Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Flaws In The “Halloween” Sequel Formula & “Scream” Legacy Cast

This essay was recently recorded and published in Episode 069 of the “SCREAM with Ryan C. Showers” podcast. 

The reboot of “Scream” has become one and the same with a meta-philosophical idea of ‘requel’ or ‘Legasequel.’ These terms were coined by Mindy Meeks-Martin in the fifth installment of the horror series “Scream.” “Scream” (2022) was able to successfully revive a franchise that had seemingly closed up shop once after a conclusive ending to the story with “Scream 3” in 2000 and then again after the lukewarm financial response of “Scream 4” in 2011. “Scream” (2022) felt fresh. It felt new. “Scream” (2022) was a movie that general audiences, who may have casually seen the original films and liked them fine enough, could easily swallow. The film had hints of the past, a familiar style, and old faces, yet audiences could jump off from the beginning of this requel and witness chapter one of a new story and new characters. In addition, they could be entertained by thoughtful death sequences and a modern flare in style and humor. All of this made “Scream” (2022) a hit.

Despite not being formally recognized until “Scream” in 2022, requels have permeated blockbuster film franchises for quite some time. For instance, the newest “Star Wars” trilogy followed the quintessential requel formula laid out in “Scream” (2022). Novel characters supported by legacy characters, a new storyline with hints of the old one, even if the storyline of said legacy characters should not have been ongoing in the first place. But my question is, is making franchise horror films in this manner sustainable? Cracks in the ‘requel’ formula are beginning to face issues with both “Scream” and “Halloween” franchises. 

No other film was more instrumental to the greenlighting of “Scream” (2022) than “Halloween” (2018). They even adopted the same rebranding of the original film’s name, a marketing move that is said to ensure audience participation. Blumhouse mastered the perfect recipe with “Halloween” (2018).” The result was the most profitable slasher film ever in box office history. The movie star, the OG final girl herself, was back and on her own terms. Jamie Lee Curtis would headline a “Halloween” movie again, something most horror fans thought would never happen after her ill-fated end in “Halloween: Resurrection.” The new “Halloween” would make the ten sequels that came before it irrelevant, ignoring them as though they had never happened. No audience member would feel turned off by the weight of its history. They were able to jump off into a new story while having the prestige of Jamie Lee Curtis driving the ship and, more importantly, selling movie tickets to skeptical audience members. Oh yeah, it contained death sequences and set pieces that matched modern audience expectations and thresholds, as I alluded to earlier with “Scream.” “Halloween” could attract new audience members, people who were in the mood for the spooky season. And those pesky, do-or-die horror fans were happy, too. They felt right at home with Easter eggs and references to different sequels in the franchise that the narrative otherwise ignores. The fans felt respected and honored that the new filmmaker would take such care of something they so deeply loved. All of this, plus adding in the feminist spirit of American Democrats, liberal resistance to the Trump presidency, and the #MeToo era, “Halloween” (2018) was the movie of the moment.

It paid off big for Jason Blum. “Halloween” (2018) blew up, leaving the previous champs of “Scream,” “Scream 2,” and “Scream 3” as the highest-grossing slasher films in history in the dust. “Halloween” (2018) grossed over $250 million worldwide. Naturally, two sequels were ordered. Horror was back, and the new fashion accessory was the requel formula. The key to this success was Jamie Lee Curtis, the secret weapon. She was back in the lead role of Laurie Strode. But upon closer inspection, she hardly appeared in the film as much as the reputation indicates. Curtis appeared in only 19 minutes of the 106-minute runtime of “Halloween” (2018). The clever editing and marketing framing inflated her presence. For comparison’s sake: Curtis clocked in about 32 minutes for the original film, 22 for the 1981 sequel, and 31 for “Halloween H20.” When compared to the similar “Scream” franchise, 19 minutes would be nearly half of what Neve Campbell reached in the original trilogy of “Scream.” Courteney Cox, who was borderline lead/supporting, even had her beat in “Scream 2” and “Scream 3.”

Yet, this surprised most people because it felt like Laurie drove the movie. That is part of the magic of the requel. Blumhouse figured out they could, and this is important, keep the budget low and sell tickets by placing Jamie Lee Curtis on the movie poster, and boast the legacy of the original star. The trick Blumhouse pulled off was sprinkling small scenes with Curtis proportionally throughout the requel, then doubling down on an epic set piece finale where Curtis would take center stage. She could function as the lead of “Halloween” (2018) without the actual screen time to back it up. It worked miraculously. If it weren’t for my annoying obsession with screen time, most people would not have even noticed how lightly Laurie is used compared to a counterpart portrayal and competing timeline in “Halloween H20.”

