How 2023 became the year of the half-movie

This summer, if you’ve been going to the movies, you’ve definitely noticed a rising trend in big-budget action movies: the appearance of “To Be Continued” signs that come on the screen just before the credits start to roll. While cliffhanger endings in science fiction, thriller, and superhero films are nothing new, the prevalence of films that are split into two parts is reminiscent of the rise in young adult novel adaptations in the 2010s, when series like Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games had their concluding chapters divided.

Contrary to those previous adaptations, several of this summer’s movies are catching spectators off guard with sudden lengthy intermissions. It raises the issue of how this behavior came to be and why it is returning with such vigor.

A brief history of the back-to-back film sequel

Warner Bros.

In 1973, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, the producers of The Three Musketeers, faced a dilemma. They realized that their adaptation of the classic tale might not yield the desired profits as a single, lengthy three-hour film. To maximize their return on investment, they decided to split the movie into two parts at its planned intermission. Consequently, they released two separate films, The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, a year apart.

However, this move angered the film’s cast and crew, as they had only been paid for their work on a single production. As a result of this controversy, talent contracts were subsequently crafted with precise language to prevent producers from reassembling additional movies from the original footage without fair compensation when the intention was to create a single cohesive film.

However, despite the complexities, it still proves to be a more financially viable approach to maintain the continuity of cast, crew, costumes, sets, and props for multiple films when they are shot concurrently or back-to-back. When a studio is confident about producing several sequels for a series, they often try to bundle the productions together. By doing so, they can retain talented individuals, reduce setup expenses, and swiftly release these sequels before audience enthusiasm wanes. Moreover, this strategy grants filmmakers the liberty to conclude one installment with a cliffhanger, knowing that the story will be resolved in the subsequent film.

Paramount Pictures

This production strategy finds notable examples in the second and third chapters of renowned franchises like Back to the Future, Matrix, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Despite the seemingly sound logic behind it, you’d be hard-pressed to encounter anyone who boldly declares the third installment of these trilogies as the best. The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean, in particular, suffered from overcrowding of new characters and intricate concepts in their first halves, leading to struggles in resolving them in the latter parts. As a result, audiences were left with epic four-to-five-hour films that didn’t hold the same individual appeal in theaters as they did when binge-watched at home.

The immense success of The Lord of the Rings, a trilogy filmed as a cohesive production, encouraged studios to take more ambitious long-term approaches to their franchises. However, this also made them increasingly reliant on these franchises as lucrative cash cows. For instance, the decision to split the seventh and final book of the Harry Potter series, The Deathly Hallows, into two films was initially attributed to screenwriter Steve Kloves, but it’s difficult to overlook Warner Bros.’ eagerness to capitalize on the opportunity, earning an extra $1.3 billion in the process. The studio’s desire for financial gain, rather than story demands, also drove them to stretch The Hobbit, originally J.R.R. Tolkien’s shortest Middle-earth novel, into three films.

Following the success of The Deathly Hallows, Part 2 in 2011, the Twilight and Hunger Games franchises adopted a similar approach, stretching the final novels of their source material into two films each. From the studio’s perspective, this decision made perfect sense – why settle for one surefire hit when you could create two at a cost not much more than double the price?

Revenge of the two-part movie

Universal Pictures

The Hollywood film industry, already shaken by the rise of streaming and further disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, has responded by heavily relying on established properties and franchises. This year’s elongated blockbusters achieved their extended runtimes through different means, often justifying it as a creative necessity due to the epic scope of the story. However, the economic motivations behind these decisions sometimes overshadow the claimed creative reasons, leading to widely varying results in terms of quality.

The first of these stretched-out blockbusters this season was Fast X, and unfortunately, it turned out to be the weakest. While it’s true that the Fast franchise has grown in stakes, stunts, and star power, the idea that a story about people racing and battling with cars would need twice the usual runtime is hard to believe. The issue seems to have two aspects: Firstly, star and producer Vin Diesel has suggested that Universal Studios is eager for more Fast movies, possibly turning the two-part finale into a trilogy. However, Universal has not confirmed this claim, despite greenlighting a spin-off film, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Reyes, led by Dwayne Johnson and set between the two parts of Fast X.

