The Changing Calculus of How Hollywood Makes Sequels

Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Upon its 2002 release, the raunch comedy Super Troopers didn’t exactly set the world on fire, either critically or commercially. Written by and starring the sketch comedy team Broken Lizard (Jay Chandrasekhar, Steve Lemme, Kevin Heffernan, Erik Stolhanske and Paul Soter), the $1.2 million indie arrived with no bankable actors, required repeated viewings to catch many of its absurdist jokes (“See if they’ve got any chocolate bananas … Foster?”; “Afghanistanimation”), and generally confused reviewers with its crude but deadpan tone. Plotted around a crew of prank-loving, syrup-chugging Vermont highway patrolmen, Troopers was defiantly weird — propelled not so much by a plot as pole vaulting from profane comedic vignette to profane comedic vignette.

Fox Searchlight bought the movie’s distribution rights at the Sundance Film Festival for $3.5 million and spent an additional $10 million on prints and advertising. So when Super Troopers grossed an unremarkable $18.5 million, studio executives basically shrugged and moved on — even while Broken Lizard continued to harbor dreams of a second film for years afterward.

Over the years, the movie found its core dude-bro audience on DVD through repeated viewings and word of mouth, evolving into a widely quoted, much beloved cult classic. In 2015, the comedy troupe launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to raise production funds for Super Troopers 2, taking in a startling $4.4 million from 500,000 subscribers over 30 days. And now, 16 years after its initial installment, that film arrives on multiplex screens April 20.

Once upon a time — specifically, from the dawn of the “talkie” in the 1920s until just a few years ago — Hollywood’s calculus regarding how sequels got made was simple. A movie came out, did big business, won over fans, and the captains of industry in the studio C-suite called out for another one: the same again, only different. These days, however, the forces dictating which films get sequelized and which don’t has become a much weirder science: Confounding almost all received wisdom about how this stuff is supposed to work, a number of films that failed to achieve blockbuster status — and some that lost significant money — have still managed to pave the way for the theatrical release of a part deux this year, Super Troopers chief among them.

“The truth of the matter is, the studio wouldn’t give us the money to make the movie and they owned it so we couldn’t make it with anybody else. And we couldn’t find investors,” Steve Lemme explained at a Super Troopers 2 post-screening Q&A in Austin, Texas, last month. “The feeling out there was, ‘Hey, there are no fans out there anymore. It’s been a while since the movie was made.’ There’s a two-fold thing: not only did we get the money to start making the movie, but also there was four-and-a-half, $5 million raised in that month. That also showed the studio the fans were still out there.”

To hear it from Erik Davis, managing editor at Fandango, fan interaction on social media has become a crucial metric of audience engagement that studios increasingly take into account when green-lighting sequels — especially for movies with cultishly devoted followings like Super Troopers. “With the rise of social media, we’re starting to see people taking another look at cult-movie hits,” Davis says. “They live on in dorm rooms. They live on on cable. Then the people go to social media and ask, ‘Why isn’t there another one of these?’ It’s not only affecting Super Troopers 2. We got Dumb and Dumber To 20 years after the first one, another Anchorman nine years after the first. We also got another Zoolander 15 years later. And Wet Hot American Summer on Netflix. They’re all cult hits. Like Super Troopers, they have dorky, likable characters; dorky, memorable lines that people are constantly saying to each other. So what happens is, you take that kind of love of that property to social media where you can find a lot of other like-minded people to make enough noise and write enough petitions, to warrant [studio executives] looking back and saying, ‘Maybe we should do this.’”

Above and beyond crowdfunding and grassroots fan campaigns to resuscitate forgotten films into incipient franchises, however, another force far away from Hollywood is even more influential in getting sequels green-lit. In a word: China. Over the last half-decade, the burgeoning superpower has more and more frequently come to bail out Hollywood’s box-office bombs – and is on track to overtake the U.S. as the most important movie territory.

To wit: In 2013, Guillermo del Toro’s $190 million sci-fi thriller Pacific Rim arrived on multiplex screens and flopped domestically, grossing a disappointing $101.8 million in North America — a financial black eye for its distributor Warner Bros. But around the world, the giant-robots-versus rampaging-monsters movie proved to be a box-office draw — nowhere more than in the Middle Kingdom where Pacific Rim grossed a robust $111.9 million. That over-performance was enough to launch a franchise, despite the first film’s lackluster American drawing power. And last month, a second installment, Pacific Rim Uprising (featuring an almost all-new cast and not directed by del Toro) hit theaters, pulling in a strong $98.3 million in China.

Likewise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s 2015 Ant-Man — featuring Paul Rudd as an unlikely superhero with a super suit that can shrink him to the size of an insect — was made on a reported production budget of $130 million but only grossed $180 million domestically (to become a significant money loser for its studio distributor Disney when you factor in the film’s nine-figure prints and advertising budget). The thriller earned an additional $339 million internationally, though, with an impressive $105.3 million coming from China. And in July, the sequel Ant-Man and the Wasp will attempt to recapture that audience.

Scott Einbinder is president of Cristal Pictures, a Los Angeles production company backed by Beijing-based East Light Media that co-finances and produces predominantly English-language TV projects and feature films such as The Hitman’s Bodyguard for the Chinese market. According to him, no foreign territory has ever exerted so much influence on how Hollywood sequelizes movies. “The market potential in China is so strong, the potential monetization is so huge, I don’t think there’s ever been a marketplace outside the U.S. like that,” Einbinder says. “If you look at the territories, Germany, Latin America as a whole, they don’t add up to nearly what the potential is in China. Look at XXX: Return of Xander Cage. The last one did very little business in the U.S. It probably wasn’t worth releasing theatrically here. But it over-performed in China; the casting appealed to the Chinese. I understand there’s a new one being prepped with a Chinese partner. The China component of any finance plan is increasingly taking a bigger and bigger and stronger point of view.”

Viewed a certain way, the new sequel calculus represents a growing recognition by Hollywood that the movie market continues to fracture into unique, perhaps smaller but nonetheless dedicated constituencies for specific films. And while mass appeal and blockbuster building remain the industry’s guiding lights, executives are realizing that giving failed films a second lease on life through sequelization can ultimately help the bottom line.

“It allowed the movie to be put together the way we put together the first one,” Broken Lizard’s Paul Soter said of the crowdfunding effort for Super Troopers 2. “The first one was just us trying to make each other laugh and do what we thought was funny. So it’s nice to be able to do the second one without any studio imperative to do this or that.”

The Changing Calculus of How Hollywood Makes Sequels