The Summer Sequel Slump Is Nothing New – and It Won’t Change a Damn Thing

By
Share:

If you’ve paid any attention to box office reports this summer, you’ve probably picked up more than a slight whiff of panic – at top volume, right there in the headlines. “Hollywood’s on Red Alert,” blares The Hollywood Reporter. “Box Office Meltdown,” roars Variety. “Rising Box Office Masks Glut of Big-Budget Film Flops,” notes The Wall Street Journal.

As that last headline indicates, there are two phenomena at play. Overall, box office was high this summer, with total revenues of approximately $4.5 billion, up one percent over last year (and the second-best summer total of all time, behind only 2013’s $4.8 billion). But a closer examination of the summer receipts reveals the source of studio executives’ anxiety: those dollars were spread over a limited number of giant releases, with a steady stream of other would-be blockbusters opening big and disappearing quickly.

“So far, this year has included roughly the same number of hits as 2015, but many more flops and moderate disappointments,” writes WSJ’s Ben Fritz. “There have been 15 big-budget disappointments or flops so far in 2016, compared with eight at the same point in 2015.” And a startling number of those disappointments were seemingly the surest things of all: sequels to earlier hits, Hollywood’s safest bet.

“Blame it on the sequelitis virus, which hit the U.S. particularly hard,” writes THR’s Pamela McClintock. At Vulture, Mark Harris offers up a similar diagnosis: “How could we not be a little tired of them? They’re now a year-round business, after all — sequels to movies that already felt like sequels (Ride Along 2), sequels to movies that didn’t need sequels (The Hunstman: Winter’s War), sequels the very titles of which suggest that the point has already been sufficiently made (God’s Not Dead 2). Summer sequels are just those movies with more money and noise behind them.”

The numbers are indeed sobering. Here are the domestic grosses (to date) of 15 summer sequels, compared with the domestic numbers – unadjusted for inflation – of their immediate predecessors. Long story short: fewer people are buying tickets to see later installments of a series than they did for the originals.

Independence Day: Resurgence – $102 million; Independence Day (1996) – $306 million Alice Through the Looking Glass – $77 million; Alice in Wonderland (2010) – $334 million My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 – $59 million; My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) – $241 million X-Men: Apocalypse – $155 million; X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) – $233 million Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising – $55 million; Neighbors (2014) – $150 million The Huntsman: Winter’s War – $48 million; Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) – $155 million Jason Bourne* – $149 million; The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) – $227 million Now You See Me 2 – $64 million; Now You See Me (2013) – $117 million Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows – $81 million; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) – $191 million The Conjuring 2 – $102 million; The Conjuring (2013) – $137 million Star Trek Beyond – $150 million; Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) – $228 million Ice Age: Collision Course – $58 million; Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012) – $161 million Barbershop: The Next Cut – $54 million; Barbershop 2: Back in Business (2004) – $65 million Mechanic: Resurrection** – $7.4 million opening; The Mechanic (2011) – $11 million opening

Widening the scope to include the first half of the year reveals even more drop-offs:

London Has Fallen – $62 million; Olympus Has Fallen (2013) – $98 million Ride Along 2 – $90 million; Ride Along (2014) – $134 million The Divergent Series: Allegiant – $66 million; Insurgent (2015) – $130 million Kung Fu Panda 3 – $143 million; Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011) – $165 million God’s Not Dead 2 – $20 million; God’s Not Dead (2014) – $60 million Zoolander 2 – $28 million; Zoolander (2001) – $45 million 10 Cloverfield Lane – $72 million; Cloverfield (2008) – $80 million

This catalogue of literal diminishing returns prompts real questions about what Variety’s Brent Lang and James Rainy call “the knee-jerk impulse to sequelize.” These films were frequently worse than the originals, if for no other reason than a shortage of compelling reasons to exist: “Were these characters so beloved, and were their stories so rich, that audiences demanded part two?”

The answer, in most cases, is a resounding no. Now You See Me was a surprise hit in the summer of 2013 for exactly the reason Now You See Me 2 wasn’t this year – because it offered up an alternative, colorful characters we didn’t know in a nifty, twisty heist story we hadn’t already been told. And its big surprises were revealed, and it came to a self-contained conclusion. But were there that many lingering, unanswered questions left over from the first film, or The Mechanic, or Neighbors, or Ride Along? Did anyone watch a trailer for London Has Fallen and wonder what crazy shenanigans Mike Banning had gotten himself into this time? (Note: I had to look that character name up.) Did anyone who made God’s Not Dead a hit back in 2014 watch the trailer for God’s Not Dead 2 and shrug, “Well, better go make sure those dirty atheists don’t win this time?”

And in other cases, if audiences ever were asking that question, they stopped asking it a long time ago. Whatever hunger we might’ve had for an Independence Day sequel had long since dissipated in the twenty years after its release. Barbershop 2 did robust business in 2004 by hitting theaters two years after Barbershop; twelve years, a spin-off, and a TV adaptation later, and it kinda feels like that story’s been told.

But what’s striking about the considerable amount of ink spilled – or however the internet equivalent of that expression goes – on this summer’s sequel fatigue is that it’s treated as though it’s a new phenomenon unique to 2016. It’s not. Last year was the worst movie-going year in two decades, and though 2015 boasted plenty of financially successful sequels (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, Furious 7, Pitch Perfect 2, Hotel Transylvania 2, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed), it had more than its fair share of (comparative) domestic disappointments.