And it worked for Curtis. She would only be on set for a limited number of days to complete her performance. Despite taking a modest base salary to film the picture, she entered a new role as a producer, which gave her a larger percentage of the box office receipts. Unlike before, it mattered to Curtis’s bottom line for people to see her movie. Ethan Hawke entered a similar agreement with Blumhouse for “The Purge” and “Sinister,” earning an extra $10 million from what he was initially paid to star and act in the film. They repeated this partnership in “The Black Phone,” where Hawke has astonishingly little screen time yet is the film’s sole marketing item. Structuring the financials this way allowed Jason Blum to finance a $10 million film in “Halloween” (2018) and have a massive return on that investment. He could throw Curtis a small up-front salary, and pay her later after the movie is a hit. And with that, two more “Halloween” sequels were ordered by Blumhouse, to “star” Jamie Lee Curtis, and replicate the success of 2018 two times over. This was great business for Curtis, Blum, and the horror genre. Unfortunately, despite the similarities, the “Scream” franchise is a different beast than “Halloween.” “Scream” juggles three legacy actors, not one. They entertain a much longer cast list filled with victims and suspects. The production is generally grander and more complicated. While “Scream” could borrow most of what “Halloween” did, it is not an exact replica.

Like with Curtis in “Halloween,” the “Scream” team realized they could bring back the usually highly paid Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and David Arquette in smaller roles – each of the trio achieving their lowest screentime of the five films by far – to keep the budget low, use them to market the film, and hire less expensive new stars to carry the load for the majority of the runtime. And that calculation made “Scream” (2022) successful. “Scream” (2022) started with a fresh storyline and new characters to appeal to new audience members yet retained moments for the legacy cast to increase the legitimacy of the picture. 

In fairness to “Scream” (2022), it made complete sense to hold back the legacy trio while the film established the new characters and storyline. Undoubtedly, audiences needed a firm idea of who Samantha and Tara Carpenter were before re-introducing us to Sidney Prescott, Gale Weathers, and Dewey Riley. Not to mention, the emotional and narrative payoff of seeing the trio again at very specific moments was magnificent. Each of the three characters was afforded an epic, emotional reintroduction sequence in “Scream” (2022) worthy of their retrospective statures. 

This can and should only be pulled off once. Suppose Gale, the only legacy cast in the next chapter, is not introduced in “Scream 6” until 50 minutes into the picture the way she was in the fifth film. In that case, that decision will not cheapen the power of her introduction with Samantha in “Scream” (2022), but it will dampen the effectiveness of her as an active character in the sixth film. Using Courtney Cox for her “Friends” star power and “Scream” fandom adulation to market the film, only to sideline Gale in the narrative could lead to disastrous results for the loyal fans of the franchise who already feel burned by the studio failing to pay Neve Campbell’s fee to appear in the sixth film. If Spyglass follows the Blumhouse/Jamie Lee Curtis philosophy of using a significant star scarcely to avoid cost, it could backfire for “Scream 6.”

Just like “Halloween,” Neve Campbell was the public face of the marketing for “Scream” (2022). She was literally the biggest photo dead center of the cast poster, yet had maybe the least impact of any major character on the overall film. Sidney has one scene before entering the film in the third act, around the 70-minute mark. And even after she returns, Sidney is upstaged by Courteney Cox’s Gale and Melissa Barrera’s Samantha in the writing and structuring of the finale. But that didn’t matter to the bottom line. “Scream” (2022) proved the franchise successfully launched into the modern day, avoided a financial disaster like “Scream 4”, and made $141 million worldwide. “Scream” (2022) outgrossed even “Halloween Kills,” landing behind “Halloween” (2018) and the original “Scream” trilogy in the top 5 highest-grossing slashers of all time. The requel formula again proved successful; the only difference was the “Scream” trio lacked the profit participation Curtis had with “Halloween” and likely took significant pay cuts from the $4-5 million Campbell earned and $7 million Cox earned on the later “Scream” sequels. This has also been a point of contention recently, as Campbell has admitted her displeasure at taking a lower salary for the fifth film.

