What's With the Increasing Popularity of Prequels?
How did Willy Wonka become the eccentric owner of a magical chocolate factory? Who was Cruella de Vil before she got infatuated with a dalmatian fur coat? These are questions that can only be answered through a prequel.
Prequels have the power to take viewers back in time, extend iconic movie universes, and provide origin stories to heroes and villains alike. “The prequel is really a celebration of today — how we can reinvent the past and rewind the clock,” says Dr. Jayson Baker, professor of visual media arts at Emerson College.
Although prequels are in no way a new development — the genre was popularized at large by the Star Wars prequel trilogy in the early 2000s — the number of prequels being released is at an all-time high. Since 1993, the number of prequels, sequels and spin-offs reaching the box office top 20 has been steadily increasing. From The Many Saints of Newark, a recently released prequel to the television series The Sopranos, to the upcoming Willy Wonka prequel starring Timotheé Chalamet, there is no shortage of this sort of film hitting theaters. Even Buzz Lightyear, the astronaut toy from Toy Story, is getting an origin story of his own in 2022.
But why are so many films receiving the prequel treatment? For film producers and creators, prequels may seem like an obvious endeavor. Rather than creating entirely new content, they can simply make money off of preexisting material.
The inherent audience that comes from the original film or franchise means that prequels are theoretically set up for success. “There is a built-in fan base which enables more predictable returns not just in movie-theater attendance, but in streaming licenses and network distribution,” Baker says. Intense promotion and marketing is unnecessary when the name of a movie alone will have audiences heading to the theaters.
These prefacing films can also promote past movies, thus treating streaming services to increased viewership. “Prequels function as great marketing tools for these pre-existing properties, simultaneously adding new layers to a franchise while also extending the life of earlier films,” says Alexander Svensson, professor of visual media arts at Emerson College. The new film focusing on Buzz Lightyear will likely have viewers rewatching the four original Toy Story films, all of which are available on Disney+.
Similarly, prequels are designed to reach both young and old audiences. While younger viewers are excited about a seemingly new release, older audiences can enjoy the nostalgia of an older film that may remind them of their childhood. “The release of prequels or other franchise extensions might also function as events that enable older audiences to introduce younger audiences to the films and TV shows they grew up with,” Svensson says.
While moviemakers have their motives for producing prequels, audiences have their own reasons for watching them.
Polling done by Morning Consultant found that given a choice, 53 percent of Americans would prefer prequels and sequels to their favorite franchises, rather than brand-new content. Of those who indicated they are excited to see upcoming prequels and sequels, 45 percent said it’s because there’s more to the story that they want to know.
Prequels can provide new insight and information that viewers would never have otherwise known. The Many Saints of Newark let viewers see Tony Soprano as a child and discover how he became the iconic mobster that he is portrayed as in the television series. Cruella, the prequel to 101 Dalmatians that was released in May of this year, allowed audiences to learn how Cruella de Vil transformed from a young fashion designer to the iconic villain that we all know and loathe.
Nostalgia is another reason that viewers enjoy watching prequels. With recognizable locations and beloved characters, these films allow viewers to reminisce about times past. “For some audiences, there is arguably a kind of comfort in returning to these familiar characters and story worlds,” Svensson says.
But the creation and popularity of prequels are not as airtight as one might think. With the established audiences and promise of nostalgia comes high expectations that are impossible to meet. “That built-in fan base might have expectations that can't ever be fully satisfied,” Svensson says. This is the case with the Star Wars prequels, which are widely known as the failures of the franchise. In Baker’s words, “There’s simply no way to recuperate the sensation of a time gone by.”