Ice Age: Continental Drift broke ground as the second-ever animated "fourquel" to hit theaters. The Lord of the Rings films are getting a prequel. Is The Dark Knight Rises a final gasp of the three-movie format?
"Two million years ago, one Earth-shattering event changed everything," says the trailer for Ice Age: Continental Drift 3D, the animated film that was No. 1 at the box office this past weekend. But regular moviegoers may feel like they've spent time with Manny, Sid, and Diego a good deal more recently—and a good deal more often. The first Ice Age hit theaters just 10 years ago, but three sequels have already followed, presumably to answer all the lingering questions that the first film left behind. The Ice Age movies have never been critical darlings; the third installment, Dawn of the Dinosaurs, earned just 45 percent positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and Continental Drift 3D is even worse (no matter what Atlantic critic Chris Orr's kids say). But as the fourth movie in the Ice Age franchise, Continental Drift 3D occupies a key place in an accelerating Hollywood trend: the decline of the once-iconic trilogy format—which has marked series as acclaimed as The Godfather and as profitable as Star Wars —in favor of an open-ended franchises that can be revisited for more films (and more money) for as long as studios sees fit.
Trilogies happen by planning; quadrilogies and beyond tend to happen by chance.
Four-film franchises (or "quadriologies") have technically existed since the early days of film, but they're considerably rarer than trilogies. There are good reasons for that. By the time a series reaches its fourth movie, audience and critical fatigue with the franchise tends to have peaked. It wasn't until last year's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol that a "fourquel" earned franchise-best reviews. And even more tellingly, the list of once-venerable franchises whose fourth installments were also their worst-reviewed—which includes Indiana Jones, Batman, Terminator, and Pirates of the Caribbean—is considerably longer.
What accounts for the vast gulf that separates the Hollywood trilogy from the Hollywood quadrilogy? In Hollywood, there's one key difference between the creation of a trilogy and the creation of a quadrilogy: planning. As a general rule, trilogies tell one long, continuous story, with each part necessary for the whole. The original Star Wars can theoretically stand alone, but its greater plot emerges in the second installment, The Empire Strikes Back, which ends on a cliffhanger to be resolved in the final film, Return of the Jedi. Many subsequent franchises, including The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean, have since followed the Star Wars path, with two interconnected sequels being planned simultaneously after a smash-hit first installment. More recent hits, including The Lord of the Rings and the Swedish films based on Stieg Larsson's Millennium books, were planned as a trilogy from the beginning, but the effect is the same—if you want one story, you have to buy three tickets.
But unlike trilogies, quadrilogies tend to happen by chance: Audience demand for another installment is high enough that Hollywood executives shrug and give it to us. In fact, despite my best efforts, I haven't been able to find any four-film franchises in Hollywood history that were originally intended to be quadrilogies (the five Twilight films come closest, with the eight Harry Potter movies as their general model; The Hunger Games will reportedly be the first). Quadrilogies tend to be far more episodic, relying less on a continuous plot and more on a consistent group of characters or setting. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, for example, stands alone much more coherently than the mythology-heavy third installment, At World's End.