Again, the clear difference between “Scream” and “Halloween” is the money. Curtis was on board to keep making “Halloween” movies because she had a stake in the game. It did not matter that “Halloween Kills” would go on to divide audiences, with one of the most common pieces of criticism as “the sidelining Laurie Strode.” Curtis was a producer as much as the public image of the film. It made sense to continue to advertise her face on the posters and in media interviews for “Halloween Kills” despite her entire performance, with the exception of the first 30 seconds, taking place in a hospital. People thought they were getting a movie starring Jamie Lee Curtis. However, Curtis averaged just over 10 minutes of screentime in “Halloween Kills,” her second lowest of the series after the 4 minutes in “Halloween: Resurrection.” Her screen time was cut in half from “Halloween” (2018), which may shock most people. You’ll hear: “It felt like she was in 2018 so much more.” But that was part of the movie-making magic. Curtis could show up for a week, film her scenes in the hospital, go home and prepare to market the second film in the new trilogy. Curtis probably had similar filming dates between the two films, and the key difference being, that they could film a higher number of smaller scenes in different locations on “Halloween” (2018) and spread them out throughout the runtime. It went right over fans’ heads. 

But with “Halloween Kills,” the fans noticed. They wanted Laurie Strode in “Halloween Kills.” They thought they were getting Laurie Strode rather than what was delivered to them, a film about mob mentality. Who could forget “Evil dies tonight”? And maybe had the pandemic never affected the overall plan, people would not be disgruntled. Maybe “Halloween Kills” would have worked as a middle chapter that just slightly focused less on Laurie Strode than the first and third. But now as rumors swirl about “Halloween Ends,” the cracks that began to emerge with “Halloween Kills” are materializing. It has been reported that “Halloween Ends,” again, takes the attention off Laurie Strode and her granddaughter Alyson and instead focuses on a new character unrelated to the bigger picture storyline. The idea is for this new character, Corey Cunningham, to occupy most of the narrative space in the first two-thirds of the film, and Jamie Lee Curtis will be allotted the final third with small scenes in between. It fits the requel formula. Remember Mindy’s rules. Legacy characters support new characters. It allows Jamie Lee Curtis to extract a large payday from box office numbers, spend a limited amount of time on set, yet still be promoted front and center in the marketing. And that’s not even hypothetical; it’s reality. “Halloween Ends” is currently being marketed as a “Michael Myers v. Laurie Strode” movie and “The End” of an era, the final appearance by Jamie Lee Curtis as the “FINAL GIRL” – another brilliant marketing move. And that really was the success of the new “Halloween” trilogy, right? Brilliant marketing move, after brilliant marketing move. Jamie Lee Curtis admits on her “Good Friend” podcast she can sell anything. She could sell milk to cows. She made the word “trauma” iconic and a token of horror on Twitter when promoting “Halloween” (2018). She connected the dots of the 2020 protests and uprising to “Halloween Kills,” which also boasted one of the most intense, spoiler-filled trailers in recent memory. Curtis said “Halloween” (2018) lived up to John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece, a word she would later use to describe “Halloween Kills” in promoting that film last year. Similarly, the official trailer of “Scream” (2022) sold the film as a Sidney Prescott story. Ironically, the trailer featured every single scene Neve Campbell is featured in the film except the epilogue, giving the appearance that the story was about her and not the Carpenter sisters. Similar to Curtis, the trio did the same in invoking “Scream” (2022) as a film Wes Craven would be proud of.

Yet, how will fans of Laurie Strode and “Halloween” in general reconcile with the fact that, for the final entry in Jamie Lee Curtis’s filmography as this iconic role which means so much to so many horror fans, or even movie fans in general, she is reduced to a supporting role in favor of a new character? Even if the symbolism and narrative importance is captured in the final product, is this really worth it? That question will be asked over and over again after again if these rumors come to bear. What was the point of forcing Laurie Strode into these final two films where she did not belong? Was the point really just to have Jamie Lee Curtis be the face on the posters of the sequels? In the long run, this strategy may cause more frustration than satisfaction. Sure, fans who love “Halloween” (2018) can pretend it was her big finale. Laurie gets to be the badass centerpiece of a legasequel worth waiting for, and she gets to beat Michael Myers by torching him in her basement. But, if “Halloween Ends” does end Laurie Strode’s story by focusing mostly on the character of Corey Cunningham for the majority of the film, will it have been worth the journey of “Halloween Kills” and “Halloween Ends?” I don’t know. We won’t know until “Halloween Ends” is released in four weeks. Despite the fantastic marketing Blumhouse has put forth for the film, they made the decision to release the film to streaming on Peacock on the same day it enters theaters. This move signals a lack of confidence, unlike the necessity of deploying the same strategy with “Halloween Kills” last year in the middle of a global pandemic. Even at the height of the COVID-19 omicron variant, Paramount and Spyglass chose to keep “Scream” (2022) in theaters with no streaming option. That was a controversial decision then. They were confident that they made a good movie that audiences and die-hard horror fanatics would embrace. Now that COVID-19 is less of a public fear, why else would Bumhouse release “Halloween Ends” using the theatrical/same-day streaming hybrid, which is a direct attack on its financial earnings at the box office?

