The sequel awakens

By the time I started getting pimples I was pretty well acquainted with the Disney universe. I thought I knew most of what was out there, even though I wasn’t that big of a fan. So imagine my dismay in the late 2000s when I found a DVD with Bambi 2 on the cover, and couldn’t believe it was real. I thought “…no way is there more to the whole deer story. It’s over – the mother died. This is some fake, black market release for sure.” Well, I was wrong. Bambi 2 had come out in 2006.

Ten years after its release, I still haven’t seen it, so I can’t really judge. But last week I (very randomly) found out that there might be another movie in this franchise planned for 2019: Bambi 3, a sequel to the 1942 original and a midquel of Bambi 2.

If you think movies are getting ever more unoriginal, you’re in good company. American film critic James Lewis Hoberman came to call the growth in sequel frequency in the 70s and 80s as “sequelitis”. Even Hollywood has started calling it a sequel dump, and there seems to be no end in sight. In 2016 there’s an expected queue of 37 sequel releases in the US domestic movie market alone. As is natural, it’s expected for some of them to flop, and for some to go big.

A look at sequels that made it to the top 100 biggest grossing movies in the US over the past years reveals that the practice of milking an original idea over multiple iterations is a pretty common one.


So what’s happening to Hollywood?

The big picture

Researching this post I’ve relied heavily on the work of one Stuart Henderson – author of The Hollywood Sequel – and what looks like the most authoritative figure on sequels in general.

Hollywood-made sequels, says Henderson in an article published last year, were once deemed the “ultimate triumph over art”. Some would go so far as to say that this is still the case. But Henderson uses past tense in large part due to his holistic perspective on the issue; simply put, if you look at the big picture, sequels shouldn’t be considered all that bad. In fact, Henderson argues that many sequels revolutionized cinema.

Thus the sequel is not necessarily a symptom of recent history, but rather a necessary variation of how cinema gets done. Compiling a dataset of nearly all American movies since the inception of the art in its modern manifestation (so long form video with a narrative behind it), Henderson says to have found that “sequential storytelling” has always been in some way part of the way Hollywood has made its business.

Sequential storytelling has always been in some way part of the way Hollywood has made its business.

That means that ever since the 30s, going on to the 70s (which caused critics to first flare up at the lack of creativity some studios displayed) and well into the 2000s and our times today – sequels have always been a common form of moviemaking, regardless of the fact that people might have not always liked them.

The numbers

It isn’t just sequels that get a bad rap. Sourcing a movie’s script can take on a plethora of forms, and Hollywood remakes (i.e. reproducing previous work) take just as hard a hit when it comes to public perception on their originality.

Yet maybe there’s wisdom in treating this carefully. Some of the best movies ever are themselves remakes, even though now we might mistakenly see them as stand-alone releases, for lack of knowledge or context. (Scarface is just one example – the 1983 cult classic is, in fact, a remake of another movie from 1932; Ocean’s Eleven is another example of a remake, and the list goes on.)


As is evident from the above breakdown, it’s not always a guarantee of artistic mastery to have an original, brand new script. It all boils down to your approach on this, but by looking at the data from 1994 to 2013, by far the most original type of movie in the US has been the romantic comedy – a movie genre famous for its lack of style and order. This should come as no surprise I guess, the odds are you can’t create an ample storyline spanning multiple iterations with ease, given your main goal is to serve the public a quick no-brainer that’s meant to highlight flat character stereotypes – and sure, you can try developing another Bridget Jones’s Diary franchise, but the odds might not be in your favor.

The market

What’s clear is that in recent times there’s been a surge of highly visible sequels, prequels, adaptations and what have you, released just a few breaths after the first (or last) movie in the mother franchise.


A look at the US domestic movie market over the past decade points to an overall preference for scripts that are brand new. With nearly half the market taken, original screenplays outshine all other forms of movie writing right now. And yet it’s clear that some readily-available sources are also popular.

Take books. Since the genesis of filmmaking, movies have taken their plots from literature. Even in modern times, something like one in every four films worldwide has its origin in a book. But what modernity has brought to the table is a diversification and – what some might say, a dumbing down of the subject matter – by including things like video games, TV shows, and comics as the basis for full blown Hollywood productions.

In modern times, something like one in every four films worldwide has its origin in a book.

But splitting up movies based on their scripts is a tedious endeavor that can very easily get overly complex. Just for the sake of example take movie franchises that are based on comic book characters: are they sourced in comic books (so pop fiction) or are they continuations of narratives from previous releases (so just sequels) – or maybe both? It might just be an overall better bet to look at the source of that specific story and how it came into being developed into a movie. So that’s what I did.


New scripts are indeed most common in the US domestic market, with literary fiction coming in second (and just in case anybody was aiming at this after my previous reference to comic books, just about as many movies were released this year that had their source in superhero literature as there were movies sourced in novels). Just by looking at the area chart above there wouldn’t be any straightforward way to see this, but the gist of it is this: there’s a reason why certain sources are getting more consistency and volume as time goes by, and that’s franchising.

