Oops, They Did It Again

In the real world, familiarity breeds contempt. Not in Hollywood. It sells tickets. From now through August, the major studios will release no fewer than seven sequels. One studio, Universal Pictures, has three follow-ups on its summer slate: "The Mummy Returns," "Jurassic Park III" and "American Pie 2." "It may look like a failure of creativity to have three sequels in one summer," says Stacey Snider, Universal's chairman. "But only if they're not creative."

Once considered the most reliable box-office guarantee outside of Julia Roberts, sequels have now become one of the trickiest feats in show business. There's no guarantee they will fare as well as the first film--and they almost always cost more to make. It can take years to reassemble the creative team behind the original film, and it better be worth the wait. "Nothing kills a franchise quicker than turning out a bad sequel," says John Davis, who spent three years on this summer's "Doctor Dolittle 2." With sequels jamming the schedule--"Rush Hour 2" opens less than a month after "Scary Movie 2," which opens two weeks after "Dolittle 2"--Hollywood runs the risk that audiences could rebel and go see something that smells a little fresher.

So why are the studios so fixated on part deux? In an age when movies often have only a few days to prove themselves, sequels have a key edge: audience awareness. "The industry is more marketing-driven, and you know sequels will get to the audience--it's built-in," says "Mummy Returns" producer Jim Jacks. The ad blitz for "Scary Movie 2" hasn't even begun, but moviegoer surveys already indicate that it's on the want-to-see radar. "It's a presold commodity," says Dimension Films cochairman Bob Weinstein. And it's not just ticket buyers that sequel makers are courting. Spinoffs drive theme parks (Universal is building two "Mummy" attractions to go with its "Jurassic Park" rides) and fuel the initial film's DVD sales.

The trouble is that actors invariably want a piece of the action. Chris Tucker took home $3 million for costarring in 1998's enormously successful "Rush Hour." He hasn't released a movie since, but still demanded a $17 million raise for this summer's sequel. Brendan Fraser made $5 million for the first "Mummy"--and $12.5 million for the sequel. Even his costar John Hannah (John Hannah?) pocketed $1 million to come back. Sony Pictures has wrestled for years with finding a way to finance another "Men in Black" without breaking the bank. (The sequel finally starts filming this summer.) Nervous about getting gouged, studio chiefs now insist that performers sign on for as many as two more films before the cameras are even rolling on the first. The entire cast of last year's "X-Men"--as well as Toby Maguire, who'll star in next year's "Spider-Man"--have all committed to spending a very long time dressed funny.

The fact that a studio is planning for sequels affects not only the way contracts are written, but screenplays as well. In the original script for "The Mummy," the character of warrior Ardeth Bay met a violent end. But the movie was rewritten during production so that he could live to enjoy a prominent role in "The Mummy Returns." The part of the Scorpion King in the sequel (played by wrestler The Rock) will be spun off into a prequel.

With tastes shifting as fast as the Nasdaq, there's no time to dally in getting new installments to theaters. Dimension will launch "Scary Movie 2" in July, a mere year after the first horror spoof. "We decided the night of the premiere of the first one to make another," says Weinstein. Adds Snider: "You have to strike while the iron is hot." Since Internet chatter threatens even the most closely guarded sequel plot, actors are increasingly required to sign con-fidentiality agreements. If he leaks "American Pie" dish, costar Jason Biggs says, "they'll cut off my fingers." "We've been trying to keep things as secret as possible," says Scott Mosier, producer of "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," a follow-up of sorts to Kevin Smith's "Clerks," "Chasing Amy" and "Mallrats." So what's it about? "It's sort of like 'The Muppet Movie.' Only without the Muppets. And rated R." Hard to picture? There's only one thing you need to know about sequels, anyway: they're inevitable.