Hollywood moviemaking has always been a numbers game, and right now the winning number appears to be two.
Zack Snyder is locking picture on part one of December’s Rebel Moon, his two-part space opera for Netflix. Christopher McQuarrie, the filmmaker behind Paramount and Skydance’s Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning, Part One, retreated to a house in the northeast in recent months to edit what he’s shot so far of his follow-up. And once the SAG-AFTRA strike ends, Wicked filmmaker Jon M. Chu has just a few days left of principal photography on the first of his two Broadway adaptations. Then there’s Dune: Part Two (delayed by the strike until March), a sequel to Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (no release date in sight) and Kevin Costner’s two-part western Horizon, hitting theaters six weeks apart next summer.
More from The Hollywood Reporter
These two-parters can serve both art and commerce, say those who work on them. They help studio executives fill out their calendars and extend the lives of franchises. They give filmmakers more real estate in which to tell their stories and let fans linger a bit longer in a favorite world.
But in recent weeks, some of the creative risks of such movies have come to the forefront.
On Monday, Paramount pushed the release date of the next Mission: Impossible movie a year amid the SAG-AFTRA strike, and it is no longer expected be titled Dead Reckoning, Part Two after the first part landed softer than expected with $567.5 million globally.
A week earlier, Francis Lawrence, the director of the two-part Hunger Games: Mockingjay movies released in the mid 2010s, publicly expressed regret over splitting the Suzanne Collins book in two, acknowledging “it was frustrating” for audiences. And Divergent author Veronica Roth, whose book Allegiant was never fully adapted after part one of a two-parter, wondered if a split even made sense for her novel. “Breaking things in two was all the rage at the time. That was why that decision was made,” said Roth, who said she was at peace with it all.
Indeed, plans for the two-part Divergent finale came amid the first wave of two-parters. A few years earlier, Warner Bros. split J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and The Deathly Hollows in two, and the pair grossed a combined $2.31 billion upon release in 2010 and 2011. Next, Summit shot its Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn films concurrently, and ended 2011’s part one on the cliffhanger of Bella (Kristen Stewart) opening her eyes after becoming a vampire.
“There was so much going on. How could we ever possibly do it in one movie?” recalls Erik Feig, who was involved with Twilight, Hunger Games and Divergent during his time at Summit and later as president of production at Lionsgate. “Harry Potter showed that the audience would support it.”
The two Breaking Dawn films grossed a combined $1.54 billion globally, and Feig and Co. followed suit with the Hunger Games: Mockingjay movies. Feig acknowledges the rather downbeat ending of Mockingjay Part 1 asked a lot of audiences, but the films were hits, grossing a combined $1.41 billion globally in 2014 and 2015.
“You’ve gone through this deep and intense journey with us on Mockingjay 1, but oh my God, come back for Mockingjay 2, because it’s going to be super cathartic,” Feig recalls thinking.
Of course, no winning streak can last forever. The Divergent film series, which helped propel star Shailene Woodley onto the A-list, remains a story never finished onscreen. Weeks before the 2015 opening of Allegiant, which adapted half of Roth’s book, Lionsgate hired The Age of Adaline director Lee Toland Krieger to close out the franchise with part two, to be titled Ascendant.
For Krieger, the recently released Mad Max: Fury Road was top of mind. It felt so visceral thanks to it being filmed on location, and Kreiger wanted to bring some of that magic to the Divergent franchise. He pitched going to a far-flung location like Iceland to shoot, rather than taking over Atlanta soundstages. “How do we bring back that a more tactile, emotional human experience?” Krieger remembers thinking.
It all was going smoothly, with trusted genre screenwriter Zak Penn overseeing a pass of the script.
Then, Allegiant opened. The film bowed to a franchise low of $29.1 million, and suddenly the prospects of Ascendant started to dim, and the budget began to shrink.
At one point, Netflix broached making Ascendant. There were also discussions of making the last film as a TV series, one that would have included the original cast to complete the story of Woodley’s Tris, but then handed things off to new actors. Ultimately, none of it felt right.
For those who worked on the project, there’s still a feeling of regret for never completing the story. Feig says in hindsight it would have made a satisfying single film, but acknowledges the pressure to build out a slate helped tip the scales in favor of a two-parter.
