Film: Serial Murders

Several film franchises were laid to rest last year while a few live on (and on and on)

Woodrow J. Hinton

A reunion of retreads: Characters from The Lord of the Rings, Matrix and Terminator 3 discuss their big-screen fates in 2003.

Neo is dead. The hobbits are frolicking for eternity in the Shire. Arnold the Terminator will not be back. The year 2003 will be carved on numerous cinematic gravestones. Characters from The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings and Terminator 3, respectively, and some other very notable serial movie franchises — those whose entire story was told over the course of several films — have come to the end of their tales. Other franchises, many of which were expected to churn out sequel after sequel with no end in sight, also have passed on.

Nothing brings out movie geeks like fantasy or sci-fi serials. Last year saw the return of and conclusion to two of the biggest film-geek draws in cinema history, The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings. While both series shared unique production schedules and release strategies, their finales, in terms of critical and commercial success, were worlds apart.

The Wachowski brothers always intended their surprise 1999 hit The Matrix, a watershed film for special effects, to be the first chapter in a three-part saga.

With a fat budget, relatively untested co-directors and a not-yet-infallible Keanu Reeves, Warner Bros. decided to take a wait-and-see approach to green-lighting the sequels.

It was a conservative and costly decision. More than $170 million in box-office receipts later, The Matrix was a smash hit and everyone involved was going to require a fat raise. Worse still for the financiers, the film raised the special effects bar so high it would take an estimated $220 million to create sequels that would exceed the first film's lofty expectations — something that never did occur.

Expectations became The Matrix's worst enemy. In an unprecedented move, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions were released last May and November. While there's no disputing both films' box-office success, the critical consensus is that the final two chapters did not live up to their predecessor.

Over on J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy land, Middle Earth (or at least its New Zealand facsimile), director Peter Jackson and his crew watch as the final third of the Rings series, The Return of the King, continues to draw large audiences after its Dec. 17 opening. New Line Films bankrolled the trilogy's production all at once but chose to open the three films in true serial style — one per year in consecutive Decembers. Fans of Tolkien's books were given their fix slowly, and the wait between films created exactly the buzz New Line wanted.

The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings series were supposed to finish. Their fans knew that. Other ongoing series died prematurely — nastily — in the hard-knock months of 2003.

The future looks bleak for Angelina Jolie's Tomb Raider, Reese Witherspoon's Legally Blonde comedies and Jackie Chan's Shanghai Noon period action films. All were box-office disappointments and critical duds.

The Hulk, expected to be a hit comic book franchise like its Marvel Comics cousins Spider-Man and X-Men, died before it opened, a victim of lukewarm responses to the computer-generated Hulk first shown in TV commercials months prior to the film's summertime release.

Want to dissect the unanticipated series finale? Simply don 20/20 hindsight goggles and look back at quotes made by the stars and filmmakers of two of 2003's bigger summer "tent-pole" pictures, those movies that studios plan their entire season around.

Speaking in Los Angeles in early April, director Bryan Singer and star Hugh Jackman were cautiously optimistic yet indecisive about whether the X-Men sequel X2: X-Men United (which opened May 2) would beget an X3. Jackman, in fact, laughed out loud at the question of whether he would do another X-Men movie. He said the series' fate would ultimately be decided after the first weekend's box-office grosses were tallied.

"I haven't been asked yet," he said. "If I'm asked, I'd find it hard to refuse. But they won't decide until May 4 or 5, I'd imagine."

Singer said he had no idea at that time if the X-Men universe would be continued, but he wasn't going to let that stand in the way of setting up storylines that rabid X-Men fans would eagerly anticipate in subsequent films. The nebulous, cliffhanger ending of X2 certainly lends itself to an X3. All Singer will say is that he was "as conscious about the plot of this movie and where it could go, as much as I was for the first one."

Translation: If he leaves the fans begging for more, there's a far greater chance the studio will keep the series alive for another go-round. After all, that strategy worked the first time.

Two short months later, the starlets and producers behind Charlie's Angels 2 gathered in Los Angeles to meet the press and discuss the health of that franchise. And as with X2, the question of a third film came up right out of the gate. This time, however, the talent seemed genuinely confident.

"It's funny," said star Lucy Liu. "That was our first question at the press conference for the first film. It's encouraging to know that people are excited and want to know about the third."

Producer Nancy Juvonen, also Drew Barrymore's business partner, said they always envisioned the film franchise of Charlie's Angels to play out like the television series of Charlie's Angels. The show just kept going, she said, season after season, replacing Angels as necessary.

"If (the original film) worked, I think we knew we could do it pretty easily," she said. "We just had to get through the first to see if it was a success before we got back on the horse."

For the record, X2 opened with a superheroic bang, grossing more than $85 million in its first weekend and almost $215 million during its theatrical run, eclipsing the success of its predecessor. Charlie's Angles: Full Throttle stalled right out of the gate, taking in just $100 million during its run, well below the original's numbers.

When studying the probability of a film series continuing, the box-office numbers always matter. Whether or not a film series has played out its intended full story, the fact remains that if part two made half of what the original grossed, part three doesn't stand a chance.

In Hollywood economics, that's the whole story — angels or no angels. ©

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