And here may lie a hard truth that makes sense of current problems that face the “Halloween” and “Scream” franchises. Most fans, and even audiences, probably would prefer to see a version of “Halloween Ends” where Laurie Strode is the proper lead character, driving the narrative the way she did in the original film and “Halloween H20.” This is also true of “Scream” fans. Most desire Neve Campbell to be in the driver’s seat for “Scream 6” or “Scream 7.” However, one could argue the opposite; many fans tell me on my “SCREAM with Ryan C. Showers” podcast they are more interested in exploring the Carpenter sisters than Sidney Prescott at this point.

Perhaps horror producers lack the confidence in giving out such high payouts to actors before the fact. Maybe Blumhouse changed the way horror movies are made with Jamie Lee Curtis and Ethan Hawke, paying A-list actors “their worth” after their movie makes money rather than before. We can debate this as right or wrong on a moral or ethical level; most horror fans would likely throw up their arms in disgust at the notion. The movie industry has greatly changed since the original “Scream” trilogy was made. Streaming has nullified sales of home media like DVDs and VHS sales. Studios typically greenlight big-budget superhero movies, certain to make a profit at the cinema. We live in a profit-obsessed industry, consumed with keeping costs low and earnings high. And for as much as we can criticize the industry, the “Scream” series may have been a cautionary tale that led to this type of business dealing by film studios. “Scream 4” was granted a high-ceiling budget of $40 million yet made $38 million at the domestic box office. It did better at the international box office, but this lackluster performance in North America stings to this day. Only “Scream 3,” “Scream 4,” and “House of Wax” are slashers with budgets that lofty, and only “Scream 3” was able to generate a significant profit. From a studio perspective, they see it as a safer option to proceed as they did in “Scream” (2022) with a lower budget and less screentime for the legacy characters, which strikes financial lightening, rather than like “Scream 4,” with high an enormous budget, feature the legacy characters as leads, and chance an economic disappointment. 

Perhaps this could provide an answer to us “Scream” fans who continue to live the trauma of our favorite film series dragged through the mud with the exposure of dirty backdoor dealings involving salary negotiations. Perhaps Spyglass conservatively estimated a salary for Neve Campbell in “Scream 6” based on the requel formula mentality. Courteney Cox was a “Friend,” an incredible network and fame. If the studio saw the choice between Campbell and Cox, maybe they went with Cox for her status as an A-list celebrity and to focus on (and possibly conclude) the character arc of Gale Weathers, rather than balancing both Gale with Sidney Prescott, the previous protagonist. Maybe Spyglass felt they could get away with paying Cox a higher salary in the sixth film, but not both Cox and Campbell. 

If this sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. “Scream” (2022) earned $141 million worldwide. It was a massive success. Churning out a sequel 14 months after the release of the requel, striking while the iron is hot, can only lead to similar financial success. There is not the same risk as assigning a $40 million budget for a fourth entry to a film series that was put to rest ten years prior, like “Scream 4.” I imagine, despite the drip-drip-drip of interviews given by Neve Campbell’s commentary about the studio failing to validate her worth, “Scream 6” will be a financial success. In my opinion, it will likely match the financial results of “Scream” (2022), which will enable the anticipated seventh film and return of Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott. Rumors of the seventh film are only becoming more intense, as Heather Matarazzo floated the idea of her return to the franchise in the next installment just last week. 

If “Scream 7” concludes this era of “Scream” films, isn’t it better to deliver on what fans want rather than what “Halloween” has chosen to do? I am sure if fans of “Halloween” had the choice between a final film about Laurie Strode and her granddaughter or a final film about a new character named Corey Cunningham that may feature an appearance by Jamie Lee Curtis, they would prefer the former. And perhaps I am ringing the alarm bells too soon. Maybe 

Halloween Ends” proves these rumors and reports false. Maybe Laurie’s character arc is done to perfection as a final note. But if the worst materializes, Blumhouse could have introduced a requel formula in 2018 only to prove it to be shallow and empty four years later.

And perhaps that is the lesson to be learned from “Halloween Kills,” potentially from “Halloween Ends,” and the heartbreak over Neve Campbell’s story about unsuccessful salary negotiations for “Scream 6.” Perhaps the requel formula set out by “Halloween” (2018) was a good launching pad, but the way the “Scream” franchise should proceed needs to be different. Maybe the current requel formula and financial model are unsustainable. If these franchises prove they can make money marketing the legacy characters, utilize them in the narrative. Assign Sidney Prescott as the center protagonist of “Scream 7” if they can make Campbell feel respected with a salary offer, utilize her for more than just window dressing on the shell of the movie. 

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