The following post first appeared on March 4, 2009.
At last we’re going to get to discuss one of my biggest pet peeves as a reader. I’ve mentioned before that readers invariably will flip to the back page once they get a script so they can see how long it is. What I didn’t mention is that a page number above 120 is only the second worst thing they could hope to see there.
The worst: three little words at the bottom – “To Be Continued.”
A sure way to get a pass is to hold off resolving the central question of your story in the script, but crafting a final scene that promises all will be revealed in the sequel. Never, EVER, do this. It’s certainly fair to leave a few minor things unresolved at the end of the movie, plot points that could be expounded upon in future films – but if the whole movie is building up to something it’s idiotic to slap a cliffhanger on the film and push the resolution into the next movie. When you’re trying to sell your first script, make sure your story stands on its own with a beginning, middle and end. No one pays $14 a ticket to see just a beginning and a middle.
Look at Star Wars. Despite the fact that it spawned five sequels and a host of spin-offs and tie-ins, the first movie works as a standalone film on its own. In 1977, the only really loose thread at the end is Darth Vader spinning off into nowhere – and the central question of Star Wars isn’t Darth Vader’s fate. Had the movie stopped just as the X-Wings moved in to attack the Death Star and George Lucas flashed text saying “To Be Continued in The Empire Strikes Back” I doubt the film would have been even a fraction as successful.
Who am I kidding? Had Lucas done that in the screenplay, it never would have been made. Look at the first films in any franchise and you’ll see that all of them work as standalone films and none of them have To Be Continueds that leave major story points unresolved.
It’s not that I don’t understand the motivation here. If there’s one thing that Hollywood seems to be hungry for more than anything else, it’s a franchise that they can strip mine to death until everyone wonders what they ever liked about the original film in the first place. So I can certainly see how a writer might think that it’s a great selling point to their script if they come in with a trilogy. “You get to make three movies about these characters! Isn’t that great?” says the desperate writer.
No, genius, because someone has to SEE the first movie first – and there has to be enough of a return on the initial investment to justify the expense of making another one. No one sets out to make a bomb, but you can never predict what films will get accepted and what will get rejected by the marketplace. After Speed Racer tanked last summer, I guarantee that the Wachowski brothers are glad they didn’t sink a lot of capital into shooting two movies at once. And I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the sequel to The Golden Compass either.