Minions made less than Despicable Me 2, Avengers: Age of Ultron made less than The Avengers, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation made less than Ghost Protocol, The Divergent Series: Insurgent made less than the first film in the series, as did. The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials relative to its predecessor. Same goes for Ted 2, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, Magic Mike XXL, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Sinister 2, The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death, and Hitman: Agent 47. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 made less than Part 1 – less than any previous Hunger Games, in fact.

And so on, and so forth, throughout 2015’s cinematic season: Taken 3 is the lowest-grossing Taken movie; ditto Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip and Insidious: Chapter 3. Terminator: Genisys was the lowest-grossing film in the entire Terminator franchise, save for the original movie – which, let us recall, came out in 1984.

In other words, sequel fatigue is not new. It just feels more crippling this year, because a) there were fewer of those megahits, and b) there were even more goddamn sequels.

Unsurprisingly, the summer’s big success stories were, in many cases, original films with no franchise to speak of. The numbers, in many cases still growing, speak for themselves: Don’t Breathe ($26 million opening on a $9.9 million budget); Bad Moms ($95 million on a $20 million budget); Sausage Party ($79 million on a $19 million budget); Lights Out ($65 million on a $4.9 million budget); The Shallows ($54 million on a $17 million budget); Central Intelligence ($127 million on a $50 million budget); The Secret Life of Pets ($353 million on a $75 million budget). By showing us things we hadn’t seen in the multiplex recently – filthy cartoons, dirty-talking soccer moms, etc. – and, for the most part, keeping their budgets modest (imagine that), these pictures engaged audiences and proved highly profitable.

They weren’t sequels to existing properties – or remakes of them, another supposedly sure-fire route to a hit that’s not one. This reliance on the remake formula led to disappointments like Ghostbusters ($124 million on a $144 million budget), Pete’s Dragon ($54 million on $65 million), and The Legend of Tarzan ($125 million on $180 million), and outright flops like Ben-Hur ($19 million on $100 million). As with sequels, notes The Playlist’s Oliver Lyttelton, the idea that remakes are “any more of a safe bet than a slate of original projects seems, unfortunately for studios having one of their worst years, pretty misguided.”

Of course, nervous execs will point to the occasional breakout hits – the exceptions that, to their thinking, become the rule. For remakes, its last spring’s Jungle Book and last year’s Cinderella (never mind Point Break, Poltergeist, The Secret in Their Eyes, and Fantastic Four); for sequels, they’ll overlook that long list of failures for the modest increases of The Purge: Election Year and Batman v Superman, and especially for the eye-popping returns of Finding Dory and Captain America: Civil War***. It’s an extension of the overall studio M.O.: they’d rather make a few big bets and have one or two giant payoffs than make a bunch of small ones with medium returns. It’s gambling in Vegas over investing in the market.

And, of course, it’s worth noting what separates Finding Dory and Civil War from the sequel pack: they were, at the very least, good films, their long legs at the box office as attributable to rave reviews and positive word of mouth as name recognition (particularly in the midst of one of the most critically derided summers in recent memory). So maybe the compromise isn’t fewer sequels — it’s fewer lousy sequels.

All of that said, even comparative under-performers like X-Men: Apocalypse and Jason Bourne got the financial job done. As Rotten Tomatoes Editor-in-Chief Matt Atchity told Business Insider, “For all the audience’s complaints about being sick of sequels and adaptations, just look at the top 10 box office for the summer and see how many original stories there are.” As of this writing, there are two: The Secret Life of Pets and Central Intelligence. As long as the big grossers still have origins in earlier films or comic books, the production slates of major studios won’t change much.

And, of course, there’s a whole other marketplace to consider. I’ve purposefully focused on domestic box office, to see how American studios are responding to what American audiences clearly do and don’t want to see. But we’re not exactly their primary concern anymore; the worldwide gross is now just as important, if not more so, and often the disappointing domestic returns of an X-Men: Apocalypse, Independence Day: Resurgence, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows are more than covered by their double-to-triple performance abroad ($389 million, $279 million, and $160 million, respectively).

When Ice Age: Collision Course debuted in July in fourth place, with a dismal $21 million weekend, it seemed a model for everything that’s wrong with the sequel-to-everything philosophy: a wheezy franchise (this was the fifth entry) with little audience interest, falling stars who were no longer draws, and a bafflingly bloated budget ($105 million). But when it opened in China last week, its robust $42 million first stretch coupled with huge worldwide numbers from the previous month to make for a foreign total of $305 million – and counting. That’s a worldwide gross of $367 million, well into the kind of profitability that’ll get us a sixth Ice Age movie. Those numbers talk much louder than minor disappointments or anecdotal rumblings of sequel fatigue. And that will, in all likelihood, be the lasting lesson of the summer of 2016.

*Yes, I know, Jason Bourne’s most immediate predecessor was The Bourne Legacy, but as that was a spin-off film with a different star and director, and Jason Bourne was widely trumpeted as the return of the original films’ star and director, Bourne Ultimatum seems the more applicable comparison point. FWIW, Jason Bourne has out-grossed The Bourne Legacy, which did $113 million domestic in 2012.
**This one just opened last week, so to be fair, we’ll compare its opening weekend to that of its predecessor.
***That said, while Civil War’s $407 domestic is a considerable increase from Winter Soldier’s $259 million, the loaded cast of characters makes Civil War, in many ways, more of a follow-up to Avengers: Age of Ultron. And it has not met the $459 million domestic tally of that movie (which was itself a drop-off from the original Avengers).