A conversation circling the film industry for some time has been the debate between original and franchise filmmaking. Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter permanently changed the game on film series, leading to a short turnaround of a new film every year or every two years. Marvel has taken things a step further with two and soon to be three films per year in a series. Today the term “franchise fatigue” has gained traction as more franchises put out a greater number of films in closer succession. There’s also a worry of depreciating audience numbers due to the perquisite of seeing the previous films. Will someone watch The Conjuring 2 without first seeing The Conjuring? Will they enjoy it less?
There are a number of examples from this year where performance has declined in direct sequels. Of course other examples exist of the reverse, Captain America: Civil War, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Deadpool are all attached to massive franchises and doing just fine. Looking at 2016 thus far:
The Conjuring $57m vs. The Conjuring 2 $53m (6-day)
This series experienced a very slight drop in dollars matching its slight drop in tomato meter score. Surprising though, as very few well reviewed horror films are released in a given year and currently it’s the only horror film in theatres. Perhaps the high tension low gore original alienated some audience members looking for the next film by the director of Saw.
Now You See Me $38m vs. Now You See Me 2 $29m (6-day)
A 15% rotten tomatoes drop but both films were rotten to begin with. Was there really a precedent for this film to have a sequel? The first film grossed $117m domestic on a $75m budget. Granted there was an extra $234m overseas but still that’s not exactly franchise material. Someone must have really believed in that second script. Otherwise this film could have stood nicely on its own as a mediocre caper film.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles $126m vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows $65m (13-day)
This is mostly a case of poor reactions to the first film. A live action Ninja Turtles film was bound to make money bringing the nostalgic crowd, the action hungry moviegoers, and the families looking for something to distract their young ones for two hours. The trouble was that it disappointed most of those groups. The name had enough strength to supersede the poor reviews but not enough to earn a second chance. The second film actually had slightly better reviews but not “fresh” and not enough to get people to try it again. Personally I enjoyed the first film better than expected and look forward to watching the sequel someday.
Alice in Wonderland $268m vs. Alice Through the Looking Glass $63m (18-day)
With a scaled back budget, a non-Tim Burton director, and a waning appreciation for Johnny Depp it should surprise no one that this did not do well. Also there is an unfortunate lack of literary knowledge in the movie watching community and few people knew what Through the Looking Glass was. I spoke with one less informed person who shared that she thought it was another version of the same story, not a sequel. Others believed it was an original story, not related to previous texts.
Neighbors $129m vs. Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising $53m (25-day)
What a waste that this film was turned into a series. Neighbors was a pleasant, contained, and surprising comedy. It’s one of those moments where I wish they had taken a page from Edgar Wright’s playbook and used the same actors and director in a new comedy. Unfortunately the fact that no one wanted a sequel to the competent 2014 film is overshadowed by the numerous feminist blogs proclaiming it failed due to misogynist Hollywood not believing in a female antagonist or the “girl-power” message of the film. The same excuses will likely be used for Ghostbusters’ inevitable failure.
Divergent $150m vs. Insurgent $130m vs. Allegiant $66m (Final)
This should less be called franchise fatigue and rather YA fatigue. The steady decline in box office performance matches reviews pretty well but also reflects the viewer frustration with protracted ending films. The novel Allegiant was split in two similar to Mockingjay, Deathly Hallows, and Breaking Dawn. This technique is really only a justifiable step when the novel spans near 800 pages like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Allegiant doesn’t exactly have the depth of story to span four hours.
Olympus Has Fallen $98m vs. London Has Fallen $62m (Final)
Again, why was there a sequel? This wasn’t a huge grossing film to begin with and it could have easily stood alone as a mediocre R-Rated action film. Instead it now has an awkward and underperforming sequel. Both films were rotten but there was a slight drop in reviews again.
Snow White and the Huntsman $152m vs. The Huntsman: Winter’s War $47m (53-day)
This is one of the weirdest runaway disasters of sequels. It was odd back in 2012 when Universal announce that the action heavy fairy tale was to be turned into a trilogy. After that things became even more complicated when the director and star of the first film came out with a complicated romantic entanglement removing both parties from the pending sequel. After that one of the two title characters was removed and the sequel was reworked as a prequel with a first time director, leading to one of the worst reviewed wide release films of 2016.
Ride Along $134m vs. Ride Along 2 $90m (Final)
The first film came around the time when Kevin Hart’s particular brand of Eddie Murphy mimicking swelled in popularity. Both films seem equally bad based on reviews and having seen neither I can’t quite comment on the narrative logic of a sequel, but it certainly seems like the diminishing returns were rejected by audience members.
