Hollywood Clings to Sequels Despite Diminishing Returns

As the dismal performance of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” reminds us, movie sequels can be a dicey proposition. But there are about 30 notable franchise pictures slated for this year, of which a little more than a third had been released through May. Thirty-five percent of Q1 box office revenue came from sequels, but the number likely will rise later in the year, when most blockbusters come out.

Hollywood’s reliance on franchises has increased dramatically in the last 15 years. But box office data highlights the risk associated with pursuing endless sequels: A majority of franchises head downhill after the first movie.

Using data from Box Office Mojo, I categorized the top 100 films from each of the last 15 years, according to whether or not they were sequels (defined as movies in a franchise that aren’t the original, includingtraditional sequels, reboots, and remakes). The percentage of revenue from these movies has risen sharply, from less than 10% in 2000 to almost 50% in 2015. The number bounces around from year to year, but it’s clear that the trend is upward.

The big question is how sequels perform relative to the originals in the franchise. When we analyze box office receipts (adjusted for inflation) for the last 15 years for the 50 franchises that include three or more films, we find that almost half had steady downward grosses from the first through the last, while another 10% went mostly downward, with one or two exceptions.

Only three franchises saw steadily rising revenue from each film to the next (“Toy Story,” “The Lord of the Rings,” and “Captain America”). Another 10% rose from the first film to the second, then fell steadily. Fifteen saw uneven performance across the series, including big names such as “Star Wars” and “The Fast and the Furious.”

The analysis gets more interesting if you separate the top 50 franchises over the past 15 years into two tiers. All three of the steadily growing franchises made the top 25, and just 32% of those fell steadily after the first film. But among franchises 26-50, more than half fell with each successive film, and almost two thirds fell either throughout the run or after the second film. In other words, properties that start with smaller hits tend to fall off more quickly, while the bigger hits hold up better through their sequels.

Despite the evidence, the studios continue to bet on the franchises that deliver these diminishing returns, investing on the basis of lower risk. In the meantime, of course, moviegoers are subjected to more of the same, while increasing amounts of original content never see the light of day.

More Film

  • marvel

    Marvel Phase 4 Plan Revealed, But Comic-Con’s Big Winner is Disney Plus

    In a triumphant return to the San Diego Comic-Con main stage, leadership at Marvel Studios managed some splashy surprises and showed off risky creative bets for the next two years of content coming from the superhero operation. But the biggest takeaway from the Saturday presentation inside Hall H was how important Marvel will make Disney [...]

  • Florence Pugh, O. T. Fagbenle, Rachel

    'Black Widow': Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh Go Head-to-Head in First Footage

    Marvel’s “Black Widow” has only been in production for a month, but studio president Kevin Feige still delivered the goods for fans at San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday. Filmmakers brought an intense sizzle reel of on-location shots, kicked off by a dazzling and bone-crushing fight sequence between lead Scarlett Johansson and her on-screen sister Florence [...]

  • Natalie Portman Thor

    Natalie Portman Returns for 'Thor: Love and Thunder' as Female Thor

    Natalie Portman is coming back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but she’s no one’s love interest this time around. The Oscar winner will play a female god of thunder in the fourth film from the Chris Hemsworth series, titled “Thor: Love and Thunder.” Portman hit the stage at San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday to great [...]

  • Fantastic Four

    New 'Fantastic Four' Movie in Development at Marvel

    Marvel is going back to the Fantastic Four. Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige announced that a new movie based on the superhero group is in the works at San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday. Further details, however, including a release date, were not revealed. It marks the first Fox property for Disney to mine since the [...]

  • Mahershala AliMarvel Studios panel, Comic-Con International,

    Mahershala Ali to Star in Marvel's 'Blade' Reboot

    Marvel is rebooting the “Blade” series, and has cast Mahershala Ali to star. Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige announced the news at Comic-Con on Saturday as the panel’s big ending surprise. Ali also took the stage at the announcement to massive applause, donning the Blade baseball cap. Wesley Snipes previously played the half-vampire superhero in [...]

  • Doctor Strange

    'Doctor Strange' Sequel Billed as First MCU Horror Film at Comic-Con

    A sequel to “Doctor Strange” was announced as expected on Saturday at Marvel’s Comic-Con panel — what we didn’t see coming was the tone. Director Scott Derrickson said the film, titled “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” will mine the original comics and play up “the gothic, the horror.” Derrickson said it will lead [...]

  • Simu Liu Shang-Chi

    Marvel's 'Shang-Chi' Finds Its Lead

    Marvel has found its next superhero. The studio announced that Simu Liu has been tapped to star in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” during its Hall H presentation at Comic Con, joining cast member Awkwafina, who was also announced during the presentation. Additionally, Veteran actor Tony Leung has joined the film as [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content