2001 was a good year for Hollywood. In November and December, two mammoth film franchises made their debut: the Harry Potter series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The films did exceedingly well at the box office, the former grossing $975 million and the latter, $870 million. A more modest but equally enduring franchise also got its start that year: The Fast and the Furious, a testosterone-fueled thriller starring up-and-coming talent including Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez. The Fast and the Furious was met with mixed reviews: one critic dubbed it “Rebel Without a Cause without a cause.” Another called it a "rubber-burning extravaganza” with “plot holes you could drive the proverbial truck through.” Critics be damned, audiences loved the film, and when the tire smoke cleared, studio executives saw big dollar signs burned into the pavement: the film that cost $38 million to make grossed over $207 million.
Universal Studios immediately set out to make a sequel and asked the whole cast back for another spin around the track. Though most of the stars opted in, Vin Diesel declined the invitation. Diesel later told the LA Times, “I'm not going to do a . . . rehash of the same film….the real reason why I didn't return to the characters is the scripts hadn't been right. The characters haven't been right.”
The 2001 trailer for The Fast and the Furious.
And yet, 12 years later, Diesel is back at the wheel. Whether he’s lowered his exacting standards or been persuaded to take his medicine with a spoonful of sugar (the man with the melon-sized biceps supposedly earned $15 million for 2011's Fast Five), anyone who's watched Diesel pilot a car through the nose of an exploding airplane in the series’ latest installment, Fast & Furious 6, knows that he'll be reprising his role as Dominic Toretto for the foreseeable future. The franchise's seventh installment starts shooting this fall, once again helmed by the man who named himself after car fuel.
While the sheer redundancy of the Fast and Furious films (mix equal part cars, guns, and money, spice to taste with explosions and repeat at will) may be one of the most egregious examples of a studio shamelessly ballooning a franchise for profit, it certainly isn’t unusual. Just take a look at some of the largest grossing films of the past few years: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey—all franchise films. In fact, the 26 highest grossing films of the 2000s were all installments of a franchise. And though it seems like a natural state of affairs, this wasn’t always the case. As recently as the '90s, over half of the top 10 grossing films were stand-alone pictures.
So, how did we get to this point of perpetual sequels? To find out, I reached out to two film professors, Dana Polan of NYU and Jon Lewis of Oregon State University.
Franchises, Professor Polan suggested in an e-mail correspondence, aren’t necessarily a brand new concept. The Andy Hardy franchise, starring Mickey Rooney, ran for over two decades (1937-1958) and produced 16 films. The Ma and Pa Kettle franchise ran for ten years (1947 -1957), produced just as many films, and was credited for saving Universal Studios.
But these films weren’t the mainstays of the industry. “B movies, like Frankenstein, would be sequelized, but it was largely seen as more typical of genre pictures,” Professor Lewis told me over the phone. Trilogies, the more mature siblings of franchises, existed, but in a more rudimentary sense: Ingmar Bergman released three films in the early '60s—Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence—that are considered an unofficial trilogy, since they all struggle with similar themes. Clint Eastwood and Sergeio Leone’s “Dollars” Trilogy, including A Fist Full of Dollars, For a Few More Dollars, and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, isn’t a trilogy in our contemporary sense of the word, but is widely regarded as such because of common actors and style.
“It wasn’t really until Godfather 2  came out—which was arguably as good, or better [than the original]—that you get the idea of taking a blockbuster and rolling it into a sequel,” said Prof. Lewis. Studios realized that audiences didn’t need a new concept or fresh cast of characters for each film. Instead, they could extend story lines over numerous films or append episodes, banking on so-called "pre-sold properties"--celebrities, or comic book franchises--that guaranteed ticket sales. In turn, the '70s and '80s gave birth to some of the classic trilogies of cinema including Star Wars, Back to the Future, and Indiana Jones, to name a few. There was, after all, a certain logic to the film trilogy. As Professor Polan puts it, “it is the three-act play, the idea of narrative structure (beginning, middle, end), the creation of a situation, developing it, and resolving it.” By offering a third installment, trilogies “avoid simple oppositions and create a basic complexity.”
The 1974 trailer for The Godfather Part II. "And an Oscar for the worst first minute for a trailer," writes one YouTube commentator, "although the next three minutes were quite good."
But for all its elegance, the trilogy left money on the table. So for the next twenty years, and up until the present day, Hollywood has been unshackling itself from the trilogy and bounding forth to quadrilogies, pentilogies and beyond in pursuit of what Prof. Polan referred to as Hollywood's "commercial imperative." In a 2012 piece for The Atlantic titled "Is the Film Trilogy Going Extinct?" Scott Meslow wrote, “We're swiftly approaching the final wrinkle of the franchization trend: the breakdown of the wall between trilogies and quadrilogies, and the idea of a broadly defined 'franchise.'" But who are we kidding? I think it's safe to say that we're already looking at that wrinkle through Dominic Toretto's rear view mirror.
In this new paradigm, Prof. Lewis told me with a sigh, “you keep making the franchise until people can’t bear it any more.” And you don’t have to look far for evidence: one of the most profitable franchises of all time, Ice Age, is now a quadrilogy, with a fifth film in the works; The Hobbit, the shortest in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings book series, is being split into three, three-hour films (you could easily read the book in less time than that); the Avengers series, which includes the Iron Man movies, is scheduled to span 12 films, though there's little reason they would stop there; and even indie favorite Richard Linklater has hinted that there could be a fourth film in the Before Sunrise series. In the next few years, the Star Wars franchise will be expanded into a nine-film heptaology—and Disney has suggested that along with releasing official episodes every two years, starting in 2015 there will be spin-off Star Wars films on offer every single summer.
“That’s what we have in store for us forever,” Prof. Lewis confided in me with an inflection of sorrow in his voice. "I don’t see a way out of this.”
It’s a sad, but likely accurate forecast: an endless horizon of sequels pumped out one after another ad nauseum until these franchises are driven into the ground. As for the Fast and the Furious films, at this point it’s not clear whether there will be an 8th, 9th, or 10th installment, but I for one hope not. There’s a little lesson I learned when I was a young driver: coming home late one night, I pulled a Kramer and tried to eek out the last few miles of my trip on an empty tank. And just like Kramer, I failed, and rolled to a precarious stop. When my dad came to pick me up, he shared a few wise words with me, words that Mr. Diesel and the Fast and Furious franchise would be wise to heed: it’s always better to pull over and stop the car than to run out of gas in the middle of the road.