Sequelitis at the American Box Office

In 2011, for the second year in a row, the American domestic box office declined.  It dropped almost $400 million, the steepest yearly drop since 2005, and attendance numbers were the lowest they’ve been since 1995.  If the American public “votes with their dollar,” then apparently they aren’t very happy with the candidates coming out of Hollywood. Perhaps this is because they look and sound an awful lot like the candidates that were in the running last year, and the year before that, and fifteen years before that.

2011 was, much like 2010, the year of the sequel.  The seven highest-grossing movies of 2011 were all sequels, and sequels accounted for approximately one-third of 2011 box office receipts.  Both of those statistics sound like they should please studio executives, until you compare some sequel grosses to those of the previous films in their respective franchises (grosses in millions):

2011 film Preceding film in franchise
Transformers: Dark of the Moon – $352 Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – $402
Twilight: Breaking Dawn Pt. 1 – $280 Twilight: New Moon – $301
The Hangover Pt. 2 – $254 The Hangover – $277
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – $241 Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End – $309
Cars 2 – $191 Cars – $244
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows – $179 Sherlock Holmes – $209
Kung Fu Panda 2 – $165 Kung Fu Panda – $215
Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked – $125 Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel – $219

 Box office fatigue describes genres that run their course and lose their allure thanks to an abundance of copycats and clichés, and now it is time to apply the concept to established franchise properties. Film studios tend to stick with safe, well-worn plots and character types, and the sequel represents the epitome of a theoretically fail-proof production.  Marketing well-known and loved robots seems like a financially prudent move, particularly during the current economic downturn.  Nonetheless, the American public appears to be tiring of predictable, familiar films, demanding new creative content that doesn’t simply rework the elements of a previous film.  Based on the schedule of upcoming films for 2012, which currently features over 25 sequels, film studios seem to have missed the memo.

Perhaps the most telling fact is that the 2011 sequels that did surpass their predecessors’ grosses were those that took time off or moved their series in a new direction.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes (which came out 10 years after the 2001 franchise reboot) and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (which came out 6 years after Mission Impossible III) each revitalized a previously floundering franchise with a critically acclaimed update; their respective scores on Rotten Tomatoes stand at 83% and 93%.  Clearly, audiences and critics are not averse to established franchises, provided that studios offer a meaningful and less blatantly economically-driven reason to revisit their worlds.  A stalwart series such as Harry Potter will weather consumer mood swings thanks to a loyal following and a finite narrative that spans several films, but other less defined franchises now need to prove that each subsequent iteration brings something new to the cinema.

Unfortunately, booming international revenues for these sequels means that the trend is unlikely to change.  All eight of the films in the table above surpassed the worldwide grosses of their predecessors.  The growing international market for films from the United States will (eventually) reach a saturation point, but with the improving prospects for sequels around the globe, it appears that American film goers will be stricken with sequelitis for years to come.

All statistics from Box Office Mojo

John Boles

John Boles is a former Master's candidate in the Communication, Culture & Technology program at Georgetown University and a blogger for gnovis. He double-majored in Communication and Music at Boston College, exploring the intersection of entertainment media including film, television, music, literature, and video games. At Georgetown he is expanding those studies with research on the economics of the cultural industries and the complex issues of narrative and identity intrinsic to the creative process. John is also a composer and guitarist, who most recently released a solo album under the name Align in Time.