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In the cinemas, it's the year of the sequel

Just when you thought Hollywood might come up with some new storylines, the sure-things, in the form of sequels, are due to flood the screens

What do you think the highest-grossing film worldwide was in 2010? Inception? Alice in Wonderland? Clash of the Titans? They're all close, but Toy Story 3, the latest adventures of a gang of sentient playthings, roundly beat them all, and it's not the only sequel in the top 10. Others that made the cut (and their producers a lot of money) are the most recent instalments of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises, as well as the second Iron Man movie and the fourth Shrek.

It's no wonder that 2011's film schedule looks as if it's going to be wall-to-wall sequels - film audiences evidently like what's familiar. It's the movies that are coming out now that were green-lighted at the height of the financial crisis that struck a few years ago, and when there's less money around there's less of an incentive to take risks. Sequels make money, and you'd better get used to them because the trend isn't disappearing any time soon.

While there's inevitably going to be a lot that are watered-down versions of the originals, rehashing the same jokes and ideas, not all sequels are awful - you just have to know what to avoid. Take, for instance, Final Destination 5, the fourth spin-off of the movie about kids being hunted by death. Because pretty much all the main characters died in the first Final Destination movie, casting directors are freed up to cast a load of fresh actors for each sequel. It also means an entirely new ludicrous plot about cheating death has to be spun, with new characters. The most we can hope for are some cheap thrills.

Like horror movies, action thrillers, can get away with spawning sequel after sequel if they don't take themselves too seriously in the first place. I doubt anyone's surprised by the news that another Mission: Impossible flick will be hitting screens at the end of this year, with Tom Cruise returning to the starring role - although, seeing as he's already pulled off three so-called "impossible" missions, perhaps it should be re-named "Mission: Quite Tough".

JJ Abrams, who directed M:I-3, is on the writing credits for Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, and has been replaced behind the camera by Brad Bird, best known for the animated blockbusters Ratatouille and The Incredibles.

Also unsurprising is the forthcoming release of a third Transformers movie, with Shia LaBeouf reprising the starring role. The second outperformed the first at the box office, becoming the ninth-biggest-grossing movie ever within the US. Like Spy Kids 4, X-Men: First Class, Scary Movie 5, Happy Feet 2, The Hangover Part 2, Kung Fu Panda 2 and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked (all slated for a 2011 release), it seems likely that it will rake in the dollars without bothering any awards-panel judges.

It's more puzzling when middle-brow movies such as Shakespeare in Love, which was written by Tom Stoppard and won seven Oscars, are reincarnated to make their producers a few bucks. That's right - the story of Shakespeare falling for Gwyneth Paltrow as he struggles to write Romeo and Juliet might well get a follow-up as a result of a new deal between Miramax and The Weinstein Company.

Shakespeare in Love, along with Bad Santa, Swingers, Rounders and Bridget Jones's Diary, is a film that Harvey and Bob Weinstein produced for Miramax before starting a new production company. Now they've agreed to a deal to create potential sequels and TV projects from that back catalogue. In a statement, the Weinsteins said: "We are very close to these films," and noted that they were in a position to create sequels "that are at once worthy and compelling in their own right". Other films on the list include the cult favourites From Dusk Till Dawn and Clerks.

Then, of course, there are the juggernauts. If you're not already sick of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart looking moody and tortured in Twilight, New Moon and Eclipse, then the release of Breaking Dawn Part 1 in November (the adaptation of the first half of the final book in the series) might be enough to break you. Similarly, anyone not infected with Pottermania will need to brace themselves for the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 in July - and then breathe a sigh of relief in the knowledge that the series is over. For now.

Amid all that, there are some sequels to get genuinely excited about, and they're usually the ones that embrace a sense of the ridiculous. Scream 4, which heads up a new trilogy of Scream films, reunites its original cast (Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Neve Campbell) and writer-director team of Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven. The script makes fun of Hollywood's endless production-line of sequels and remakes, with the characters having to figure out the current rules of the horror genre in order to predict the movements of the killer. "A lot of films, directors and studios are the butts of some of the jokes," Craven has said.

Also in the works is a third Ghostbusters movie, which is expected to feature the original cast alongside a new generation of phantom-fighters. Bill Murray said in an interview last year that he told producers of the sequel: "I'll do it if you kill me off in the first reel," adding, "so now they are going to have me as a ghost in the film."

File that one alongside a potential sequel to Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure that's currently being written, and Twolander (a follow-up to the Ben Stiller vehicle Zoolander) as spin-offs so silly they might just be brilliant.

The trend is set to carry on well into 2012, with the third film in Christopher Nolan's Batman series, The Dark Knight Rises, set to be one of the year's major events alongside another JJ Abrams Star Trek movie, featuring the same cast as the first. The space-opera sequel may be more experimental than its predecessor; its writers are toying with the idea of ditching the idea of a conventional villain in favour of an "exploration sci-fi plot where the unknown and nature itself is somehow an adversary".

Nolan, meanwhile, is also determined that his Batman sequel won't be stale. He has said in the past he would make a third movie only if the story required it, with the question "how many good third movies in a franchise can people name?" foremost in his mind.

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