It has felt like a pretty slow year at the box office, but that has changed over the last several weeks. Fast Five and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides have both made huge amounts of money, but this weekend a box office record was broken. To be fair, we are not talking about a record as noteworthy as The Dark Knight’s highest ever opening, or Avatar’s highest grossing movie of all time.
For the team behind The Hangover 2, however, it will be a good feeling.
With a Friday to Sunday total of $86m, The Hangover has broken the record for highest grossing opening for an R-rated comedy. More than that, it also beat the highest grossing opening weekend for a live-action comedy, and has the second highest opening for any R-rated movie, behind The Matrix: Reloaded. This is clearly a huge achievement, and everyone involved will be hoping it can go on to break the record of the first Hangover movie, which two years ago became the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time.
So why would we have needed a cure for The Hangover? Reading through these facts, something struck me. The previous highest opening for an R-rated comedy was held by Sex and the City 2. Let’s see, SATC2, The Matrix Reloaded, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides? It is not a cure for The Hangover we need, it is a cure for inferior sequels.
In theory, a sequel should naturally improve on its predecessor. With a first film, valuable time is required to introduce characters, set-up their backgrounds and motivations. In a follow-up we already know, and hopefully like these characters. Without the need to win our sympathy or empathy, the characters should have more time and freedom to grow, to live, to develop. Also, thanks to the wealth of criticism now aimed at all movies, the screenwriters and directors should have a clear idea of what worked in the first film, and what didn’t, using this information to craft, ideally, the perfect movie.
Unfortunately, as we all know, sequels nowadays tend to be financially motivated, and not necessarily put together to capitalise on a great idea that has been fully developed. The Hangover Part Two comes two years after the first movie. Considering that bringing a movie project together from development to screen takes, usually, at least a year, it is clear that the latest film was a cash grab, brought to theatres as soon as possible before interest in the property was allowed to die down.
It can be argued, though, that the new Hangover film was an attempt to give audiences exactly what they wanted. The first one took everyone by surprise. No-one expected great things from it, much of its eventual audience had never heard of it when it was released. Great word of mouth for this unique and original comedy gave its box office performance long legs, and the money continued to roll in long after its opening weekend.
The problem seems to be that The Hangover Part 2 has followed the formula of the original too closely. Where the first film felt fresh and original, by all accounts the second is a lazy retread, the same characters doing much the same things, with very similar jokes. The budget has increased thanks to the first films success, allowing bigger action set pieces, but giving a film bigger, louder, more extreme treatment is not always the answer.
It is hard to see, of course, what really could have been done differently. The audience went in expecting more of the same, it was pretty clear from the trailers that this was what was on offer. So in this case, what is the solution? If a particular film is not really begging of a sequel, what is a studio to do? The obvious answer is to leave it alone. Some films are meant as a one-off piece of art, and maybe should just be left as that. We cannot expect a studio to take this view. The movie industry is just that. an industry. Filmmaking is a business, and that business is making money, as well as entertaining people. If there were no big tentpole films like The Hangover Part Two, Pirates of the Caribbean or The Matrix: Reloaded to bring the studios massive profits, they would not be in a position to take a gamble on more considered, critically acclaimed works that, as sad as it is, very often make a loss.
I’m interested to see what The Hangover’s drop-off is like next weekend. The film was obviously critic-proof, but where the first film’s financial power gathered steam thanks to great word of mouth, will the poor reaction to this new film put people off of going to see it? X-Men: First Class is enjoying a great critical reception, and is aimed at a similar demographic. It has the potential to make a lot of money, and with the underperforming Kung Fu Panda 2 looking to make amends this coming weekend, it is possible that The Hangover will take a big tumble.
The reasons for sequels like The Hangover Part Two are clear, and they are absolutely necessary for the industry wheels to keep on turning. Without them, we may never have got the first Hangover, which with a $35m budget and then-unknown cast would have been considered a financial risk itself. I just wish more time was put into these movies, waiting for genuine inspiration to hit rather than rushing them through to a hastily enforced schedule. More than anything, the first Hangover showed that if a film has real appeal, it will find an audience, whether that audience recognises the franchise or not.
Bazmann – You can follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/baz_mann