Why Every Summer Movie Ends in "3"

Just like the lines for a mall Santa, the summer movie season begins earlier and ends later every year. And every year the multiplexes seem to have the same few words in the marquee, followed by a steadily increasing episode number to indicate more explosions and a more complicated plot this time around. This summer is especially gruesome, as it seems like every movie ends in the number three. (Thank God, The Number 23 won't be one of them.) Just in case you'd forgotten, here are some of the movies appearing this summer at a theater near you: Spider-Man 3, Rush Hour 3, Shrek the Third, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (P.O.T.C. 3), Resident Evil: Extinction (Resident Evil 3), Ocean's Thirteen and The Bourne Ultimatum (Bourne 3).

Oh, and there's an entry in a quadrilogy (Live Free or Die Hard) and in a heptology (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), plus eight plain old sequels: Fay Grim, 28 Weeks Later, Day Watch, Hostel Part II, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Evan Almighty, Daddy Day Camp, and Mr. Bean's Holiday.

So, what do all these movies have in common? Most critics who've taken a crack at answering that question have clucked about Hollywood's creative bankruptcy. Well, like, duh. Hollywood's been creatively bankrupt ever since its infancy, when famed mogul Samuel Goldwyn (the G in MGM) famously complained to a scriptwriter, "Why did you name him Sam? Every Tom, Dick and Harry is named Sam!"

Actually, the answer is a bit more interesting. It has to do with the co-evolving natures of the idiot box and silver screen. Despite the fact that they both show moving pictures, television and cinema were very different media for the first 40 years or so of their co-existence. Other than reruns of It's a Wonderful Life, network television was a place for situation comedies and situation dramas, game shows and talk shows, sports games and Sesame Street, soap operas and the 6 o'clock news. Everything was episodic, and none of these shows remotely resembled anything you could see at the movies. Even made-for-TV-movies behaved this way: their low production values and wooden acting would have been laughed out of a theater but fit in perfectly with their boob tube brethren. (Except, of course, for Brian's Song, the greatest made-for-TV movie ever.) Even television's next generation, reality TV, is episodic: American Idol is up to season 6. Survivor's up to season 16.

But somewhere between the birth of MTV and the genesis of The Sopranos, thanks to cable television's niche audiences and deeper pockets, TV began borrowing heavily from the language of film. Better writing and better acting were joined by hand-operated cinematography and the gradual elimination of the laugh track. Successful movie screenwriters like Aaron Sorkin and Kevin Williamson created wildly successful, long-lived prime time dramas on the networks, The West Wing and Dawson's Creek. Television had grown up, critics said, and it was often hard to tell an original show from a movie rerun. The absolute pinnacle of this convergence came in April 2006, when the Kiefer Sutherland movie, The Sentinel, was panned by critics, who called it a poor imitation of Sutherland's hit show 24. The circle was complete.

But that's not the end of the story. After decades of having their tricks swiped by the small screen, and box offices stagnant for several summers in a row, movies are learning their lesson and have likewise begun to steal their way to success. What all the classic television shows had in common -- sitcoms and soap operas alike -- was their episodic nature, like Flash Gordon and the old movie serials. Audiences kept coming back because they liked the characters and they liked knowing that it wouldn't matter if they missed a week because the plot was always reliably predictable. The new movie sequels have created a new generation of big-budget serials, a new James Bond or Freddy Krueger in every genre. Each new movie is like a pilot, and if it succeeds it can earn its own series. Creative bankruptcy has nothing to do with it: movies aren't about creativity, they're about rewarding the audience for their hard-earned $10.00. (If you want creative, go to an arthouse, not a multiplex.)

There's nothing wrong with the serial sequelization of Hollywood. It's all part of the trickle-down economy of show biz: surefire successes bankroll risky projects, and superstars subsidize young talent. If record execs didn't sell a million copies of Nickelback's latest, they couldn't afford to take a chance on a kid who might be the next Syd Barrett.

And sometimes the headliner is worth the hype. Who would want to live in a world without Terminator 2?