know where to go from there.

      Thanks for the comment, Alex!

      • Ah. I always treat random events in my life as not random relative to me, because then when a whole string of bad things occurs, you feel like the universe is out to get you. I have a different outlook on life and the universe in several ways, and I guess now I should add this one to the list. Of course, since there is no list, instead I might just scratch it into my wall. (Or not).

  2. I agree with Alex’s point that ‘the original movie just wasn’t planned to be a series-it was intended to stand alone’. Maybe most of the exceptions were already thought out to be a series? Anyway I have a long list of bad sequels but Dirty dancing 2, Speed 2 and Grease 2 probably top my list!

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