“For Twilight and for Hunger Games, it was 100 percent creative that led the decisions to split the adaptations into two films,” says Feig. “For the Divergent series, there were additional factors that led to the decision to split it into two. And I don’t know that it served the creative quite as well as it could have.”
Seven years after Allegiant was scrapped, this cautionary tale doesn’t appear to have diminished studios’ appetites for doubling down on a property perceived as a surefire success.
So it wasn’t a surprise when a two-part Mission: Impossible was announced in 2019, particularly as the news came in between the releases of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, the biggest two-parters of all time. When it was released in July, Dead Reckoning, Part One stood out as one of the few films in recent years to follow the Part One and Part Two moniker. The first It and Dune films did not have Part One in their titles, for instance, and neither did Across the Spider-Verse, which ended with a cliffhanger and a “to be continued …”
Dead Reckoning, Part One won’t get a follow-up called Part Two, but its story will still be told. And there is hope of a franchise rebound, say observers, particularly if it is indeed marketed as a swan song for Cruise’s Ethan Hunt as initially thought (though the actor has suggested he could continue indefinitely).
“It may get a little bit of a bump from people that didn’t even go to the first one because they figure, ‘Well, this is the last one. I better see it,’” says Russell Schwartz, former New Line president of theatrical marketing, who oversaw the releases of three Lord of the Rings features.
Indeed, one prominent producer, having worked on films that were marketed from the get-go as the first of a series, doesn’t see the public necessarily turning its back on the Dead Reckoning sequel, but notes the first film’s performance may lead to tinkering with the messaging, which largely relied on the playbook from the past few Mission films: namely, focus on one big Cruise stunt.
“There was some great storytelling in that movie, but [the marketing] just basically turned it into Fast and the Furious,” the producer says. “They one-dimensionalized it.”
One studio executive chalks up Dead Reckoning’s box office ding to recent Hollywood films not performing as well in China as they had in the past, and the unforeseen juggernaut that was Oppenheimer and Barbie, released one week after Mission hit theaters: “The reality is that those two films overperformed to an extent that impacted the entire marketplace, and Mission: Impossible was the biggest casualty of that.”
The sources who spoke to THR emphasized that success for the two-parter strategy is rarely considered a tenable option for an original project without a built-in fan base. A notable exception to this is Miramax’s Kill Bill Vol. 1, released 20 years ago in October 2003 and six months before its follow-up. The ambitious martial arts two-parter would have had almost zero chance of hitting theaters had it not been for the public’s faith in director Tarantino, not to mention a studio game to take a stab at the double release.
Producer Lawrence Bender recalls that the project was always envisioned as a single film. Not until postproduction did Tarantino and editor Sally Menke decide to split it up into two films that stretch more than three hours apiece and both opened No. 1 at the domestic box office.
“He was setting out to make one movie, but in the process, his genius ended up manifesting two movies,” Bender says. “That’s not a strategy. There are only a few people in the world who could pull that off. He’s one of them.”
Might Costner be another one? The director and star made his mark in the 1990s with big-swing epics, and after some career setbacks, regained his spot on the A-list with the small-screen success of Yellowstone. In releasing Horizon: An American Saga Chapter 1 in June 2024, six weeks before Chapter 2 — and ahead of two more Horizon films expected to shoot after the actors strike is resolved — Warner Bros. is clearly hoping to follow the path of Costner’s 1990 directorial debut, Dances With Wolves, a critical and commercial triumph that collected seven Oscars, rather than that of 1997’s The Postman, an infamous flop.
As for some of the original films that got an extended life with two-parters? Many are getting another shot. Feig, now the founder and CEO of Picturestart, is working on a Twilight TV series, and as a fan is looking forward to the prequel The Hunger Games: Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes. (He’s not involved.) Even Harry Potter might get a TV series at Warner Bros. Discovery.
Says Feig: “These truly iconic characters and distinctive worlds, they don’t come around all that often. And when audiences really connect with them on a deep, primal level, they want to go back to them.”
Oct. 27, 4:49 p.m. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning, Part 1 did not earn a release in China.
Best of The Hollywood Reporter