Hollywood sequels bite into a new crust
Last year, Domino's Pizza made headlines when it launched a campaign acknowledging that the pizza it had been making up to that point had been, well, pretty bad. "There comes a time when you know you've got to make a change," the company's president said in a television spot, as a customer Tweet about the pizza tasting like cardboard flashed across the screen. The badness, the executive promised, would go no further.
Domino's brand of mea culpa marketing (radical transparency, as Madison Avenue called it) impressed some pundits. It was rare for a company that big to so bluntly admit its shortcomings, let alone to try to use the admission in its favor. Of course, this sort of honesty didn't really cost Domino's much, because it wasn't trying to sell pizza made in the past. In fact, it was kind of brilliant: it simultaneously made the company appear candid while still touting a new product.
The Domino's campaign came to mind as Hollywood rolls out its big-budget sequels. The recurrence of summer cinema's most familiar names is supposed to provide a serving of comfort food. But in the case of some franchises' third and fourth installments, it's served to remind us how much we didn't like the second and third installments.
So studios and actors have made an admission. Yes, yes the last movie in our franchise wasn't that good, they've said. Sorry for not telling you that then. But this time we've gotten it right.
Leading the charge has been Shia LaBeouf, star of this weekend's "Transformers: Dark of the Moon." "We screwed up but we'll do better" has practically been a mantra for the young actor as he makes his publicity rounds. "The second movie we were making on the fly and it was too convoluted," LaBeouf told my colleague Rebeeca Keegan, one of several interviews he gave to this effect. "This movie's very different ... more story line, clearer thought."
Similar spin came, albeit privately, from producers and executives close to "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" and "X-Men: First Class," both fourquels whose third installments were seen by many as the cinematic equivalent of cardboard pizza. The previous films did get over-freighted and confusing, they said, but now we've gone back to the franchise's roots.
Critics and average filmgoers seem to be picking up the mantle too, noting almost reflexively when describing a new sequel it may not exactly be an Oscar winner, but at least it's better than the previous film.
The obvious problem with all this, of course, is that it sets the bar kind of low. But it also presents a more subtle issue, one that speaks to how and when studios decide crank out another installment in the first place. Years ago when fan word of mouth went sour on a sequel, that could well stop a franchise in its tracks. (That was often true even when the film took in more money than its predecessor -- e.g., "Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade" in 1989). But in the era of the never-ending sequel, a badly received follow-up isn't a franchiser-killer -- it's just another step on a path to redemption.
The honesty tack worked for Domino's. The company saw sales climb by double digits after it went candid. But the formula may not be easily replicated. The bad taste from the second "Transformers" looks like it could affect "Dark of the Moon," which is on pace to make considerably less over its first six days of release. It may not be long before there's a mea culpa for the new film -- just as soon as the fourth "Transformers" begins rolling out.
Photo: A scene from "Transformers: Dark of the Moon." Credit: Paramount Pictures / Associated Press