When it comes to entertainment, there is a continuum for audience appeal ranging from small niche groups through the mainstream. Now by mainstream I mean the kind of movie you could read an article about in an average magazine or newspaper, something with a key demographic containing most people. A niche market on the other hand is specific to one or a few types of people. Both have their pros and cons, and both slide either way. Most movies not accepted by the masses still have a small group of loyal fans, often referred to as a cult following. What I meant by sliding is sometimes a movie is made for a large group of people, but fails to capture the audience. By most standards this is a failure, but the odd person that enjoys the film falls into the niche of people to whom the film probably should have been targeted. The problem is that if the film makers don’t intend for it to make a lot in sales, they tend not to put the same money into the film. If these low budget films strike the right chord with a large enough audience, they can take off and move into the mainstream. It is these two scenarios which I will be talking about.
Milla Jovovich, zombies, mini-skirt, what more could you want?
First, there is a niche film that hits it big, and for this I am going to use the example of Resident Evil. As movies go, it was relatively low-budget, with the crew and family members making appearances to keep costs down. The producer even plays several zombies, each time with more hair shaved off. The movie did pretty well for itself and has spawned three released sequels and another on the way. As I have stated before, I believe that more movies existing is better than fewer movies so I don’t tend to complain about sequels diverging from the standards of the original. However, there are a lot of people who love to complain about that very trend. I feel that the trend is inherent to the progress from niche to mainstream, in that as the movies are created to appeal to a larger and larger audience, the tiny details which are enjoyed by the niches are washed away. I call this specific quality. It is the references to other films, the detailed back story or intricate descriptions of alien anatomy. These are the things that take too long to make. If very few people are going to understand something you have to put effort into, why bother. Going back to Resident Evil, the first film had an overall reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the laser hall is a reference to the opening scene of a great Canadian film from the 90′s, Cube. It is elements like these that are lost as movies get bigger and more expensive.
The other scenario is that of a movie targeted for the mainstream that fails to capture the audience and falls to niche markets. The movies that fall into this category overwhelmingly outnumber the sleeper hits. The result of this type of situation is often more dire for any possible franchise. With a loss at the box office, the money for a future installment is greatly reduced, but the passion for making another movie often is not. Thus a straight-to-DVD sequel is produced, skipping the big money game of theatrical releases and heading straight for the store shelves in hopes that people will buy the movie and some profit can be made. While these movies can have several sequels, generally they aren’t seen except by people specifically looking for them or finding them in a previously viewed section of a video store.
With some of the best quotes of the series as a whole, this puts the phrase ‘Sequels Suck’ to shame.
The trend toward decreasing quality in sequels may be thought to be a result of the films being sequels, but I tend to disagree. For this I present the Nightmare on Elm Street series. While the first film has something that was failed to be captured in later films – due to being directed by Wes Craven himself – one can argue that many of the sequels were better than prior films. In my opinion, the increase in quality was due to the growing mythology and film makers having fun with the films, and the drop off in the later films was due to the natural decline in a series after a period of time. It is this natural decline that causes producers to jump the shark in an attempt to bring back an audience.
The best consistent and lasting quality in a film series is usually seen when the film makers have a plan for multiple movies from the beginning. While it may suffer from a fast decline if the first film isn’t successful, in the case that the first film meets or exceeds expectations, the plan can keep the makers from watering down content to appease more people.
What’s creepier than little girls in wallpaper dresses?
I have talked a lot about the film makers and their influence on a movie’s trend toward the mainstream, but in most cases I would say the blame should fall on the studio. Often when making films, studio executives and producers interfere with the creative ability of actors, directors, and writers, altering the film as it is being made or during post-production. This causes the final product to not meet film maker expectations when it gets to the public. An example of this would be Dream House – which came out at the end of the summer – where upon seeing the final film, many of the actors felt that it was not the movie they thought they had made.
In closing, while the trend toward mainstream audiences can lead to more money and thus more sequels, there is also a decrease in the specific quality of these sequels. As a film series strays from its roots in search of a larger audience, that stretch can also cause the film quality as a whole to collapse under the weight of its own expectations. Although I only referred to movies, a similar trend can occur in television series, games, books, and many other types of media.