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anatomy of a franchise

Two Writers Watch All Seven American Pies for a Case Study in Sequelitis

It's yet another summer of sequels, with the usual batch of titles with 2s, 3s, and 4s, but Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is the top recidivist: Movie No. 8! This landmark run is impressive by big-budget standards, but not so much when you look at it strictly numerically: That's only one more entry than the Police Academy franchise had. And Netflix is stocked with series that have outlasted Potter, like Friday the 13th (ten films and a reboot) and Air Buds (eleven movies, including six Air Buddies spinoffs), all cheaper regurgitations of an original cheap hit. While some of these series manage to get wide theater releases throughout their runs, most devolve into the straight-to-video world, where some loyal viewers keep watching while most have no idea they're still regenerating. What happens to these once-hit franchises as they quietly and inexpensively plod their way to double digits? To find out, we immersed two writers into one of them: The once-proud American Pie franchise. We asked two writers, Gillian Flynn and Brian Raftery, to watch of all seven films — from the 1999 box-office smash all the way through 2009's American Pie Presents: The Book of Love. Over the next three days, they will discuss what happens to a franchise as it is slowly and torturously wrung to death, but also examine just how different these low-budget retreads are from the higher-profile follow-ups that barnstorm the cineplexes every summer. Is American Wedding tomorrow's Hangover Part III? Today: Our subjects writers screen the original and the 2001 sequel, American Pie 2.

Brian Raftery: Considering the original American Pie's $101 million box-office take, it's easy to see why Universal saw it as a potential franchise fertilizer: Here was a movie that not only examined one of the country's oft-seen but rarely addressed social injustices — namely, that affluent white kids often need weeks, sometimes even months, to properly boink one another — but one that did so on a near-zilch budget and with a bunch of no-name cast members who could be easily short-conned into a sequel.

Gillian Flynn: Right, Pie wasn't trying for the clever high-school satire of, say, a Heathers — it was aiming right for our national Porky's sweet spot. (Ew.) Meaning: This is a gross-out comedy about a group of horndogs trying to git sum, and you will see some boobs! Even their taglines used similar double entendres (Porky's: “You'll be glad you came”; American Pie: “There's something about your first piece.”) The thing about this breed of teen sex comedies is they both degrade and sentimentalize the quest for sex. On the one hand — according to Pie's rules — a guy's hormones will lead him to shocking behavior: drinking beer-jaculate, fucking pastry, violating the privacy rights of large-breasted Eastern-European girls. On the other hand: These are the best days of our lives! Let's do it again (and again and again).

BR: And Universal's always on the lookout for a milkable franchise: Witness the studio's Land Before Time series, which has racked up an astonishing twelve sequels (despite the fact that most pterodactyls only consider the first entries as "canon"). The problem, though, is that Pie isn't exactly the kind of movie that calls for a second act; it's not like these kids can get any laider. Which is why the producers of American Pie 2 (working title: Pie Hard-Her) decided to go the route of so many other comedy sequels, from The Spy Who Shagged Me to Police Academy 2: Back In Training. Which is to say, they remade the first all over again.

GF: And, unfortunately, they do get relaid (I was kinda rooting against them). But that’s not the only callback, and in fact, by the end of AP1 you can already pick out the gimmicks that are going to be replicated: Eugene Levy will catch his son, Jim (Jason Biggs), doing something sexually embarrassing; the phrase "one time at band camp" will be deployed; a sexual encounter will be accidentally broadcast to a larger crowd than intended. Future Oscar nominee Casey Affleck will show up for about 30 seconds to have an inexplicable one-sided phone conversation.

BR: Exactly. It’s the original script, only chopped into a half-dozen or so movable, jizz-covered puzzle pieces.

GF: To be fair, though, broad comedy is about the hardest thing to sequel-ize: The characters are deliberately stereotypes (nerdy hero, sweet-dumb jock, asshole jock, teen sophisticate, um, that other guy), so there's not a lot of room for character development. Instead, you have to return to the same jokes but make them bigger or better or grosser or the same but not exactly the same. Stifler almost drinks come ... then drinks come, leads to: Stifler almost gets peed on ... then gets peed on. In fact, here are my exact viewing notes for American Pie 2: "Levy sex walk in, Stifler pee in mouth, lesbian sexy time, super glue penis, monkey."

BR: Speaking of the crass, cruel, and clearly closeted Stifler: He was a relatively minor part of AP1’s ensemble, but on AP2, the producers are clearly straining to shoehorn this horndog into the movie’s summer-house plot; there’s no reason why the rest of these kids would still hang out with this psychopathic ding-a-ling (nor his younger brother, who also shows up for no reason — perhaps as a Trojan(TM)-horse cameo so he can take over for future sequels?). The only way to justify Stifler's beefed-up screen time is that the AP1 fans love him. He’s almost like the series’ Boba Fett — a one-note, barely human supporting character whose rabid following all but demanded he get more screen time. Alas, unlike Boba Fett, Stifler has yet to be devoured by a large, vaginalike sand creature. Then again, we’re only two movies in at this point.

But I don’t want to be too harsh on AP2: After all, like all first sequels, it was simply trying to throw an extra Sterno under a pop-culture fireball that could have gone out at any moment and play to (admittedly low) audience expectations. I mean, no one watches Jaws 2 and thinks, The shark was great — but would it have killed them to include a smidge more scenes about maritime law?

GF: Nor did anyone complain about the excessive amount of electric boogaloo in Breakin' 2. Fine. You know what the franchise needs, after a summer at the lake culminating in a wild party? An American Wedding. I tell you what, Universal really knows how to move this franchise along: high school, then college, then a post-graduation wedding. Can't wait for American Pie 7: We're All Dead.

The series continues:
Part 2: Let the Straight-to-Videos Begin
Part 3: Our Writers Face the End, and a Lot of Bodily Fluids

Gillian Flynn is the author of Dark Places and Sharp Objects, and former TV critic for Entertainment Weekly. Brian Raftery is a Vulture contributor and author of Don't Stop Believin': How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life.

This post has been slightly edited since its original post.