We all know that sequels are rarely better than the original film. And sequels of sequels tend to be even worse. Audiences are aware of this fact, which is why traditionally sequels usually gross less in theaters than the original film. If audiences don’t respond to the sequel as well as the original film, they are less inclined to see it more than once, or tell their friends to go see it.
It becomes a matter of diminishing returns; studios try to eke out as much business from one franchise before it no longer makes financial sense to release another sequel. And with each sequel making less money, film studios have been less inclined to spend money on the next one. Look at older franchises such as the original Planet of the Apes, or original Superman films. Despite the popularity and profitability of the original film, each of these franchises found their quality and profitability declining after each subsequent sequel.
As such, if you look at these traditional trends, it seems like it would be a very bad decision to release a delayed sequel. And before the turn of the 21st century, you would be right. Delayed sequels very very rarely made money, let alone received praise from audiences. You risk bombing at the box office and you risk fans of the original film being upset for the direction of a more modernized sequel. But something has happened over the last 15 or so years that has caused the perspective on delayed sequels to change. Despite the risks involved, delayed sequels have found a way to become good business propositions for studios.
Delayed sequels aren’t something new that Hollywood has discovered to throw money at. They’ve been around for a long time, and at their most basic level, they are actually a good idea from a studio’s perspective. For one, rights to an old franchise may be less expensive to obtain than something that is currently more popular. Second, if the original film was a hit, it has some nostalgia value. Fans of that original film would at least be curious to see a sequel, and therefore, you have a target audience without having to spend a lot of effort convincing people why they should see the new film.
Hollywood has been trying to take advantage of the delayed sequel since Golden age of film. An early example includes the 1941 film Meet Boston Blackie, which was a talkie sequel to a series of silent films, the last of which was 1927’s The Return of Boston Blackie. Some more well known delayed sequels over the next few decades include 1978’s Force 10 From Navarone, the sequel to 1961’s The Guns of Navarone, or 1984’s 2010, the sequel to 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Despite the continued attempts, and the decades of lessons to be learned about what would or would not make a delayed sequel a success, filmmakers could never get it right.
It didn’t matter if the original films were very well known, or even if they were Oscar-winning. Look at 1986’s King Kong Lives, the sequel to 1976’s King Kong. Or 1985’s Return to Oz, the unofficial sequel to 1939’s Wizard of Oz. An even better example of the futility of delayed sequels is Disney’s early 2000’s business plan to take cherished films and making cheap, inexpensive sequels (often direct-to-video) in order to try and cash in nostalgia. Return to Neverland, Bambi II, Fantasia 2000, The Jungle Book 2, Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure, and 101 Dalmations 2: Patchs’ London Adventure were all released over a 5 year period when Disney had trouble getting people to see their new, original films.
But just as Disney’s acts of desperation made delayed sequels seem like a terrible idea, they became a brilliant idea. In a decade where everything retro was suddenly hip, so to could old movies be new again. Remakes, prequels, and reboots flooded into theaters, and audiences were eager to pay money to see them. 1999’s Star Wars: Episode I started a wave of old movie properties finding their way back onto the big screen. We saw Christopher Nolan’s version of Batman, a remake of King Kong, and a new version of Ocean’s Eleven. All of these films were profitable at the box office and it led to studios looking for new ways to bring old, established film properties back to life.
Remakes and reboots were sometimes the answer, but there were cases where starting over was not the right answer. It’s one thing to remake a cult film with modern special effects and production. It’s another thing to mess with an original film that was so popular that it is still held in very high regard to this day. Fans of that original film could interpret a studio’s efforts of rebooting or remaking as saying that the original film is no longer applicable, and their support of that film did not matter more than profits. In today’s environment of rabid fan bases, turning off your primary customers is not a good business strategy. Enter the delayed sequel, a perfect answer to studios who don’t want to put off the original fan base, but also want to bring an old movie franchise back to general relevance.
