Remember that great scene in the movie Network when Ned Beatty’s patience with the rogue newscaster played by Peter Finch finally runs out and he bellows down the length of a boardroom table, ”YOU have MEDDLED with the PRIMAL FORCES of NATURE!!”? It got a replay this month in Hollywood, when Kristen Wiig defied the very architecture of the movie business by casually letting it be known that she does not particularly want to make a sequel to Bridesmaids, which she co-wrote and in which she stars. Not making a sequel shouldn’t even count as news, but in today’s film industry, it’s more than news — it’s a stare-down with eyes blazing and middle fingers defiantly extended at the dictates of the marketplace.
Bridesmaids was one of my favorite movies last year, but in this shoot-out, we should all be rooting for Wiig, because there are so many good reasons for Bridesmaids 2 not to happen, aside from her understandable desire to move on to new challenges. For one thing, lightning rarely strikes twice in comedy; nobody ever says, “You know what I really loved about Home Alone 2?” For another, Bridesmaids succeeded because, aside from being funny, it told a complete story with a narrative destination. It’s not The Hangover, in which you can just plunk down three hapless morons in a new location and do it again; the women in Bridesmaids actually moved forward. A sequel that puts them back in pink dresses replaying life crises would suggest everything that happened in the first movie was a lie — you thought you were watching a movie, but no, it was just a sitcom pilot.
Pilots, though, are pretty much all that studios are in the business of making right now. They don’t call them that, because the movies are desperate not to be mistaken for and therefore further supplanted by television, but that’s what they are. In 2011, the nine highest-grossing movies in America were all sequels. That represents an immense collapse of imagination — even as recently as 1996 and 1998, the year’s top 10 movies didn’t include a single sequel — and it suggests that to the studios, the primary function of a movie is to generate more episodes exactly like it. But even sequels need starting points, so for the business to stay lubricated, a certain number of successful originals have to be generated each year. 2011 was low on those — most people don’t care if Green Lantern 2 ever happens — and Bridesmaids was one of the year’s most successful nonsequels.
Unnamed studio mumblers responded to Wiig’s remarks by suggesting in the press that they’d be perfectly fine making a sequel without her, and that she was somehow being difficult or ungrateful. The first point is self-defeating; the second is sexist. Last month, when Bill Murray reportedly rejected a Ghostbusters 3 script by passing it through a shredder and messengering back the remains, the approving spin was Good for him! He’s not a sellout. But when Wiig says no, there’s a sense that she’s biting the hand that feeds her — as if Bridesmaids were a gift the movie business gave her and not vice versa.
Hollywood’s panic is understandable, since the sequel economy is more fragile than it looks. The Harry Potter and Twilight franchises together generated $2 billion worldwide last year, but one of those golden geese is now defunct and the other will be in a year. For every franchise rejuvenator like Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, there’s more than one disappointment (Cars 2) or worse (Happy Feet 2). And the comic-book-movie market shows early signs of softening. If the sequel business caves in (and there have been changes that unexpected before), the industry will be in trouble. And should that happen, having the taste and foresight to find the next Bridesmaids is going to be a much more valuable skill than merely having the clout to demand Bridesmaids 2.