Can't we just ban sequels for a few months?

Ryan Gilbey wonders why <em>Despicable Me 2</em> had to be made.

I have no time for sequel snobs but lately I have found myself fantasising about a small breather from the Part 2s and Episode 3s, a brief but significant moratorium on the whole franchise farrago. These thoughts were prompted by seeing Despicable Me 2, a completely redundant follow-up to the perfectly delightful 2010 original. The friction in the first film arose from the mismatch between the professional bad guy Gru (voiced splendidly by Steve Carell) and the three cutie-pie orphan sisters whom he adopted as part of a plan to foil his rival in super-villainy. Knowing that Gru would surrender to his mushy paternal impulses and renounce evil by the final scene did nothing to spoil our enjoyment at seeing his beastly façade fall away piece by piece. The challenge with the sequel is where to take Gru now that his heart has thawed. Despicable Me 2 fails completely to provide an answer, floundering around instead for 100 minutes searching for inspiration. There’s nothing left for Gru to do. How many life lessons can one super-villain learn?

My plan – and I appreciate fully that this would sound to some people like super-villainy itself – would be to arrest all production on sequels for six months. Too harsh? Okay: how about three? Just enough time to give inspiration an opportunity to flourish among the major studios, in much the same way that Glastonbury is sometimes suspended for a year to allow the land a chance to recover from all those hobnailed boots traipsing from the Pyramid Stage to the falafel stalls and back again. One precedent is the Pop Strike proposed in 2001 by Luke Haines, when he called all fellow musicians and consumers of music to down tools for a week. It was never going to work – I’m sure it was never intended to – but it was enough to make audiences think about the presence of music in their lives. I wouldn’t suggest a similar black-out for the whole of cinema, but a hiatus from sequels might give everyone – filmmakers, distributors and audiences alike – room to contemplate a populist cinema that didn’t depend only on known quantities.

I’m under no illusion that this would automatically result in works of startling originality. Sequels are not the only source of complacency. Occasionally they even become towering achievements in their own right, the obvious examples being the second Godfather and Toy Story films or the recent Before Midnight. But that’s rare. What an interesting winter period we might have next year, though, if all sequel production were to be halted in the next few months, thereby clearing a gap in the release schedules for Christmas 2015. I don’t think we could help but feel refreshed by an absence of the numbers “2” and “3” from cinema marquee displays. Children would gaze up at those unfamiliar titles, those celebrations of the zero-recognition factor, and ask plaintively: “What’s that film about, Mum?” And Mother would smile at her wee ragamuffin and say: “I don’t know, sweetheart. Why don’t we go and find out?” Cue twinkly, uplifting music and a soaring eye-of-God crane shot looking down fondly as parent and child seek sanctuary and inspiration in the cinema.

It’s moving, isn’t it? And it’s an especially tantalising project as we look over the upcoming summer releases: The Wolverine, The Smurfs 2, Monsters University (a prequel to Monsters, Inc), Red 2, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Grown Ups 2, Kick Ass 2. And there’s more to come in the rest of the year: Insidious 2, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, Paranormal Activity 5, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Anchorman: The Legend Continues, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

But those of us who yearn for a tiny reprieve might look to the box-office figures and despair. Monsters University has taken over $105m in less than a week on release in the US. This year’s Fast and Furious 6 has grossed $647m worldwide – and rising. Iron Man 3 – a highly enjoyable sequel, as it happens – has taken over $1bn internationally since its release in May, and even a lacklustre knock-off such as The Hangover Part III has converted audience goodwill into a staggering $325m. The numbers are against us. But we can dream.

Despicable Me 2 is released 28 June

Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) in Despicable Me 2.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.