Studios recognized this idea and started paying big money to make new sequels to old films. Movies such as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and Tron: Legacy made their way to theaters, and so did audiences. Despite mediocre reviews from critics, audiences couldn’t say no to seeing their favorite characters back on the big screen for more adventures. Not only did these big-budget films find box-office profitability, but many of them made more money than their original films when adjusted for inflation. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull made $796 million, whereas Raiders of the Lost Ark made $759 million, when adjusted to 2016 dollars. The Terminator (1984) made $97 million in theaters, adjusted for inflation, versus $150 million for Rise of the Machines. The original Tron made just $74 million when adjusted, where Tron: Legacy made $400 million.
One could argue that with higher ticket prices, more theaters, more effective advertising, and more population, that you can’t really make a comparison to the box office performance of today’s films versus those of a few decades ago. But, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that these delayed remakes are making profits despite not being well liked by audiences and critics.
In the past, a movie had to be well received by critics or have good word of mouth in order to make money in theaters. Today, that is no longer the case. Compare the Rotten Tomatoes aggregate scores of the delayed sequels noted above versus their original films for example. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is at 65% versus Raiders of the Lost Ark, which has a 96%. The Terminator has a 100%, where Rise of the Machines is at 70%. And the original Tron has a 70%, versus 51% for the delayed sequel. In general, a good rule of thumb is that Rotten Tomatoes scores tend to drop about 20-30% when comparing the delayed sequel to the original. Yes, there are exceptions (Mad Max: Fury Road and Toy Story 3 are a couple great examples), but by and large this is a common trend. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps has a Rotten Tomatoes aggregate score that is 21% less than the original Wall Street. Escape From LA is 32% lower than Escape From New York, and 2015’s Vacation is at a whopping 67% lower score than the well-loved 1983 original.
The point is, that even with all of our modern technology and fascination with the past, we can’t bring old franchises back to life in the same way that they were originally created. It helps when the original filmmakers are involved and can translate the aspects that made the original film a success (Mad Max: Fury Road, Toy Story 3), but these are exceptions, rather than the norm (Independence Day: Resurgence, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps). The way movies are made today is so different than in the past it means that it is difficult to end up with the same result, even if you start in the same spot. Yet, this is not something that is turning away audiences. Instead, they are even more curious. They want to see what modern filmmaking will do to their favorite film. Some of them grew up watching the original films, holding them in such high regards, that now they bring their children to the theater to see the delayed sequel. For others in the newest generation who may not have related to the original film as much, they are seeing filmmakers of their own age create a new version which is more consistent with their expectations for an enjoyable film.
The emergence of overseas markets is also having a huge impact on the types of films that Hollywood is choosing to make these days, including delayed sequels. Traditionally, big-budget films have made most of their money in North America, but that trend is starting to change. Both Jurassic World and Independence Day: Resurgence are two delayed sequels that did big business in the asian markets. Jurassic World made 61% of its money overseas, and Resurgence is at 70% for overseas versus domestic. Box office performances such as these have resulted in Hollywood studios modifying their methods in order cater to those type of audiences more than they have in the past.
Delayed sequels are one such way to appease both North American and international audiences. One reason is that many older films and film properties that were popular in North America are also popular around the world, even if those markets did not embrace them upon original release. As technology has advanced, access to older films has increased. The second reason that delayed sequels make sense for international releases, is that the filmmakers can work to cater to Eastern audiences for profitability without worrying about Western audiences failing to show up. Fans of the original film in North America and Europe are going to be interested, and therefore will still go to theaters to see the newest sequel. Whether or not this balancing of priorities results in a “good” movie, is still up for debate, but it’s hard to argue with the box office results.
Although audiences don’t typically enjoy delayed sequels more than the original films, the numbers suggest that they will still be paying to see them. As we all know, if certain types of movies keep making money, then Hollywood will be happy to keep making more of them. As such, it doesn’t appear that delayed sequels are going away any time soon. Delayed sequels, and sequels to delayed sequels may be soon even more prevalent than they already are.