NEW YORK – Audiences may experience déjà vu when they hit the movies this year.
The list of sequels and otherwise familiar flicks coming out in 2002 ranges from the biggest blockbuster in the galaxy, Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones, to the next campy installment of Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan's misadventures in Shanghai Knights.
But Hollywood isn't just serving up film leftovers, according to the experts. The latest generation of sequels is bringing in box-office bucks, packing theaters and pleasing audiences.
"In the past, sequels always got the short end of the stick because people never put much of a creative process into them," said Russell Schwartz, president of domestic marketing for New Line Cinema. "What's happened over last couple of years is people are looking at sequels as whole new movies. Besides budgets going higher, everybody has been careful to make the films look bigger, and to put more effort into the story."
Last year, sequels such as The Mummy Returns, Rush Hour 2 and American Pie 2, proved to be money-makers for studios in what was otherwise a disappointing year. The move to rely on sequels assures risk-averse studios of some box-office hits during a time when executives seem unsure of what audiences really want.
"Hollywood was taken aback by how they were failing to connect with audiences with more challenging fare last year," said Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly. "Doing sequels is a safe move. They know audiences liked the first one, they know they'll like the second one."
Looking back at 2001, Ascher-Walsh said entertainment insiders were shocked some less-than-stellar pictures did so well. For instance, The Mummy Returns grossed $68 million in its opening weekend.
"When you look at The Mummy Returns and it's considered a good movie, there's trouble," she said.
Schwartz sees the trend differently. "Last summer was a seminal moment for companies where everyone's sequel worked," he said. New Line is putting out no fewer than four sequels this year, including Blade 2. The company also has a history of releasing serial films, including the slasher Nightmare on Elm Street flicks.
Of the 17 or so sequels expected in 2002, the most highly anticipated, aside from Star Wars: Episode II, are Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Men in Black II, and Austin Powers in Goldmember, which is the third Mike Meyers' spy comedy.
If the original films can be seen as any indication of the future, many of these follow-ups will be well-received by audiences, and even by picky critics. Rather than being pegged as unoriginal, Star Wars, Austin Powers and the James Bond series are seen as innovative and compelling.
"I think audience members like to feel they own the movie in some way," Ascher-Walsh said. "People feel like they know these characters."
Still, some in the entertainment business aren't happy with these cookie-cutter flicks.
"Hollywood is a Xerox machine," Neil Rosen, film critic for New York 1 TV, told Fox News. "As long as [audiences] keep turning out and [the films] keep making money for the sequels, we're stuck in this pattern."
Maybe. But even the Hollywood executives know sequels are not fool-proof. Consider the failure of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which pulled in just $26 million in 2000, a year after the original Blair Witch Project made an astounding $140 million.
"I think every franchise has an end," said Schwartz. "But like professional sports players, they sort of wind down instead of quitting while they're ahead."
And although filmmakers always hope for a sure thing when they commit money to a project, the creative spirit is still alive in Hollywood, Schwartz believes.
"Deep, deep down, does anyone think a creative executive really wants to do a sequel? I don't think so," he said. "Everyone wants to be known for something new rather than something that's been done before. The business is still about new movies and fresh movies and ground-breaking movies."