Hollywood High On Installment Plan
Cliffhanger Franchises Give Hollywood Lessons On Serial Storytelling
by Bootie Cosgrove-Mather
(AP) A year has passed since Frodo and Sam continued their ominous trek to Mordor. It's been six months since Neo lay comatose alongside his nemesis. And three more months will pass before the vengeful Bride gets a chance to kill Bill.
Hollywood is in tease mode these days, breaking with the convention that each movie must have a clear beginning, middle and end. Film franchises like "Lord of the Rings," "The Matrix" and "Kill Bill" are dabbling in installment plans, taking their cue from a serial format that dates back to the ancient Greeks.
"Certainly, serialization of entertainment started with literature," said Keanu Reeves, who stars as Neo in "The Matrix" trilogy, which concludes with "The Matrix Revolutions," debuting Wednesday. "The continuation of stories like Oedipus (Sophocles' three-part theater trilogy). It's in the tradition, cycles and trilogies."
The Wachowski brothers shot parts two and three of "The Matrix" simultaneously, a moneysaving method that also allowed them to rush the movies into theaters just a few months apart rather than the typical two or three years.
Likewise, Peter Jackson filmed "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy at the same time, with the films hitting theaters just before Christmas three years running, the final part now six weeks away.
Quentin Tarantino shot "Kill Bill" as one long action tale, then broke it into two parts after he and distributor Miramax decided three hours was too long for a single martial-arts film. Part two debuts in February.
It's more coincidence than trend that these three projects surfaced around the same time. The stories are epics that needed more than a single movie's running time to do them justice, and the unresolved endings required the expediency of simultaneous shooting to get them in theaters quickly, before audiences lost interest.
If Hollywood takes away any lessons, it will be on the bottom line, not the lure of cliffhanger storytelling. Whether a franchise is intended as a serialized story or several self-contained films, studios may be enticed by the cost efficiency of shooting two or more movies in one swoop.
While studios can be stuck with money-losing sequels if the first chapter bombs, the strategy can pay off nicely when part one clicks. If "Kill Bill - Vol. 2" matches the performance of "Vol. 1," Miramax should wind up with a total domestic gross of about $150 million for the two films, a solid return on "Kill Bill's" $65 million budget.
"It depends on the project," said "Matrix" producer Joel Silver, who is developing a big-screen take on the "Wonder Woman" comic books. "Who knows? Maybe if I do `Wonder Woman,' maybe I'll do two at the same time. It all depends on the material."
In the 19th century, novels often were published in installments, and modern authors - notably Stephen King - have had occasional success with serialized fiction.
Television soap operas long have continued that tradition, and TV audiences have become accustomed to season-ending cliffhangers in many sitcoms and dramas.
Cliffhangers were old-hat in Hollywood's early days with such serialized short films as "The Perils of Pauline." It's been rare to apply that approach to full-length movie franchises, whose installments generally stand on their own, such as the "Indiana Jones" or "Jurassic Park" flicks.
The "Star Wars" sequel "The Empire Strikes Back" left loose ends hanging for "The Return of the Jedi" to resolve. The prequels "The Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones," while fairly self-contained in themselves, clearly are part of a broader trilogy that will conclude with George Lucas' final "Star Wars" movie in 2005.
Robert Zemeckis' two "Back to the Future" sequels were shot simultaneously and released a year apart, the second one ending with a "to be continued" cliffhanger.
Richard Lester filmed his adaptation of "The Three Musketeers" as one shoot, but the story was broken into two parts, 1974's "The Three Musketeers" and 1975's "The Four Musketeers."
"Which is exactly our situation," "Kill Bill's" Tarantino said. "It was one big Russian epic. And then they sliced it in half."
While rare in America, the practice of shooting movies simultaneously for release in multiple parts has been more common overseas, dating back to silent-film days.
In the 1920s, Fritz Lang filmed both his "Dr. Mabuse" chronicle and "Die Nibelungen," his adaptation of the epic German myth of Siegfried, in two parts.
Asian action sagas frequently have been told in two chapters released a few months or a year apart, including Toshiro Mifune's 1950s "Samurai" trilogy or such Hong Kong two-parters as Chow Yun-Fat's "Rich and Famous" and "Tragic Hero."
Like "Samurai," "The Lord of the Rings" had its roots in a grand literary epic. Early on, there had been discussion about compacting Tolkien's behemoth adventure into one or two movies.
To satisfy fans and do honor to the sprawling story, director Jackson got the go-ahead to divide it into a trilogy, the parts roughly coinciding to Tolkien's three installments, "The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King." Each movie runs three hours, with extended video versions adding half an hour or more to each.
"You couldn't have a 10-hour movie," said Viggo Mortensen, who stars as the human warrior Aragorn in "The Lord of the Rings" films. "I always looked at it as one story, three movies. I never understood the talk of this whole cliffhanger thing. I would say, people who knew the books wouldn't have said anything about that. They would view it as one story broken up into three pieces."