Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Sequelitis and the Cultural Irrelevancy of Feature Films

It seems like everyone in the movie business is talking about this year’s “sequelitis.” The term refers to the poor showing of sequels this year – the general assumption being that the audience is sick and tired of them.

How bad is it, exactly? This chart shows all the sequels among the top 100 movies released in 2016 as of September 6th. Exactly one quarter of the top 100 movies this year were sequels (that’s 25 for those bad at math). I’ve calculated the domestic box office performance of the 2016 sequels relative to the domestic box office performance of the prior movie in their series using data from

(Click on the image to enlarge.)

A few things immediately jump out. First, only four of the 25 sequels released this year outperformed their predecessor. Even worse, twice as many (eight) had greater than 50% drops from their predecessor. It would seem any studio at this point that green lights a sequel not based on Star Wars or a Marvel or DC superhero is insane (or Sweet Home Alabama… everybody would love a sequel to that, I’m sure).

Now there are a few caveats to this chart. Some of these sequels are still in theaters, though all have likely made the bulk of their revenue. I also have not adjusted for inflation – otherwise Independence Day Resurgence, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, Barbershop: The Next Cut and Zoolander 2 would look a lot worse! Probably most important, box office is not the same as profitability. So Barbarshop: The Next Cut, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and The Conjuring 2, for example, may still be quite profitable since their budgets were low. On the other hand, Batman v. Superman is a disappointment relative to budget despite improving over Man of Steel, and big-budget movies like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and Alice Through the Looking Glass are going to rack up even bigger losses than this table suggests.

By the way, if you’re wondering where Jungle Book, Ghostbusters, Pete’s Dragon and Ben Hur are, those were reboots, not sequels (though it’s worth noting that other than Jungle Book all the reboots failed this year as well.)

So what does all this mean? Obviously it means that the audience is sick of sequels. But I think it’s indicative of a bigger problem for the film industry – that of cultural relevance. It used to be that the biggest new pop culture franchises mostly launched with original feature films. The1970s saw franchises like Alien, Star Wars, and Rocky launch with original feature films. The 1980s launched the Terminator, Indiana Jones, Die Hard, Ghostbusters, and Lethal Weapon franchises via feature films. And in the 1990s the movie business gave us the Jurassic Park, Austin Powers, and Matrix franchises. But since The Fast and the Furious fifteen years ago, what major franchises have started with an original feature film? A few low budget horror franchises, but not much else.

It’s not that there weren’t sequels in earlier decades, but they weren’t such a large part of the market. Three decades ago, in 1986, only ten of the top 100 movies were sequels. That means this year there have been two-and-a-half times as many sequels in the market as thirty years ago… and this year isn’t finished yet.

In previous decades, people talked excitedly about what they saw at the movies. They bought toys and comic books and video games based on original movie stories. But television has usurped that conversation. What movie today inspires the kind of widespread enthusiasm that Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead inspire?

Actually, there is one I can think of: Deadpool. And I consider Deadpool to be the exception that proves the rule: a movie that bucked trends to be fresh and different while still appealing to a wide audience. And it was a movie that the studio made reluctantly, insisting on a lower budget than many of those “sure thing” sequels that bombed.

In the seventies, eighties, and nineties the movies had a fairly captive audience. Back then, summer television was filled with reruns. Cable had virtually no original scripted programming. There was no Internet streaming. There was VHS in the eighties and DVD in the nineties, but they mostly gave us access to feature films. In the summer, anyway, if you wanted to see something cool you pretty much had to go to the theater.

That’s not the world we live in anymore. We don’t ever really need to go to the movies to see great, original filmed entertainment. In fact our DVRs are full of stuff we don’t have time to watch. And yet the movie business has responded by becoming less original and adventurous. The studios are not pursuing bold pop cultural statements, they are running to the “tried and true,” which are often also the “tired and dull.”

And if they keep going down this path, pretty soon I’m guessing most people will start to wonder: who needs to go to the movies anyway? Maybe most people already have reached this conclusion – as evidenced by 2016’s sequelitis.


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