Sequel Branding, Part Deux: Return of the Numeral

Viewpoint: A Movie Marketing Meme Fades in Favor of Straightforward Brand Building

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Chris Thilk
Chris Thilk
In case you hadn't noticed the changes taking place on the theater marquee (or, more accurately, the app that you pull up on your smartphone), the trend over the last three years or so has been for movie studios to forgo the numbering of their sequels.

Instead they have gravitated toward a number of naming schemes that have stripped out the numeric conventions in favor of titles that are either wholly unique or contain subtitles. "The Dark Knight," a sequel to "Batman Begins," would be an example of the former while "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" would be indicative of the latter.

Even new franchises got in on the game, with "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" making sure that everyone knew what the plot was and that future installments would be named differently. Though "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" and the other prequels still hold the record, I believe, for most title categories ever, Hollywood naming conventions are looking like the folder structure on your Microsoft Explorer.

(By the way, those who continue to refer to the next installment in the Batman franchise as a "sequel to 'The Dark Knight'" are risking me taking away their keyboards. Just fair warning.)

But this week "Iron Man 2" opens. Not "Iron Man: War Machine." Not "Iron Man: Sins of the Father." Simply "Iron Man 2."

So what gives? Has conventional wisdom shifted over the course of one 12-month period? Is this a case of a trend that never had the legs some believed it to have?

I don't believe it's really either of those things. While the whole "Hollywood Has Abandoned Numbers!" meme contained a certain amount of validity, it also had more than a little hyperbole and was, essentially, the Official Movie Industry Story of 2009. (Previous entries include "No One Will See an Iraq War Movie" and "OMG the Twitter Will Kill Us.")

"Iron Man 2" is lacking a subtitle likely because there's no strategic reason to include one. Not only did the filmmakers not initiate the idea of subtitles with the first movie, but unlike most of the other sequels, it's the character that is the focus here. That's something Iron Man shares with Batman, yes, but there aren't as many nicknames that Iron Man has had that can easily become movie titles. Sure, he has a few, but "Shellhead" isn't going to create quite the right tone and "The Armored Avenger," while more striking, isn't all that applicable until after "The Avengers" movie comes out in 2012.

Part of the decision also likely stems from initial fears that surrounded the release of the first movie in 2008, namely the widely held belief that Iron Man was a second-tier character with little name recognition among those who didn't spend every Tuesday triple-checking their pull-lists.

Taking any of the focus in the title off of the character himself would be a disadvantage to the brand that Paramount and Marvel are seeking to build up among moviegoers, something that's essential to the success of the franchise. The studios need the audience to think about Iron Man and not try to get cute with the naming.

So we return once again to the numeric sequel naming convention, as we're sure to see with various movies in the future. If Hollywood as a whole is truly committed to developing movies with built-in brand recognition this will, I'd guess, continue to appear on a regular basis. So instead of 2008 and 2009 being the leading edge of a new branding trend, numbered sequels will continue to appear regularly as studios look to connect with their pre-sold audiences.

Chris Thilk writes and publishes and is a supervisor at PR and marketing agency Voce Communications.
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