Last week saw the release of the latest film in the all-conquering The Hunger Games franchise, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1. The first part of a two-film finale adapted from a single book, they are to be unleashed on screens worldwide over two consecutive Novembers. As short sighted film buffs would tell you, this profit-minded ploy first emerged in 2011, with the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, which launched a spate of money-hungry imitators. We’ve seen the Twilight Saga and now The Hunger Games series conclude in such a manner, and seen it announced that Shailene Woodley’s fledging Divergent franchise will be ushered out of multiplexes in the same way.
The positives of this approach for the studios seem obvious — they get to double their money — but are actually less pronounced. The penultimate film, still involving sizeable budgets, invariably make less money than its successor, and often less than its predecessor. Furthermore, the first half of the finales are consistently the worst reviewed entries in their franchises, and so audience’s get turned off. Yet whilst this trend for two-part cash-grab send-offs has therefore been lamented as a new phenomenon, as just more evidence of the decline of filmmaking, it is in fact a trick that’s been pulled for as long as going to the pictures has been a national pastime.
The movie serial was a popular attraction at the picture houses of the early Twentieth Century. Starting life in the 1910s, these movies, broken down into small quarter hour instalments, were released to cinemas on a regular schedule, telling action-packed stories which always ended on a perilous cliffhanger. Their purpose? To keep audiences of young people coming back week after week to learn the fate of their favourite characters. Sound familiar?
After a dip in production during the great depression, the movie serial thrived in the 1930s and 40s, when a night at the cinema was more like a variety show than the film-centric experience it is now. Fan appetites for superheroes, westerns and science fiction stories kept the serial afloat even as costs rose, until the advent of episodic television vanquished the serials popularity once and for all. The impact of television on the serial raises an interesting question for our current crop of split finales. To what extent is their structure more akin to that of a miniseries, a drawn out single entity, rather than the filmic, self contained instalments which preceded them? Certainly they have much in common, and yet the miniseries has resurged in popularity partly due to that other modern innovation — the binge watch — whilst these filmic instalments are held for release months, sometimes even years apart. They frustrate the audience rather than engage them.
The problems with two part finales are vast and many. Primarily their problems arise from their usage for literary adaptions. Suddenly, tightly constructed arcs are split, resolutions not arrived at, and the pacing disrupted in order to adapt a single book into multiple feature length films. The first halves in particular often appear to be treading water. In comparison to serials which were conceptualised to be shown in short chunks, the structure of a single book does not acclimatise well to being split down the middle. For Young Adult literature in particular, so often inspired by the filmic three act structure, we’re left with two movies containing an act and a half each. Two part finales can therefore often feel like less than the sum of their parts.
Unsurprisingly, audiences are catching on. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 took just over $120 million dollars in North America over its opening weekend — a huge number to be sure — but one far short of the $150 million to $160 million range the previous instalments opened in. In Hollywood, where sequels are expected to out-gross each preceding chapter, this was worrying enough to drop the stock market value of Lionsgate, the company behind The Hunger Games, by five percentage points. Worse still, Mockingjay – Part 1 only earned an A- cinema score, lower than Catching Fire’s A, which when combined with the worst reviews of the franchise, is likely to make it drop out of cinema’s faster than previous instalments. Elsewhere, The Hobbit movies, perhaps the worst offenders, splitting, as they do, a single children’s book into three lengthy movies, have seen huge drops in their North American takings, and rubbed some of the shine off of The Lord of the Rings‘ movies’ once flawless reputations.
But it’s not all negative. Frequently the second half of the finale proves worthwhile, with the concluding instalments of both Harry Potter and Twilight winning the strongest reviews of their respective franchises according to Rotten Tomatoes. Furthermore, many die hard fans will accept any excuse to spend more time with their heroes — just look to the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings movies for evidence of this phenomena. Just as with the serials of the 30s and 40s, the lure of beloved characters and exciting adventures seems to be enough to keep the masses pouring back into cinemas, right on cue.
The two-part finale therefore is not the modern creation of nefarious studio-executives, but a relic of the golden age of cinema-going, and evidence of our investment in characters rather than stories. It remains to be seen how long their popularity will last, or indeed if it’s already on the wain, but it seems that as long as film-making remains a business, money making split-finales will remain a fixture in the multiplexes. Yet as Shailene Woodley’s tepidly received Divergent series struggles towards its staggered finish, it’s hard not to hope that the two -part finale is consigned to the show-business crypt alongside its sibling – the 1940s movie serial.