Can we avoid another summer of subpar sequels?
Last May, Captain America: Civil War stormed the box office and it looked like a summer full of big films. Then the bottom dropped out of the season with a slew of subpar sequels that weren’t embraced by audiences or critics.
Popular film franchises fuel the warm-weather months at the multiplex, but a lackluster 2016 was “a wake-up call to the studios that putting a number behind the title or calling it a sequel does not inoculate your movie from having a tough time,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore.
Last summer, just four out of 14 cinematic follow-ups made more than their immediate predecessor: Finding Dory ($486.3 million), Civil War ($408.1 million), Jason Bourne ($162.4 million) and The Purge: Election Year ($79.2 million). The rest added up to a case of sequelitis run rampant.
“They weren’t made out of necessity or audiences clamoring for another one,” says Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. “Sometimes absence does make the heart grow fonder — and it definitely makes the script better.”
The good news? There are couple less sequels than last year coming soon to theaters (a dozen between April and September). On paper, it's a crop that looks to be an improvement, including The Fate of the Furious (in theaters April 14), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (May 5) and Alien: Covenant (May 19). “The summer of 2017 should make up for the sequelized transgressions of 2016,” Dergarabedian says.
Here are five lessons that Hollywood hopefully learned from last summer's unimpressive returns:
1. Don’t take too long to make a sequel.
Finding Dory made the most of its Pixar power, successfully following up Finding Nemo 13 years later. But not all long-dormant series were that lucky: Independence Day: Resurgence bombed 20 years after its first movie, and Alice Through the Looking Glass tanked royally, making $257 million less than 2010's Alice in Wonderland.
“A lot of these franchises are honesty past their prime,” Bock says. “It definitely has to live up for those fanatics that loved the first ones.”
That means the pressure’s on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Cars 3, both of which arrive six years after their last installments. “I definitely think that the ship has sailed for some of these properties,” says Erik Davis, managing editor for Fandango.com and Movies.com.
That wasn't the case for 2015’s Jurassic World, which conquered Hollywood 14 years after its previous film. “But is Jurassic World the anomaly?" he says. "It very well may be.”
2. Don’t rush things, either.
Quite a few of last summer's sequels were put out to make a quick buck and suffered as a result, Bock says. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, X-Men: Apocalypse and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising all came out a mere two years after their hit predecessors and made significantly less money — in Turtles' case, $109 million less.
“People can smell a cash grab. You have to let it marinate a little bit, especially with comedies,” Bock says.
In 2017, most sequels are arriving at least three years after their previous film. The exception: The Fate of the Furious, the eighth chapter of an action-heavy franchise that’s proven to have both impressive efficiency and consistent power biennially at the box office.
3. Avoid unnecessary sequels.
Some franchises make so much money that they necessitate more movies — and then there’s The Huntsman: Winter’s War. “Nobody wanted this, but there it was!” says Mike Ryan, senior writer for entertainment site Uproxx.com. “To me, it is the poster child for recent unnecessary sequels.”
Fans didn’t turn out for the second Turtles, another Alice, Now You See Me 2 and Ice Age: Collision Course — all films that followed $100 million-plus hits but fell far short of that mark. There isn't a clear reason for The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature (Aug. 18), given that the original film only mustered $64.3 million three years ago.
On the other hand, audiences are happily anticipating spending more time with the Guardians gang, Ryan says. “It could be that cast just hanging out and playing (the video game) Berzerk for two hours and I bet it would be entertaining because these are fun characters to spend time with.”
4. Be bold and invest in characters.
The same old same old didn’t help films last summer like Collision Course, the fifth film in the Ice Age series, which has a growing cast of prehistoric animals but diminishing earnings. Then there was Neighbors 2, which tapped into a similar plot and cast as its predecessor.
“Sequels need to do something different. They need to think outside the box,” says Davis. Adds Ryan: “Just because a movie did OK doesn't mean anyone wants to see those characters again.”
This summer, Transformers: The Last Knight (June 23) is a film that’s part of a series “that needs a fresher approach,” Davis says. But he sees a gorier Alien: Covenant and a tougher War for the Planet of the Apes (July 14) going bolder, while Guardians and Fate of the Furious double down on their winning sense of family.
“We have been wowed visually in every way that you can be wowed visually,” Davis says. “Now these big movies really have to do extra work on their story and characters, because in a lot of cases, that’s what audiences are now falling back on.”
5. Make a good movie.
It seems like a simple and obvious goal, but many movies failed miserably last summer: Nine sequels scored less than a 60% positive rating on review aggregate site RottenTomatoes.com, with six receiving less than 40% approval. Ouch.
“A lot of times there’s a disconnect between the critics and the audience, but last year they were pretty much lockstep in agreement as to what sequels were inferior,” Dergarabedian says. “You can’t hide a bad movie anymore. Social media is your best friend or your worst nightmare depending on if your movie has the goods.”
Crowds will have to wait and see but at least this summer is promising: Furious, Guardians, Alien, Apes and Despicable Me 3 (June 30) all follow movies that made money and received positive reviews.
“If there’s anything studios can learn from last summer, it's that you’ve got to keep up your side of the bargain with the audience who wants to go along for the ride,” Dergarabedian says. “If you don’t, that’s a stutter step.”