Secondly, Diesel’s perception of the franchise’s depth appears inflated. While he compared it to Tolkien’s work, there’s little evidence of a grand overarching design for the saga. Post-credits scenes and cliffhangers seem to be added on the fly, hinting at character deaths and unexpected resurrections, which only serves to draw out the franchise without adding substantial value to it. As a result, this prolonged approach isn’t necessarily benefiting the Fast series.

Sony Pictures Animation

On the opposite end of the quality spectrum lies Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the highly anticipated sequel to the Oscar-winning Into the Spider-Verse. Initially, the movie was expected to set up a spinoff centered around Gwen Stacy, but it eventually evolved into the middle chapter of a formal trilogy during production. In December 2021, a teaser trailer revealed that Across the Spider-Verse had been retitled as Across the Spider-Verse (Part One). Producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller explained that the story they had planned had outgrown the scope of a single film, leading them to expand it into two parts. The production of the first chapter seamlessly flowed into the second, titled Beyond the Spider-Verse.

Although Across the Spider-Verse concludes with a cliffhanger, it effectively stands as its own film, introducing a new set of characters, conflicts, and stakes in its final minutes. The decision to split it into two movies seems reasonable and well-founded. However, this decision has taken a significant toll on the animators working on the film. They have faced enormous challenges due to Lord and Miller’s constantly shifting demands throughout the seemingly endless production cycle of the two movies.

Paramount Pictures

Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning: Part One’s production has encountered some unexpected overlaps with its sequel, although not as initially planned. The filming for Dead Reckoning faced numerous delays in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 outbreaks among the cast and crew. Additionally, Tom Cruise’s commitments to promote Top Gun: Maverick in 2022 also contributed to the scheduling challenges. While production for Dead Reckoning — Part Two commenced in 2021, it remains unfinished due to the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike, which has placed an indefinite hold on various major Hollywood productions. Notably, even Warner Bros.’ movie, Wicked: Part One, is also affected, highlighting the broader impact of this situation on the film industry.

Although Dead Reckoning: Part One doesn’t fully resolve the central storyline involving superspy Ethan Hunt and an unhinged A.I., it manages to create a sense of a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end through the character development of the new protagonist, Grace, played by Hayley Atwell. While Ethan’s battle is still at its midpoint, Grace’s origin story is thoroughly explored. The future remains uncertain, and we will have to wait and see if the investment in Grace pays off, leading her to take the lead of the franchise after Dead Reckoning: Part Two, or if Tom Cruise will continue making these movies well into his 80s.

Dune the old-fashioned way

Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.

Lastly, we have this year’s sole concluding chapter to a divided blockbuster, Dune: Part Two. When director Denis Villeneuve’s first Dune film hit theaters in 2021, many viewers may have been unaware that it covered only the first half of the iconic Frank Herbert novel. Nonetheless, Villeneuve did include “Part One” in the film’s title card, somewhat cushioning the impact of its less-than-satisfying ending. Interestingly, unlike the other split films, Dune was produced without a firm commitment from the studio to complete the duology. Consequently, the film’s cliffhanger becomes less of a simple tease and more of a plea, as the fate of the series hinges on audience demand. Come October, we’ll discover whether Dune: Part Two can live up to that demand.

Each of these sequel strategies carries a hint of cynicism. The Fast franchise relies on the belief that audiences will eagerly consume new installments regardless of their quality, while Spider-Verse and Mission: Impossible seem content to keep producing films indefinitely until someone intervenes. Villeneuve’s approach to Dune could be seen as using viewer outrage to leverage another movie from the studio, but it empowers the audience to shape the series based on their desires, rather than having the studios dictate what’s produced. It’s challenging to determine which method of splitting a movie in two consistently yields better results, but if this release model proves successful at the box office, we can expect more studies exploring its effectiveness.

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