Why Sequels Dominate the Box Office, and How the Cycle Will End

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by Gabriel Storment (@SeaStorm24)

The summer movie season is officially upon us, and with it, a slew of sequels, retreads, reboots, reimaginings, rehashes, re-dos, do-overs, and Paul Blart 2.

People love familiarity. We order the same items from the menu over and over because we know we enjoy them and we want to enjoy them again. We listen to the same songs repeatedly on the radio when we already know the words by heart. The anticipation and subsequent consumption (i.e., binge watching) of shows like House of Cards increases with each new season. (Not to mention piracy. By the end of the first 24 hours of its availability on Netflix, Season 3 had been illegally downloaded almost 700,000 times.)

There’s a reason why we’ve seen a combined seven (SEVEN!) procedural dramas with either “NCIS” or “CSI” in the title. (Though I’m convinced most of the blame for those shows lays at the feet of your parents and grandparents who are scientifically incapable of resisting Mark Harmon. He’s this generation’s Matlock.)

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When we’re presented with a world we enjoy, we want to go back and visit. And then talk about it with friends. We really love doing that. We post about it, tweet about it, text about it. Twitter is to marketing what anti-vaxxers are to the measles. It just makes it that much easier to spread to the masses.

There’s something about the fear of the unknown, where there’s a resistance to engage with a new story or learn about a new world or character. It’s harder to start over than it is to pick up where you left off with something you already know you enjoy.

Obviously, the studios know this. And it’s just business. There’s less risk in releasing a movie that’s already a known quantity or part of an established brand. Does anyone want to bet the numbers for Magic Mike XXL’s opening weekend won’t far exceed the original’s? Most of the highest grossing movies each year are based on established intellectual property, and those that aren’t will be turned into sequels faster than you can say “Batman LEGO Movie spin-off.”

Top Grossing Movies of 2014 (from boxofficemojo.com)

Rank Title Total Gross
1 American Sniper $347,920,677
2 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 $337,135,885
3 Guardians of the Galaxy $333,176,600
4 Captain America: The Winter Solder $259,766,572
5 The LEGO Movie $257,760,692
6 The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies $255,119,788
7 Transformers: Age of Extinction $245,439,076
8 Maleficent $241,410,378
9 X-Men: Days of Future Past $233,921,534
10 Big Hero 6 $222,412,064
11 Dawn of the Planet of the Apes $208,545,589
12 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 $202,853,933
13 Godzilla (2014) $200,676,069
14 22 Jump Street $191,719,337
15 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) $191,204,754
16 Interstellar $188,020,017
17 How to Train Your Dragon 2 $177,002,924
18 Gone Girl $167,767,189
19 Divergent $150,947,895
20 Neighbors $150,157,400

Every so often a publication will talk about the possible return of the spec script. But as long as the current trend continues and movies keep pulling in the kind of numbers shown above, the studios aren’t going to change their behavior. They’re going to mine those comic books and young adult series down to the marrow.

Check out this infographic from GeekTyrant for further proof:

the-decline-of-original-movies-infographic-geektyrantBlockbusters used to be rare, something extraordinary that was hoped for if all the pieces fell into place and the stars aligned. Now they’re planned for. The studios have the list of ingredients: hot young stars, big budget CGI, and over the top action, all aimed at young males because… well, because we’re not too bright and we’re easily entertained. At this point it’s outside the norm if these movies don’t perform to expectations.

The current Hollywood system resembles the country’s financial system prior to the 2008 housing crisis. Box office results send the message that Hollywood has never been in better shape. Studios rake in the cash from blockbusters just like sub-prime lenders raked in the cash from all those home buyers who thought they were grabbing their piece of the American Dream. But it’s not sustainable. The housing bubble, just like the current Hollywood system, is an illusion. It can’t last.

How the Blockbuster Bubble Will Burst

It works like this: A studio allocates a hefty portion of their budget into a handful of tent-pole pictures that they’ll release during the summer and holiday seasons. More money for the tent-poles = fewer movies getting made overall = fewer spec scripts getting produced. This is not a good thing. Smaller, original stories have to find other means of production and distribution (e.g., indie or TV) or they don’t get made. An unknown title can hope to have a great showing at Sundance or Toronto or any other stop in the festival circuit and make a distribution deal, but the odds aren’t good. Also, more and more actors and filmmakers who used to work solely in movies are either making the jump to the small screen or not working at all.

Primetime TV is peppered with actors who used to work solely in movies. In her fantastic book, The $11 Billion Year, Anne Thompson reflects how the recent glut of expensive, formulaic action movies directed at young males made it difficult for Steven Spielberg to get Lincoln financed, and how Steven Soderbergh had to take his Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra to HBO to get it made. We’re already starting to miss out on some potentially great movies because the studios don’t want to take the chance that they’ll lose money.

Of course, technology has played a part. Streaming content on a 70 inch HD TV is a decent reason to avoid paying $15 for a tub of popcorn and a box of Milk Duds. To keep people coming to the theater in the 50s when televisions were first being plugged into every living room in the country, studios started releasing sweeping epics with scope and special effects that just weren’t possible on the small screen. And it worked. The same thing is happening today. Big budget special effects features in 3D on an IMAX screen are relied upon to keep people coming to the multiplex. It’s okay if you stay home to live tweet Game of Thrones on Sunday night as long as you go to the movies on Friday or Saturday.

Where does all this lead? Eventually we’ll come to a point of diminishing returns where people aren’t showing up to see [Insert Superhero] stop [Insert Supervillain] from blowing up the world. I don’t see the government coming to the rescue if the Big Eight studios are in danger of pulling a Lehman Brothers, but they’re all corporate-owned at this point anyway. They’ll be sold off and broken up, but they’ll survive. And then, maybe they’ll just have to start producing some spec scripts and hope for the best.

Like they used to.

~

Gabriel Storment is an aspiring screenwriter, husband and father of two little hellraisers. He is based in Seattle and can be found on Stage 32, Twitter, and Facebook.

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