Penultimate Films a Trend in Franchise Finales
By Robert Ito for The New York Times
Welcome to the tricky world of penultimate films, those “so close, yet so far” movies that also must serve as a gateway to a franchise finale. Done well, they’re movies worth seeing in their own right, and on their own merits. Done wrong, they can feel a lot like place holders or, worse, like money grabs.
The latest penultimate film to hit theaters is “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1,” which opens Nov. 21. Like others of its ilk — think of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1,” “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” and “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1” — the newest installment in the story of Katniss Everdeen and the rebellion against federation rule in Panem was based on a single, hugely popular book, then split in two (or, in the case of “The Hobbit,” three).
A yearlong wait has become the industry standard between penultimate and ultimate, a practice that was used for the pre-Thanksgiving releases of the last two “Twilight” episodes, continued through the “Hobbit” and “Hunger Games” series, and may well hold for the final films of the “Divergent” franchise, which are scheduled for release in 2016 and 2017.
How do filmmakers take part of a story and make it seem whole, all while building up excitement for a finale that audiences won’t get to see for quite some time?
For Francis Lawrence, director of “Mockingjay” Parts 1 and 2, it can be a daunting proposition. “We were all huge fans of ‘Breaking Bad,’ ” he said, adding that you can take big chances “with an end of an episode when you only have to make people wait a week.” But “making people wait a year, you have to tread a little more carefully.”
One trick is creating a cliffhanger that really doesn’t feel like one, or avoiding that gasp-inducing gambit altogether. “You’re really looking at the overall story,” Mr. Lawrence said.
Cliffhangers can also seem outdated. They hark back to the days of the old radio dramas, and before that, to Dickens and, yes, Scheherazade, even Homer. There’s also the danger of looking too much like episodic TV.
“You have to have something, some bridge to the next movie,” said Katherine A. Fowkes, a professor of media and popular culture studies at High Point University in North Carolina and author of “The Fantasy Film,” about that revitalized genre and its history. “But I do think that movies are always trying to distinguish themselves from traditional television, and so they don’t want to seem like: O.K., you’re waiting for the next episode.”
Long waits aside, the key to making a penultimate film that stands on its own, Mr. Lawrence said, is finding separate dramatic questions for each film. “If you have a question in the beginning of the movie — Will Katniss be able to do something? — and in the end you answer that question, you now have a satisfying story,” he said. “So even if the story continues, the story of this movie has ended.”
Knowing just when and where to split the novel in two — or three — is also crucial. “ ‘Mockingjay Part 1’ had the risk of being the trickiest of the transitional movies,” said Mr. Lawrence, who also directed “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the second entry in the series. “We went back and forth on exactly where the split was. There were a few choices, but it was in a very small zone. I’m talking within a scene’s distance from one another.”
Having an abundance of source material is generally considered a good thing for penultimate films, and goes a long way in assuaging fan concerns that splitting the story is little more than a way for studios to double their profits. “That was a big, fat, dense book, and I think a lot of fans of the book were very worried that they would have to cut out huge parts of it if they made a movie out of it,” Ms. Fowkes said. “So in that case, people were probably like: ‘Yeah, that’s fine. We’ll wait for the second one, and it’ll be worth waiting for.’ ”
Thanks to overlapping shooting and editing schedules, directors now can gauge reactions to a penultimate film and tweak the finale.
If the goal of penultimate films of fantasy franchises is to get audiences in theaters for the final film — and do decent box office on their own — they’ve done quite well on both counts of late. The finales of the Harry Potter and “Twilight” series set box office records, as did their lead-ins; “The Desolation of Smaug,” which preceded this December’s “Hobbit” series finale, grossed more than $958 million worldwide.
With each of the Part 1 films in this elite group earning more than $700 million globally, the bar is already pretty high. If the lead-in does that well, where do you go from there?
“When ‘Catching Fire’ came out, I felt really lucky that we did so well,” Mr. Lawrence said. “And it was a great feeling, except that it just raised the bar for this one. So now I’m just crossing my fingers and hoping that it lives up to people’s expectations after ‘Catching Fire.’ Ideally I’ll have the same problem, where there’s a moment of relief, and then sheer terror about Part 2.”