Hollywood's New Problem: Sequels Moviegoers Don't Want

Huntsman Still 6  - H 2016
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

"2016 has proven to be a very tough battleground, and the landscape has been littered with a series of sequels that have come up short and thus call into question the entire notion of the inherent appeal of non-original, franchise-based content," says one analyst.

After last summer's Pitch Perfect 2 proved a breakout hit — grossing $287.5 million worldwide, more than doubling the $115.4 million worldwide gross of the 2012 original — a third installment in the suddenly red-hot franchise became inevitable.

But on May 31, Universal abruptly pushed back the release of Pitch Perfect 3 by five months from July 2017 to December 2017. And just days later, it dropped another bombshell: Elizabeth Banks would not return as director.

The reason? Banks revealed over the weekend that the development process was taking longer than expected — and part of that delay was due to the nervousness with which studios are now viewing sequels. The delay pushed the shooting schedule into fall, when it would interfere with her kids' schedules, she explained. "We feel obligated to put out the best movie, and anyone who has done sequels, this third one is hard to figure out what the story is," Banks, who remains on the project as a producer, said Saturday at the PGA's Produced By Conference.

Universal, home of the female-centric franchise, had good reason to slow down. Sequel after sequel has disappointed at the box office this year. This weekend's underpowered opening of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is just the latest example. And that is perplexing and alarming Hollywood studios, which are addicted to turning films of all sizes and genres into ongoing franchises, from comedies to the smallest horror films to tentpoles.

Privately, studio executives concede they are equal-opportunity offenders when it comes to making sequels consumers aren't necessarily clamoring for, such as The Huntsman: Winter's War (the Universal follow-up earned 59 percent less than its predecessor). Others note poor reviews also have become a huge factor, even if a sequel is part of a popular property.

"Sequels of late have fallen on rough times. The tried-and-true formulas and familiar characters and themes that are the cornerstone of the modern sequel have acted as a de facto life insurance policy against box-office failure," says box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian. "However, 2016 has proven to be a very tough battleground, and the landscape has been littered with a series of sequels that have come up short, and thus call into question the entire notion of the inherent appeal of non-original, franchise-based content."

Adds Fox domestic distribution chief Chris Aronson: "The consumer is bombarded by quality, whether it's movies, streaming, cable or network television. Studios struggle to build IP, but moviegoers aren't so tolerant anymore."

It's not unusual for franchise installments to dip, but the declines have become massive, both in terms of opening weekend and ultimate global gross. The canary in the coal mine was Universal's Ride Along 2, the January comedy that grossed $90.9 million in North America, down 33 percent from the 2014 original. February saw Paramount's Zoolander 2 gross 53 percent less domestically, and 32 percent less globally, than the 2001 first film, when accounting for inflation.

Now, sequelitis is damaging the health of the summer box office, but it's too late for studios to inoculate themselves. Over the weekend, Out of the Shadows became the latest follow-up to lag, opening to $35.3 million, compared to $65.6 million for the 2014 reboot.

"Certainly, the bar is being raised," says Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore. "Franchises give you a leg up, but I think audiences are definitely challenging us to make sure the story will be unique and different this time."

Many knew Disney's summer tentpole Alice Through the Looking Glass was in trouble before it launched to a paltry $26.9 million over the three-day Memorial Day weekend — 77 percent behind Alice in Wonderland — but no one anticipated Universal's Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising would come in 56 percent below Neighbors in its debut ($21.8 million vs. $49 million). And the decision to push back Pitch Perfect 3 — coming less than a month after the studio had actually moved up its release to July 2017 from August — was announced just days after Neighbors 2 opened over the May 20-22 time frame.

Late last month, Fox's summer offering X-Men: Apocalypse opened well behind 2014's X-Men: Days of Future Past ($65.8 million vs. $90.8 million). The former got a 48 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, down significantly from the 91 percent earned by its predecessor. Both films are from director Bryan Singer.

Universal, in particular, has been hard hit. In April, Huntsman limped to $19.4 million in its domestic opening, a whopping decline of 65 percent from 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman. In recent years, Hollywood has relied on the foreign marketplace to make up for a sluggish showing in North America. But even that's changing: Huntsman 2 grossed $113.2 million at the foreign box office, compared to $241.3 million for the first film. (North America was worse to be sure, at $47.6 million vs. $155.2 million.)

"This year's sequel slump reveals Hollywood is in a creative funk," says box-office analyst Jeff Bock. "You could argue that sequel fatigue is feeding this; however, audiences still purchase tickets in droves to [some] continuing sagas. It's all about forging new territory and sometimes waiting until significant momentum and interest is built up again, something Hollywood isn’t consistently good at.

"There is something to be said about allowing creative forces time to refuel and recharge," he continues. "However, the pace of today’s studio machinations makes that nearly impossible. For awhile, YA adaptations were arriving year in and year out, and we saw the negative results from that accelerated pace as most became box-office burnouts."

Earlier this year, for example, Lionsgate's YA adaptation The Divergent Series: Allegiant topped out at $176.9 million, down 40 percent from The Divergent Series: Insurgent. And, underscoring that the international marketplace is no longer an automatic savior, Allegiant did far less business internationally, at $110.7 million vs. $167.1 million.

"Perhaps the real question is one of quality not categorization," says Dergarabedian. "Can we simply say that once a movie is labeled a sequel it has, in today's immediate environment, lost value and drawing power with audiences?"

There will be plenty of chances to answer the question, considering the slew of sequels preparing to enter the summer fray, including Finding Dory, Independence Day: Resurgence, Ghostbusters, Star Trek Beyond and Jason Bourne.

Certainly, sequelitis hasn't infected every film. Disney and Marvel's Captain America: Civil War, the first tentpole of the summer, has amassed $1.132 billion globally since opening in early May, a huge uptick over the $714.4 million grossed by 2014's Captain America: The Winter Soldier. (The movie is more Avengers-like in feel, however, and last summer's Avengers: Age of Ultron collected $1.4 billion worldwide.)

And Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, released in late March, took in $871.9 million worldwide, compared to $668 million for 2013's Man of Steel, even if many analysts thought it would get to $1 billion.

If anyone thought sequel success to be a sure thing, a glance at the 2016 worldwide box-office chart proves the power of originals over sequels as Captain America: Civil War is the only sequel that's been able to outgross a pair of original tentpoles: Disney Animation Studios Zootopia, which has just crossed $1 billion worldwide, and Disney's The Jungle Book ($895.1 million).