Sequels vs. Prequels vs. Remakes

To find out if sequels, prequels, and remakes deserve their reputations, we compare some high-profile examples.


In the realm of modern film, studios very rarely leave successful movies alone. In fact, the entire modern industry is all but based on squeezing every last opportunity to make a profit out of a popular film. This means there is high value not only on sequels, but also prequels, and remakes. But when comparing these modern movie making approaches, how do they compare? Is it possible to figure out which approach is the most successful? 

Spoiler Alert: The answer is no. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun comparing them anyway. Each film is by itself a unique project with its own sets of challenges and opportunities. We can’t accurately compare a sequel of one film with a sequel of another because there are so many differences. Likewise, a prequel and a remake all have their own advantages and disadvantages depending on the situation. Finally, there are so many films in existence it is nearly impossible to find any type of correlation because of the large extent of variety in all facets of film production. 

Yet, by crunching some numbers I was able to find some interesting trends among a few select films. I started by selecting 20 different film “franchises”. Each of the franchises I chose had to have at least one sequel, prequel, or remake. In some cases, the original film of a franchise has all of these, in some cases only one. 

I defined a “sequel” as the first film released that continued the story of the original film. Later sequels are ignored, and there are some cases of franchises I have chosen but I may have ignored the true sequel for one reason or another. Likewise, for franchises like Indiana Jones and The Godfather I counted the sequel as a prequel, even though the sequel could be considered both a sequel and a prequel. For the remakes, they could be considered either true remakes or reboots. 

These 20 film franchises run the gambit of different genres in the industry, with varying budgets, varying star power, and being active at different times. The one constant among them were that these 20 franchises were well known to the casual movie watcher, and had a large pop culture influence. Similarly, all of the “original” films in these franchises were successful at the box office upon their initial release (some significantly more than others). 


With the 20 franchises in mind, I chose three different parameters to compare their sequels, prequels, and remakes. The first attribute I decided to use to compare them was the budgets of each of these films. Note that the budgets are unadjusted, so the cost is based on the total at the time the film was released. This does make modern films seem much more expensive than older ones, but it is about comparing films within the same franchise, rather than films of different franchises. Here’s what I came up with. 

The first thing that stands out is how the budgets of sequels is almost always higher than the budget of the original film. This makes sense in most regards because if the original film is very profitable, the studio will not be as stingy spending money on a sequel because it is seen as less risky. However, there are some exceptions. Look at Planet of the Apes and King Kong. Both of those franchises have an “old-school” approach to making sequels, which try to capitalize on the original film by making a quick and cost-effective sequel. The sequel to the 1933 original King Kong came out the same year as the original film, and the sequel to Planet of the Apes came out the year following the original film. All of the other sequels took longer to gestate, and so we can assume they put more effort and thought into making a good follow-up. 

Exceptions to this rule include the Harry Potter franchise and the Star Trek franchise. The Harry Potter franchise makes sense because the original two films were made back-to-back with the same creative team behind them. So the budget of the sequel is less an indication of studio expectations of a sequel, and more a reflection of the ambition required to tell that story properly. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a more striking anomaly. The original Star Trek: The Motion Picture had a huge budget, and nearly flopped in theaters. For this reason the studio was hesitant to spend a similar amount of money. Indeed, the studio had low hopes for the Star Trek sequel, but it ended up being much more well-received thanks to a different approach by the filmmakers. 

If we examine the budgets of prequels, there are fewer surprises. All of them except for Bumblebee and The Scorpion King have have higher budgets than the original films. These two exceptions showcase the different approach taken to making these prequels as compared with the original films. In all of the other cases, the prequels seem to be produced in a similar fashion as the original films (for example, if the original film had a very large budget, so did the prequel).

Finally it makes sense for prequels to have higher budgets than the original films if they are following similar production scopes because the prequels are going to be made after the original films, and so the higher budgets have to reflect higher costs of materials/saleries/etc due to inflation (recall that the budget #’s are unadjusted). 

Similarly you can say the same thing about remakes. Of course they are going to have higher budgets than the original films. Most of them are remade decades after the original films, and reflect more modern movie making technology. So in addition to the cost increases due to normal inflation, remakes are going to have different production methodologies, and in most cases that means spending more money (example, the difference between having actors in ape suits and make-up in the original Planet of the Apes, versus sophisticated motion-capture CGI in the remake/reboot films). 


