The fourth most important key to a successful film franchise is often the hardest to get a handle on for filmmakers. I am referring to continuity, that thorn in the side of many once great film franchises that has made the house of cards come tumbling down more than on one occasion.
Here's the trick with continuity, and why it is the thing that I feel filmmakers are challenged with the most when making sequels or prequels to pre-existing films. When we, as an audience, pay money to see these franchise films, we essentially are wanting the same experience we've already had, just under different circumstances. When I watch a James Bond movie, while the Bond girls and the plot may be different, I'm looking for a certain tone and visual style. I want that tongue-in-cheek banter, the double entendres, the seemingly insane gadgets, and if a Bond film is lacking one of those elements, it just doesn't feel like Bond to me. This is why the uber-serious 007 outing, Quantum of Solace, was often critiqued as being, "Bond via Bourne." It didn't feel like Bond because it was missing many of the elements that had always transferred from one Bond film to the next, most notably the tone and visual style that the goofier elements gave most Bond films. There just was this levity that was missing. However, tone is not the only other thing that can often screw up continuity, it's also the world the film is set in.
This is a point I actually touched on with Key Number Three - Worlds, when I talked about how the representation of the wizarding world in the Harry Potter films changed a little bit from film-to-film with the changing directors, to where the final film in the series was not seemingly taking place in the same world that was established in the first film. This is continuity as well. It's comforting to return to places and see that they have never changed. While you have changed, these places will always be the same, and the same holds true for places in movies. However, if I have a critique of the Harry Potter films, it's that the look of Hogwarts and the rest of the wizarding world changed too drastically from film-to-film for the films to always look as if they're from the same franchise. However, not only is the continuity in the world of the story important, so is simple storyline continuity from film-to-film.
This is the area where failure of continuity is most noticeable, when something happens in one film, and then in the next film, an event occurs or a line of dialogue is said that completely negates what previously happened, fans are miffed. A perfect case and point is in Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi.
In that film, Leia tells Luke that she barely remembers her mother, but that she always seemed sad. Now, the Star Wars films have always been unique in that sense that the fourth, fifth, and sixth movies were made two decades before the first three movies in chronological order. Therefore, when George Lucas went back and did what is now deemed the Prequel Trilogy, he had to fill in gaps, showing us the moments that were only described in the original films, such as that moment with Leia from the sixth film. Here's where the ball was dropped. When time came in Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, for Luke and Leia's birth, their mother died in childbirth before Leia could ever really even see her. So how could Leia remember her sad mother if she was a screaming infant at the time who still couldn't open her eyes? The point I'm making is not to tear the prequels down, in fact I've gone on record more than once stating my fandom of the Prequel Trilogy, but this is the perfect example of how continuity from film-to-film was not fully thought out before it was committed to celluloid. Now, while this kind of continuity is arguably more important in finite franchises like Harry Potter and Star Wars, where each new film is picking up the story where the last left off, we still expect a slight shade of this same type of continuity in neverending franchises.
In Indiana Jones, we are given the time and date when that particular adventure happened. While it's conceivable that Indy goes on many adventures we never see, and it's why I still think the role could be recast like 007 and we could see more adventures of Indy from the Thirties and Forties, at the end of the day, you still need to tie the timelines together somehow and at least acknowledge Indy's previous adventures if it was a sequel and not a prequel to a pre-existing film. This is the area where the Indiana Jones films have been most successful in terms of continuity. It's often only little inside jokes or whatnot, but by Indy himself often acknowledging adventures he went on in the past, it makes us who have followed Indy on all of his adventures get the joke and reminisce alongside him.
My favorite example of this is in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Indy and Ilsa are in the Venetian catacombs and see a drawing of the Ark of the Covenant on the wall. Ilsa asks what it is and Indy tells her the Ark. When she asks if he's sure, he replies by telling her that he was pretty darn sure. It's a funny moment that would not be possible if it weren't for continuity. Thankfully, the James Bond films and The Thin Man films have both done this, and it only makes each new case or adventure feel more robust, familiar, and lived in.
The bottom line with continuity is that we need it in our film franchises to have that comforting place to return to. That place in which we can always depend on for escape from the ruts of everyday life. If a film franchise neglects continuity in terms of tone, visual style, or in terms of storyline elements form film-to-film, we often feel betrayed by the films. This is why I always wish more film franchises would apply to the if it ain't broke, don't fix it mentality, because that's what we, as fans, want.
Tune in tomorrow as I post the final Key to a Successful Film Franchise. Key # 5 - Longevity!