Though Hollywood’s first movie sequel, The Fall of a Nation, came out 100 years ago, ever since The Godfather Part II won Best Picture in 1974 and The Empire Strikes Back smashed box office records in 1980, studios have steadily been pumping out sequels.
In 2016 alone, 37 Hollywood sequels were released, which was a record-setting figure that is more than double the number of sequels released a decade ago. It’s not just Hollywood: there’s also Hong Kong’s Cold War 2, Singapore’s Long Long Time Ago 2 and India’s Fullhouse 3. Furthermore, there are nearly 250 sequels scheduled between now and 2020. It remains a rough sketch, but that just means the list is missing a few movies that have not been announced yet.
With sequels left and right, it seems like today, more than ever, is the era of sequels. How did this proliferation happen? Is it possible that there are too many sequels in this marketplace and that the audience is becoming fed up?
Types of Sequels
Thomas Schatz, writer and professor at the Department of Media of the University of Texas in Austin, observes that sequels have been an integral part of the Hollywood model since the 1970s, when blockbuster films like Jaws and the first Star Wars film appeared. Following Star Wars, “there was a much more systematic turn toward sequels and it just accelerated in the ensuing years and decades,” Schatz says.
There are three types of movie sequels: repeats, sagas, and reboots. The bottom-performing sequels are essentially repeats, which rehash the plots, jokes, dialogue, etc. of their predecessors. The top-performing sequels ― sagas ― tend to build on a strong story line, and fare about the same as their forerunners. Reboots, which is when an older film gets a modern makeover, tend to get even more favorable reviews than the old version.
A recent study by professors from the Universities of South Florida, Binghamton, Texas San Antonio, Munster, and Lausanne explains why the audience tends to like sagas more than repeats. The study concluded that people prefer ongoing storylines that mix safety and excitement. According to the research, the best stories are those that move forward dynamically over time. It seems that when things change too much, the audience revolts; when things stay the same, the audience gets bored.
In some ways, the standard for a sequel is set higher than that of the original. A new narrative is crucial for the success of a sequel, according to Paul Levinson, professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. “The sequel has to be at least as good as the story in the original,” he says. “You cannot just bring out the characters and, you know, put them in the same boring situations […] Is the story genuinely new enough and original enough?”
Two examples of franchises that succeeded in balancing such needs of the audience are the seemingly never-ending movie series James Bond and The Fast and the Furious. James Bond continues by rebooting with new actors and paradigms after a handful of movies, bringing back the freshness to the series. The Fast and the Furious started out as most repeats do, with two sequels that were increasingly disappointing. However, the series made a turnaround by bringing the original cast back with interweaving storylines, complex characters and multi-movie development, while at the same time gradually introducing new cast members.
Why So Many Sequels?
For audiences, one of the greatest appeals of a sequel is that fans get to go back and experience the same exhilaration and excitement they felt when the original movie came out. Nicholas Yong, managing director of United International Pictures (UIP) Malaysia and Singapore, reckons that sequels usually do so well because there is already an established awareness and fan base created by the previous films. “A sequel may have characters, effects, spectacular action or stunts which are already familiar and beloved by audiences from the first film, which means it is easier to market these points as reminders to the audience,” he states. Having watched the previous ones already, the characters and plot would be familiar. And with the rise of television, sequels are used as a form of serialized storytelling, such as with the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Star Wars.
Although movie sequels may be conceived in different ways, commonly produced out of a series of stories or as a result of the impressive performance of an original movie, sequels only get made when the first movie is a success. Because of this, a tried and tested formula develops. Thus, while a hit is not guaranteed, there is less risk involved in releasing a sequel compared to that of a completely new film. “Sequels in general carry lower risk as they are green-lighted based on the success of the first one. A sequel will only be greenlit if the first one does well,” says Chow Will Pin, managing director of Twentieth Century Fox Film Malaya.
There is also the issue of licensing. Reboots of recent films usually come around for blockbusters ― particularly superhero movies ― for a slightly panicked reason. For example, in the case of Spider-Man, the studio will lose the character license if they do not actively make movies. In a nutshell, Sony needs to keep making Spider-Man films or the rights go back to Marvel. The biggest reason, however, seems to be revenue. 17 out of the top 20 worldwide highest grossing movies of all-time are sequels, with only Avatar and Titanic holding firm at the top as original films. Though sequels usually make less money than their predecessors, they still make a lot more than the average movie. And with big box-office numbers for a movie usually resulting in more sequels being greenlit, it is probably easier for studios to justify making a sequel to a popular movie than taking risks with new, original ideas. For instance, despite extremely harsh critical reviews, the Transformers franchise has two movies in the worldwide all-time top 20 (Transformers: Dark Of The Moon and Transformers: Age Of Extinction) and shows no sign of slowing down with a fifth movie on the way. Likewise, 2016’s Alice Through The Looking Glass was also approved after the box-office success of 2010’s Alice In Wonderland.
All in all, studios produce back-to-back remakes for various reasons, the most dominant being security and bankability; movies that were past hits are easy financial wins for the future. There is also a guaranteed built-in audience and a better chance for publicity when it comes to familiar films. It seems that now, more than ever, studios are becoming more dependent on prior successes.
The Audience Responds
Following up a box office hit with a sequel makes sense financially; many studios adopted the model decades ago and have milked it so thoroughly that sequels are now increasingly associated with mediocrity. As Thomas Schatz puts it, "I cannot think of an instance in the last couple of years where the critics have really been excited about one of these movies."
There are indications that the audience appetite for film sequels has run its course. A glance at the 2016 worldwide boxoffice chart shows that sequels are not a sure success anymore, as Captain America: Civil War is the only sequel that has been able to outgross a pair of originals: Disney Animation Studio’s Zootopia and Disney's The Jungle Book.
“Sequels of late have fallen on rough times. The tried-andtrue formulas and familiar characters and themes that are the cornerstone of the modern sequel have acted as a de facto life insurance policy against box-office failure,” says box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “However, 2016 has proven to be a very tough battleground, and the landscape has been littered with a series of sequels that have come up short, and thus call into question the entire notion of the inherent appeal of nonoriginal, franchise-based content.”
Box-office analyst Jeff Bock interjected that the sequels which audiences purchased tickets for were “all about forging new territory and sometimes waiting until significant momentum and interest is built up again.” Using recent prolific young adult (YA) adaptations to highlight the negative results from that accelerated pace, as most became box-office burnouts, he continued to make a point that “there is something to be said about allowing creative forces time to refuel and recharge. However, the pace of today’s studio machinations makes that nearly impossible.”
Though it is clear that franchises seem to give movies a leg up, audiences are also becoming more selective. As Fox domestic distribution chief Chris Aronson states, “The consumer is bombarded by quality, whether it's movies, streaming, cable, or network television. Studios struggle to build intellectual property (IP), but moviegoers are not so tolerant anymore.”
Repeats are just not enough; people are tired of them, demanding more sagas. Sequels have to be more developed, satisfying the audience’s need for something unique and different. As Ross Brown, an associate professor of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, says, “[audiences will] embrace [sequels] if they are done well.” The individual movie itself has to work, even if it is part of a series. Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures, puts it very well as “the bar being raised.” As he said, the fact that a movie is part of a franchise or sequel does not let one off the hook. One must comply with the rising standard and make the story exciting, compelling, and fun. It has been established that audiences want novelty but need familiarity. With familiarity being a clear strength of movie sequels, now is the time to reach for novelty.