Zoolander $45m vs. Zoolander 2 $28m (Final)
Something I struggle with frequently is a disconnect with my generation’s nostalgic tendencies toward bad pop music, bad fashion choices, and bad comedy movies. Zoolander was released in an era when I despised any slapstick comedy. That loathing still remains on a low simmer but I’m slightly broader minded today. Regardless Zoolander is a terrible film and never deserved the cult status it inexplicably achieved. The fourteen years later sequels seldom work out but this one seemed ripe to please fans if only it had delivered a worthwhile film. This time it was a trite and derivative pulpit piece about the body positive movement that will be as dated fourteen years from now as the references to celebrities from the 90s are in the original film.
God’s Not Dead $59m vs. God’s Not Dead 2 $20m (74-day)
It feels wrong to even consider this a film but unfortunately it is. These films, along with the other mindless bait for self-righteous religious types, are made with such little money that there is no risk in putting them out for the shockingly large group of people who will pay to see a cheap production support their hollow beliefs.
Kung Fu Panda $215m vs. Kung Fu Panda 2 $165m vs. Kung Fu Panda 3 $143m (137-day)
A distinct difference between Pixar and Dreamworks is that Pixar believes in a solo film. Although frequently demands of executives get in the way and lead to sequels like Toy Story 3, Cars 2, Monsters University, and Finding Dory, Pixar makes a habit of allowing each film to be open and shut. Dreamworks on the other hand looks at each film as an opportunity to start another Shrek-like franchise. Kung Fu Panda is one of the more deserving entries in that, improving as the films continue; showing real class and genuine talent as they expand the cultural and cinematic references within each film. Sadly audiences have not met each film with the same enthusiasm and I question whether or not a Kung Fu Panda 4 is in our future.
Looking at all of this evidence I see a correlation which I identified earlier this year with BvS: average audience members are paying more attention to reviews. Of course there are some who will supersede the suggestion of the tomato meter and watch a film in spite of its poor reviews due to a love of the actors, franchise, etc. but that group is dying out. Unfortunately, as I have detailed in previous posts, the tomato meter is hugely flawed as a method of gauging the overall critical reaction to a film. The other conclusion to draw from this 2016 data is that some films should really not have a sequel. Rather than complaining about the big franchises, which is what most pundits focus on, it is the small sequels that drive moviegoers to feel frustrated.
Finding Dory opens this weekend and due to the good will of the previous film (thirteen years ago), the positive reviews (95%), and the lack of quality family films in cinemas currently lead to projections of a record breaking opening weekend. Although I do know many individuals who feel slightly betrayed by the unnecessary sequels Pixar has turned to recently, Finding Dory included, and may hold out on this film for at least a few weeks. Next weekend we see the first sequel to Independence Day, a film that twenty years ago would have unquestionably sparked a franchise today and does not hold up upon more current viewings. The $306m domestic return from 1996 is unlikely to be matched this year.
Later this year we will see a third in the ongoing Purge series, which is common enough for horror films to have a running series of cheaply churned out sequels. Saw set the bar high with seven sequels in a row, so this third film starring what appears to be a retired porn star is unsurprising. Ice Age has its fifth film released this year after the franchise low with its fourth outing. Animated films have an unfortunate tendency to generate running series with underwhelming originals and Ice Age has taught children the most bizarre concept of our planet’s history. First the Ice Age occurs, then global warming, followed by dinosaurs, and finally continental drift all occurring within the adult lifespan of a sloth. Another low performing action film, The Mechanic, is getting a sequel after its $29m performance. Bridget Jones is getting a strange revival this year after the second film led to disastrous results. Perhaps they will work Renee Zellweger’s new face into the story. Underworld has gone up and down in its performance but the fifth film comes out this year after the fourth film met a franchise high four years ago. Jack Reacher, Tom Cruise’s recent proof that he cannot open a thriller, gets a sequel this year and unfortunately it does not have the gimmick of Werner Herzog as a villain. The novel series has enough popularity to suggest this franchise could have a future but this second film is really the last chance to snag audience members. Ouija has a sequel, more evidence that any and all horror films can get sequels regardless of quality or box office performance. And another thirteen years later sequel, Bad Santa 2 will hit theatres this year to the chagrin of anyone who valued the unique original.
My closing question is whether it is better to have unnecessary sequels churned out trying to squeeze extra dollars out of those who paid to see the first film, or if derivative and blatant imitation films are superior. In the 1980s there were a number of notorious films with the same basic premise as Alien released under different titles but following the same plot points. Deep Star Six, Leviathan, and so on acted as that cheap sequel we see today. Is it better because it doesn’t cheapen the original Alien and left it open to a worthwhile sequel six years later? Is there value in keeping the connectivity to the original in most cases? Many sequels try to exist in a vacuum to prevent viewers from feeling left out if they haven’t seen the original, a common complaint coming out of Captain America: Civil War. But as I see it the value of a running series is the ability to reference that earlier material. If the film exists as an individual entity then it may as well be original. Why make The Conjuring 2 and not another “true” haunted house film if you’re not going to leverage the pre-existing character development?