Sony Pictures isn't quite ready to swear off "Charlie's Angels 3." Nor has Universal Pictures definitely decided to abandon its car chase series "The Fast and the Furious."
But corporate Hollywood, stung by a run of huge budgets and softer-than-hoped-for showings in its peak summer season, has begun a palpable shift in attitude regarding yesterday's sure thing: the sequel.
One telltale sign of the mood swing was a radio spot that 20th Century Fox used to promote the debut of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" this weekend. Quoting a reviewer, the ad trumpets: "In a summer of sequels, finally a ride worth taking."
Fox isn't alone in sensing that the audience is changing gears. With near unanimity, top-level executives and filmmakers queried in the last week describe an industry that is suddenly less confident in the automatic success of its so-called franchises -- highly visible pictures that invite rapid-fire follow-ups.
No studio appears to be pulling the plug on major projects in the works, or to have articulated a radical shift in strategy based on what has so far shaped up as a disappointing summer. But the tightly wired film community, in a moment of rare introspection, is clearly searching for new ways to shore up a device that became its favorite moneymaker in the last few years.
"If there was any hubris or arrogance to the industry's approach, it's that we got accustomed to believing 'build it and they'll come,' " said Marc Shmuger, vice chairman of Universal Pictures. "What we've seen this summer is that movie audiences are declaring their independence of thought."
The most troubling performance to date has been that of Sony's "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle." The picture, which cost $144 million to produce and tens of millions more to market, opened to just $37.6 million in ticket sales its first weekend, then rapidly fell off in the face of torrid competition.
Sony executives say the film's strong foreign ticket sales are far outpacing its U.S. box-office receipts, and total revenue may well exceed that of the original. Those results might even justify another "Angels" installment. "It's too early to tell. I'm watching closely and hoping it will make sense," said Amy Pascal, chairman of Sony's Columbia Pictures unit.
But Pascal agrees with her peers that the audience is talking. "You can't rely on formula," she said. "You have to look at what's working and what's working is stuff that's fresh."
Hollywood's current case of nerves grew over the Fourth of July holiday with the big -- but perhaps not big enough -- opening of the hugely expensive "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines." The independently financed action saga, which cost about $175 million to make and more than $50 million to market, has taken in about $110.5 million since its release by Warner Bros. on July 2. This weekend, however, ticket sales dropped more than 55%, meaning the climb toward profitability for the picture's various financiers will be tougher than hoped for.
Other softer-than-expected sequel performers include New Line Cinema's "Dumb and Dumberer," Paramount Pictures' "Rugrats Go Wild," MGM's "Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde" and Universal's "2 Fast 2 Furious," which opened to an impressive $50.5 million in ticket sales, but fell off precipitously.
The economics of those pictures vary widely and all may ultimately turn out to be moneymakers. "Legally Blonde," for instance, had a relatively modest budget for a star vehicle. "It's going to be very profitable," MGM Vice Chairman Chris McGurk said. But all the pictures have shown a worrisome degree of financial strain.
Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising, given the unusually high number of sequels that hit the marketplace at once. According to a tally by Exhibitor Relations, this year will see the release of 23 sequels, a contemporary record, up from 19 last year and just nine the year before.
That count is likely to drop to as few as 15 next year -- a sign that Hollywood's bout of "sequelitis" actually began to ease months ago, when production decisions for 2004 films already were being put into motion.
Any notion that studios will back completely away from serial films, with their tempting guarantee of instant identity, runs counter to history. "Beware of Blondie," released by Columbia 53 years ago, was, after all, the 28th picture in a series that far outlasted the likely span of contemporary blockbuster franchises such as Lucasfilms' Fox-released "Star Wars" cycle or Warner's "Harry Potter" series.
Hollywood became sequel-crazed in recent years after the old rule of thumb -- that follow-ups usually do 60% of the original's business -- flew out the window with such hits as "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," "The Mummy Returns" and "Rush Hour 2." And, the success of the "Star Wars," "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Ring" series have made the franchise business that much more alluring.