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Filming is more costly the second time around

(ran GB edition)

Hollywood loves to make sequels to its greatest movie successes, but these films aren't unmixed cinematic blessings. The desire to outdo the original can make a sequel an unexpectedly costly proposition.

Coming soon _ Men In Black 2, Jurassic Park 3, Indiana Jones 4, Godfather 4, Superman 5 and Rocky 6.

Maybe.

Don't hold your breath. The climate for sequels has become chilly even though this summer's versions of Star Wars and Austin Powers have proven beyond a doubt that sequels and prequels work just fine. Collectively, Star Wars: Episode 1 _ The Phantom Menace and The Spy Who Shagged Me have generated $600-million in box office revenue.

Despite those successes, Hollywood's appetite for sequels has diminished considerably. The high-water mark came in 1990, when 27 were released; this year, the number will be nine if Phantom Menace is counted.

"It may be the studios have run through most of the properties that they can do," said Dan Marks, a movie industry analyst with box office tracker ACNielsen EDI. "That's a pretty dramatic drop in nine years."

The trend will continue next year with only six sequels expected, all of the second-time-around genre: Jumanji 2, Rugrats 2, Blair Witch 2, Mission: Impossible 2, Viva Rock Vegas: Flintstones 2, The Klumps: The Nutty Professor 2.

A few more are in the pipeline in the years to follow, including The Mummy 2, The Matrix 2 and 3, Blade 2 and Rush Hour 2, along with Star Wars Episode 2: Rise of the Empire. Jurassic Park 3 may have gotten a jump-start for 2001 with last week's announcement that Universal and Steven Spielberg had agreed to hire a director and writer.

It's not that Hollywood doesn't want sequels. Any successful new movie carries with it the hope it can be turned into a franchise, perhaps even like Star Wars or the James Bond series, which will see its 19th version in November with The World Is Not Enough.

But the increased pressure from studio parents to ensure profitability may be taking its toll, first and foremost, because sequels cost more _ sometimes a lot more _ than the original.

"Typically, the success of the sequel depends on getting the original talent, so those costs may be significantly higher," said Richard Ingrassia, an analyst with Paul Kagan Associates. "The costs of your special effects also go up because everyone expects them to be next generation, so those are big considerations. That's why something like Superman 5 may not ever get off the ground."

The trend away from sequels has seen Disney take two of its most valuable franchises _ The Lion King and Aladdin _ out of the future movie pipeline and hedge its bets instead with direct-to-video follow-ups.

And it's not that moviegoers are necessarily tired of sequels, Marks noted. "I don't think the audience is more demanding," he said. "It's just that with a sequel, there's a more direct comparison than with other movies. It's really a double-edged sword _ you can get them into the auditoriums on the opening weekend, but you have to live up to the promise."

The ongoing popularity of James Bond and Star Wars shows that cultural icons can exist almost indefinitely. Making the stakes even more lucrative is a growing foreign audience that has a hunger for recognizable Hollywood properties.

"With the global audience for movies, it's mind-boggling how much potential there is for a movie to gross over $1-billion if it's a truly familiar property," said Steve Cesinger, managing director at Greif & Co.

Even with that lure, landmark properties have become exceedingly difficult to sequelize in the current climate.

For example, the prospect of another Indiana Jones movie has been the source of speculation over the last decade, which heated up last year when Steven Spielberg told reporters, "The Indiana Jones 4 hat is halfway on my head. I have the plot worked out."

But there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. Salaries for the top stars have moved into the $20-million to $25-million per movie range and Indiana Jones' Harrison Ford would no doubt command a top-end salary. In addition, the many recent high-priced sequels _ including Babe: Pig in the City, Blues Brothers 2000, Species 2, Speed 2, Alien Resurrection and Mortal Kombat Annihilation _ have performed badly, despite major stars attached to almost each project.

"I would say that bringing back Indiana Jones would take a lot of creative financing by Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg and Paramount," Cesinger said.

Sequels aren't going away, however, and it appears that the ones that are fast-tracked are properties which were low in cost to begin with, such as Miramax's Scream franchise, which will see its third version open in December, a mere two years after the original.

Even more telling is Artisan Entertainment's decision to commit to making a follow-up to The Blair Witch Project even though it will obviously have to spend more than the $35,000 it took to film the first movie.

"We are going to be starting discussions about doing The Blair Witch Project 2," declared Amir Malin, president of Artisan Entertainment. "The movie has turned into a cultural phenomenon and it sets up not only the things like the comic book and merchandising but also a future franchise."

Rumors emerged last week that writer-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez have outlined at least four potential story lines, including one that would explore the 200-year-old legend and another that would search for the characters from the original.

Paramount's Nickelodeon affiliate has already started production on a sequel to its surprisingly successful Rugrats, which cost a mere $25-million and opened in a prime slot five days before Thanksgiving. "We had decided to make another film by Thanksgiving," said Albie Hecht, president of Nickelodeon Films and executive producer.

Hecht admits that multiple Rugrats sequels are a possibility.

"We never thought of the characters in terms of sequels but more as new adventures, just like the TV series," he said. "We all had confidence that the Rugrats would be the animated icons of the 21st century with plenty more stories to tell. People love these characters, so when you can put them in different stories, they become fresh again."

And this spring's surprise success, The Mummy, looks to be on a fast track for a follow-up with the same cast. Writer-director Stephen Sommers said he plans to return to Morocco next summer for filming, adding, "I've given everyone on the cast a heads-up about it."

The story will again be set in the 1920s in Egypt with even more impressive special effects, Sommers promised.

"A lot of the new story came together while we were sitting around the campfire during production telling ghost stories," he said. "I've watched loads of sequels and tried to learn from the ones that worked, from Godfather 2 to Home Alone 2. It's not a strict science but some of the bad ones were hurt by changing the feel of the movie too radically."

Ingrassia agreed that sequels won't go away.

"Sequels are a way for studios with big libraries to leverage their assets fully because they can put out movies that are known quantities to the public," he said. "That's important because it's almost impossible to fully predict the public's taste at a particular time. So if you can keep the budget down, sequels are lower risk than unknown properties."

Ingrassia noted sequels will also continue to be attractive because of the growing importance of foreign markets, which now generate over 60 percent of the worldwide box office.

"In an uncertain economic climate overseas, the only films that can be pre-sold to foreign territories are your most recognizable properties," he added.

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