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There are filmmakers who look back wistfully on the Hollywood of the 1930s and ’40s, when the studios had directors and other creative personnel under contract. Why the wistfulness for a system that placed such unfair restrictions on workers? Because nowadays, directors are essentially hired guns, and a single flop can severely damage a fledgling career. In the old days, a box-office failure, if it wasn’t massively expensive, would have been taken in stride by a director’s studio. His employers would simply send him back to work on another project. It meant a director had freedom to fail, or so the nostalgic thinking goes.

Strangely enough, the freedom to fail in Hollywood has made a comeback recently. The success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy changed the rules; studios on the lookout for lucrative franchises now routinely greenlight sequels to potential blockbusters before the first film has even hit the theaters. (When Superman Returns came out last week, the sequel had already been approved.) Directors are often included in the package, so even if the initial effort underperforms somewhat at the box office, a filmmaker will get a chance to iron out the kinks in a second movie. Thus, Sam Raimi’s underwhelming Spider-Man gave way to a much-improved Spider-Man 2, and Bryan Singer’s X2 told a fluid story that was only possible after X-Men had done all the heavy lifting of establishing its characters. This also means we get a sequel to the Garfield movie that we really didn’t want, but the second chances afforded to the tiny minority of directors who’ve gotten on board with a franchise have been a happy unintended consequence of Hollywood’s new bottom-line thinking.

These thoughts came to me as I was watching Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the sequel to the surprise 2003 hit Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Unfortunately, I had plenty of time to develop these ideas, since they were more interesting than anything happening onscreen.

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