The summer movie season officially got under way over Memorial Day weekend, but it might as well be called the sequel season.
This year, Box Office Mojo calculated that a record 27 sequels and, their close relative, prequels, will be released mainly between May and September. There's everything from "The Hangover Part II," which opened this past weekend, to the eighth and final installment of the "Harry Potter" series, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two" -- itself a sequel.
While there are plenty of second and third sequels, such as "Cars 2," "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" and "Madea's Big Happy Family," this year has the highest number of fourth sequels ever. They include "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol," "Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides."
Has Hollywood run out of new ideas or is the public simply clamoring for more of the familiar favorites?
"Sequels are a comfort to Hollywood, particularly studio executives who don't like to take many risks," Paul Dergarabedian, Hollywood.com's box office president said. "They have a built-in fan base, and characters who resonate with the audience. Audiences buy into them as well."
Just look at the numbers for "Hangover II" -- an estimated $105.8 million over Memorial Day weekend.
Numbers aside, film critic Roger Ebert lamented about the current climate in Hollywood in a recent issue of Newsweek. "Nothing is harder to get financed than an original idea, or easier than a retread," he wrote.
"What's lacking in Hollywood is leadership," Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo, said. "Hollywood is not in the business of trendsetting but chasing trends."
Dergarabedian agreed that some sequels show a lack of originality. "But," he said, "I think it's a jab if it's well-written, well done. Sequels are easy targets. Sometimes they can be good movies."
Dergarabedian would argue that the later "Harry Potter" films are better than the earlier ones. And sometimes the reboot of a franchise -- think Christopher Nolan's "Batman" films -- can reinvent a series and easily stand on its own.
Gray said too that certain stories lend themselves to sequels, and he was in no way bashing continuing storylines -- that's what a television series is, after all.
"But," he said, "that's not quite what's going on here for the most part. These sequels are not springing up organically from stories. They are springing up because the last one did well enough to justify it."
Dergarabedian didn't deny that there was a cynical aspect to creating movie franchises. "Nobody is going to make a sequel to a bomb," he said. "It's ultimately fiscally or revenue-based."
But with less risk comes less potential reward, Gray said. He said just about every "Harry Potter" sequel has grossed close to $300 million, and he expected the final installment to do the same. "Sequels are just less risky, but they're not always slam-dunks," Gray said.
If there's any doubt about Hollywood's obsession with number crunching, just listen to what Will Ferrell had to say about Paramount's decision not to do an "Anchorman" sequel.
"You'd have to really assert some kind of email hate campaign to Paramount Pictures, because they've told us, quote unquote, 'We've run the numbers and it's not a good fit,'" Ferrell told an audience of journalists last month while promoting "Everything Must Go."
The problem with relying on movies that already have a built-in audience is that it leaves out another part of the audience, namely older adults, who are less interested in special effects than a good story.
"The tragedy is the public wants to be told a great story," Gray said. "Give them a great story, and they will show up. It's the storytelling that captures people's imaginations."
But if you're looking for a great story that's not part of a sequel this summer, you might as well stay home and order up Netflix, because, as Dergarabedian pointed out, "you're not given much choice."
Summers and sequels now go hand-in-hand. Already slated for next summer are the third installments of "Men in Black" and "Madagascar," along with the "Superman" and "Spider-man" reboots.
"The sequel is alive and well in Hollywood and always will be," Dergarabedian said.