When Hollywood was in its creative heyday (so prior to television and the internet), movie studios could pretty much release whatever they wanted and be reasonably sure they’d run a profit. After all, if not by going to movie theaters, there wasn’t any other viable way for the average American to see a movie – so people went predictably often. And, in turn, grossing was much more stable for the people that made those movies in the first place.


Nowadays fewer people are going to see American movies in American cinemas than in the recent past. No doubt increased access to internet and cable TV have hit Hollywood hard – and as such ticket prices have gone up due to the laws of marginal utility. In short, prices have nearly doubled only in the last 10 years, and they look set to go up even more.

So why not boost really good stuff and attract more audience segments, instead of just spewing out remakes centered around median tastes? Because nowadays the attention span of the average viewer is highly dispersed, and it all really started with TV. Television gave Americans a new way to consume visual content, and the internet only exacerbated this trend in such a way that nowadays marketing to cinema goers isn’t done based on the quality of a plot or the mastery of the actors, but on the special effects of the movie.


And this in turn influences which scripts get to be developed into full-blown movies. Crunching up the numbers, I’ve found that some scripts are just safer bets. The overall best performing script type I’ve identified are those based on – yes, you read it right – theme park rides. Or, to be specific, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

And yet movie remakes, while in the “danger zone”, are still a pretty good bet when considering how they might hit just two percent under the overall US average gross for a movie. If these movies run on manageable production budgets, chances are they’ll run a profit. And American film studios make back-to-back remakes for the very simple reason that they do tend to be safe bets. Make a sequel to the smash hit of yesteryear and you’re set to cash in on people’s appeal to something they know they might already like.

But what distinguishes most of the sequels and adaptations of today from those of yesteryear is that modern productions have huge budgets and even bigger expectations. Between 2003 and 2012, the average remake production budget was set at a little over $49 million, with somewhere around $101 million being the average gross. That means that the average revenue from making a sequel is somewhere around $51 million.

The average revenue from making a sequel is somewhere around $51 million.

So why are so many movies seemingly devoid of substance? Shouldn’t big money generate enough brain strain on scriptwriters to come up with new and original ideas? The short answer is, well, no. And there are a few reasons behind this.

One is that while modern tech does enable cinema studios to better understand (and even pinpoint) what specific audiences want to see, this causes for the dulling of the very creativity that first drove Hollywood to what it is today. Somehow, by being smarter, American cinema has only managed to become more adept at releasing average films onto the world – again, because it’s just safer in this new market dynamic to release something that’s likely to score a profit.


Another big reason why more movies take on previous releases is because critics don’t really tax movie studios when they recycle old ideas. A look at how Metacritic scored movie reviews based on script source between 2006 and 2010 highlights a very odd fact: derivative scripts get an overall better score than do original ones.

This doesn’t mean derivatives (by which I mean sequels, prequels, midquels and a just about any other ‘quel’) are better – it just means that out of the number that does get released, more of them tend to be good. Counting for volume would reflect how more movies have original plots, and so more individual instances that might not be good. Outliers with really bad or really good reviews skew the averages.


Between 2006 and 2010 derivative scripts dominated originals when it came to positive reviews, and only bested them slightly when it came to negatives. Yet consider how out of all the remakes from 2003 to 2012, the average Tomatometer score on Rotten Tomatoes is set at 46% – while the originals of those movies scored 78%. Why this discrepancy?


Because some movie franchises just take the plot too far to still be considered pleasant to watch. And even though people might still pay the price of tickets, it’s probable that a nosedive in ratings signifies the impending end of a movie franchise.

What this means is that when adjusting for volume, the data does (sort of, most of the time, at least) point to how people prefer original ideas. And yet precisely because there’s room to stretch the cognitive limit of the average moviegoer, Hollywood studios adopt a Darwinian stance to how they recycle ideas: if it’s returning enough on the investment, there’s room for one more after it; especially if international markets are distributing everything you’re producing.


And the data shows exactly this: while people might indeed prefer original scripts, they’ll still flock to see a sequel or two if the franchise isn’t blatantly stupid. While this whole situation might seem to even out the need for fresh material with the predictability of market forces, my take on the data shows a more pessimistic perspective.

So are American movies going the way of fast-food?

At the current rate of things, it’s unquestionable that originality is going south, even if just a bit. Original movies are, with the exception of a few peaks and valleys, constant in how they’re released.


But variations of prequels, midquels and sequels are slowly suffocating the attention span of American cinema. It’s true that the trend isn’t all that powerful, and that in essence, derivative plots aren’t all that bad (especially when you think that the most original of genres is the romantic comedy).

Yet I have a slightly more pessimistic perspective. I think people would flock to see the seventh sequel in some vapid franchise for a second time if only they knew that they’d get to see it in 3D; and there’s something in me that regrets this. After seeing some truly wonderful movies produced by Hollywood I now get the impression that movies studios are dumbing themselves down just to appease everybody’s taste, all the while failing to market themselves to specific viewer segments that might wish for more craft in what they’re paying to see.

Instead of becoming ever more an art, cinema is becoming ever more a business. 

So ask yourself, would you rather have a movie market that boosts creativity and artistry, or just nifty special effects? I’d like a bit of both worlds, myself.

You can find all my data sources below. And if you’d like to contribute to this you can tweet me at alexgabriel_i.


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