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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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times