The reportage of this week’s box-office returns is focusing, understandably, on the marquee match-up of Ant-Man and Trainwreck. The former’s $58 million opening gross is the second-lowest ever for an Official Marvel Product (after The Incredible Hulk), and the studio’s lowest per-screen average, though those are still respectable numbers and basically in line with expectations, seeing as how it’s a minor entry featuring a lesser-known character. And Trainwreck’s $30 million opening far exceeded expectations, because the people who predict opening weekends somehow still haven’t figured out that women go to movies. (#Hottake: Trainwreck may have actually hurt Ant-Man — and not the other way around, as predicted — since Apatow fans who only had time to see one flick might’ve otherwise checked out Ant-Man for Paul Rudd.) But further down in the top ten, one of the summer’s more interesting business stories is being told, in the lackluster returns of three notable sequels.
In their third weeks, Terminator: Genisys and Magic Mike XXL slogged in to sixth and seventh place with $5.4 and $4.5 million for a respective total domestic take of $80 million and $58 million. And the month-old Ted 2 has clearly stalled out, its $2.7 million (in ninth place) bringing it to $77 million in the US. Now, taken merely on their faces, those aren’t terrible numbers — but when you factor in budgets and expectations based upon previous films in those franchises, they’re pretty dire.
At risk of wandering too far into the weeds, it’s important to note that there’s not a one-to-one correlation between budget numbers and grosses; theaters take a healthy chunk of that gross (less in early weeks, but still), and a production budget doesn’t include promotion and marketing costs, which can get pretty bulky. But as a general barometer, a movie has to make back at least twice its budget to go into the black.
By that measure, Magic Mike comes out looking best; following the lead of the original, it was made for a meager (by studio standards, anyway) $14.8 million, so when you factor in its $31 million foreign take thus far, it’s made a tidy little profit. But Ted 2 won’t — it (somehow) cost $85 million, and its total worldwide gross thus far is $143 million. And in spite of robust foreign business that bumps Terminator’s $80 million domestic gross up to $277 million worldwide, it cost a reported $155 million, which translates to a pretty meager return on investment.
And when you put those numbers up against these sequels’ predecessors, their performance looks even bleaker. By this point in its run, the original Magic Mike had done $91 million stateside, on its way to a total domestic gross of $113 million. Genisys’ $27 million opening weekend was the series’ weakest since the original 1984 entry; the last Terminator movie, 2009’s Salvation (no one’s idea of a smash), had already taken in $100 million by this point in its run, a bar Genisys is looking increasingly unlikely to clear. And Ted 2 is the saddest story, comparatively speaking; the 2012 original was one of the highest-grossing R-rated movies of all time, bringing in $549 million worldwide (I know). It had made $180 million domestic by the four-week mark of its run, more than double Ted 2’s current total — and on a lower, $50 million budget.
I know those are a lot of numbers, and there’s a compelling argument to be made (and your film editor’s made it) that box-office reporting is about the least interesting lens through which to view the movie business. But it is a business, and there’s no single factor with a greater impact on which movies get made than which movies make money — and that’s why Hollywood’s got such a serious case of sequelitis, since there’s no easier way to execute that formulation than to slap a “2” (or an “XXL,” or, God help us, a “Genisys”) after a familiar title.
These three test cases certainly don’t indicate that moviegoers are tired of sequels — after all, the biggest movie of the summer (or the year, or the past few years) is a sequel, and the latest installments in the Avengers, Pitch Perfect, Insidious, Mad Max, and Despicable Me franchises have done quite well for themselves. But the sequel/franchise/make-a-cinematic-universe model that’s being adopted for pretty much every movie that shows a reasonable profit is far from foolproof; from the standpoint of continuing a narrative, it’s worth examining whether there’s actually any there there, and whether audiences of earlier hits are actually interested in seeing more.
Magic Mike is a lot of fun, but even its positive reviews note it’s mighty thin, story-wise (even for a male stripper road movie). Ted made boatloads of money, but any schmuck off the street can tell you it was a novelty hit, and Seth MacFarlane’s “be more offensive” tactics couldn’t close the curiosity gap. And the Terminator series should’ve ended three movies ago; the “brand” has been so watered down by years of mediocre sequels and forgotten spin-offs that even the franchise’s fans can’t get excited about it anymore. Nothing’s going to stop executives from grabbing the money on the ground that franchises seem to represent, but if this trio of disappointments is any indication, they might be wise to pick and choose them a bit more carefully. Then again, when it comes to exploiting their properties, if there’s one thing you can’t accuse studios of, it’s restraint.