Franchise fatigue? Why box office fumbles won't cure Hollywood's addiction to sequels
Figures suggest audiences are growing weary, yet Hollywood barrels ahead
If you're heading to the multiplex this summer, there's a heady whiff of déjà vu mixed in with the smell of popcorn.
In the movie business, where originality seems to be an endangered species, sequels are a growth industry. But a litany of recent franchise fumbles suggests we've reached a new level: Peak Sequel.
In 2015, Hollywood released roughly 30 sequels. This year? We've got 39 and counting. While the number of sequels is rising, however, box office performance figures are suggesting audiences are growing weary of that familiar feeling.
In 2012, Snow White and the Huntsman earned $155 million (all figures in U.S. dollars) in North America. This year's sequel earned less than half that — $47 million.
When Tim Burton introduced Alice in Wonderland in 2010, it pulled in $334 million domestically and more than $1 billion worldwide. But this year's Alice Through the Looking Glass eked out just $51 million in North America — a painful shortfall for a film with an estimated budget of $170 million.
From the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to a repeat trip down the aisle for My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, audiences aren't returning in strong numbers.
Yet the upcoming film calendar is crammed with continuations of everything from Independence Day to Bridget Jones's Diary.
Part of the problem is Hollywood's tendency towards rush jobs, according to Emily Gagne, film writer and editor of Cinefilles.ca.
"They're being turned out really fast or just aren't quality," she said of many sequels.
Also, unlike the arc carrying through the various Marvel Avengers movies, many of today's franchises aren't following a larger storyline.
"It depends on how it's being told and if [audiences] know there's a future to the series," Gagne explained.
With something like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for instance, "if you don't know if there's going to be another one," you don't feel the need to watch each instalment.
A changing market
Taking what might have been standalone films, such as Now You See Me or Neighbors, and changing them into franchises demonstrates how the movie business has changed.
Call it "the Harry Potter effect." Increasingly, studios are looking for film properties that will keep audiences coming back for more. In an era of ballooning budgets for blockbuster hopefuls, sequels typically have brand recognition with audiences — making it easy for marketing and merchandising.
The other factor at play is the increasing importance of the international audience, including Russia, Europe and China, in particular.
While North American ticket sales have remained relatively flat for the past few years, the movie biz in China is exploding, with its box office increasing 40 per cent from 2009 to 2014.
Let's take another look at Now You See Me. In 2013, the magician heist film made $117 million at home, but — abracadabra! — it scored $234 million in foreign markets, including nearly $23 million in China alone.
When it came time for a followup, producers set a significant portion of the film in the Chinese peninsula of Macau and included supporting roles for Taiwanese pop star and actor Jay Chou and The Joy Luck Club's Tsai Chin.
Earlier this week, the CEO of Lionsgate (the studio behind the fledgling franchise) also announced that work on Now You See Me 3 has already begun.
So, while western audiences appear to be tiring of cinematic retreads, the growing importance of the international box office has Hollywood shifting its focus.
With new versions of Pirates of the Caribbean, King Kong and more slated for 2017, the trend shows no sign of fading. By the time audiences sit down to watch those films, China could be the biggest movie market in the world.
Plus, with Chinese cinema chains constructing a mind-boggling 15 new movie screens a day, the film forecast appears to indicate more of the same, with an increasing Eastern flavour.