Now let’s look at how the profitability of these sequels, prequels, and remakes compare. To normalize this value, I am looking at the percent profitability of a film. That means how much of its original budget did it make back? Anything over 100% is profit, anything less than that is loss. So, of course, films with meager budgets that became huge blockbuster hits in theaters will have a very high value of profitability. Here’s how these numbers compare: 

Here you can see that it is the original films which are far and away the most successful at the box office. The only real exception is Star Trek, which was an anomaly because the first film was almost a flop, and yet there was a strong enough interest in the franchise that they could resume with making additional films despite the poor box office performance. I feel like if this happened to any other franchise there would have not been any sequels. Likewise, other cases where a sequel made more money than the original typically have a lower original film budget, yet performed similarly at the box office. This makes the “Profitability %” less for the original film, despite that original film making close to or more than the sequel. 

The next most obvious thing that stands out to me among these films is that none of the prequels got close to the level of success as the original films. Sure, some of them made good money, but they were not blockbuster hits to the same scale as the films that inspired them. The same thing can be said about the remakes. In fact, some of the least profitable films I examined are remakes. The Lion King remake was the only one that had very good performance at the box office, and even then it didn’t get to the level of profitability as the original film did back in 1994. 

Sequels are a little bit of a mixed bag when it comes to their profitability. While movies like Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back were very successful at the box office, it was only about half as profitable as the original film. Other sequels, such as The Two Towers, or Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets were very nearly just as profitable as the original films. Interestingly both of those sequels were the “planned-in-advance” type, with production that took place immediately following the original film. So, to some extent since they are such similar films released very close together, you might expect them to have similar performance at the box office. An example that is the alternate to this is Aliens, which was not a pre-planned sequel and was released 7 years after the original Alien, and yet its profitability was very similar to the original film! 

Another thing that sticks out is how nearly all of the sequels of non-tentpole franchises fared much worse than their original films in terms of profitability. The sequels to Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, The Fast & the Furious, and King Kong all had significantly lower profitability. In most of those cases, not only was the box office proceeds of the sequel film less than that of the original, but the sequel had a higher budget which hurts its “Profitability” even more. Again, Beneath the Planet of the Apes is an interesting exception to this rule, but the only reason it has a higher profitability is because it has a lower budget.


Next, let’s look at audience opinions of these films as they compare with the sequels, prequels, and remakes. To do this, I looked at the Rotten Tomatoes scores of each of these films. This value gives a generally good approximation of audience and critic opinion towards these films. I find it is neither too critical or too accommodating, and that makes it a good tool to compare audience opinion of these types of films:

Again, the trend is for the original films to be rated the highest, or nearly the same as the sequel/prequel/remake. Interestingly one of the films that was an exception to the trend of the other data was also an exception here. Star Trek the Motion Picture was not well liked by audiences or critics, and again that would have probably been a death knell for any other franchise. 

Prequels are lower-rated than the original films, but there have been some notable exceptions. The biggest exception is Bumblebee which is rated much higher than the original Transformers film. Other good prequels include The Godfather: Part II, and X-Men: First Class. Rotten Tomatoes scores for remakes are universally lower than the original films. The exception is the same exception as in all of the other categories – Star Trek. The 2009 film was much better appreciated than the 1979 original. The only other one that comes close is Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Sequels are a bit of a mixed bag, but generally if they are high-profile high-budgeted sequels, they will have similar or slightly lower Rotten Tomatoes scores compared to the original films. Iron Man 2 and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen are two notable high-profile big budget films which saw a significant fall in audience appreciation compared to their original films. Likewise, sequels to low-budgeted films also seem to have fared poorly with audiences, look at Halloween II, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and Son of King Kong.


So, what can we learn from this exercise? Here are some of my thoughts, based on this information. 

  • Movie franchises have a very low likelihood of success if the first film in the franchise is not a major hit at the box office, not well-received by audiences, or the franchise doesn’t have pre-existing material upon which a fanbase is already established. 
  • Sequels make the most sense for major franchises with high budgets. Pumping out low budget sequels of moderate-to-low budgeted original films is not sustainable in today’s industry. 
  • Remakes are almost always a bad idea. Despite higher budgets, they rarely match the original films’ profitability or audience appreciation. 
  • Similarly, prequels are expensive ways to continue a franchise. There are examples of prequels being well-liked by audiences, but their profitability is almost always lower than the original film or standard sequels. 

Again, these findings are based only on the films examined here. I am sure there are many exceptions to these rules, but when you think about it these findings shouldn’t really be that surprising. As such, I feel they are a good indication of the trends in the industry. We have always been skeptical of prequels and remakes, and there is a good reason for that. Likewise, sequels are just as likely to entertain us as they are to frustrate us. But thankfully, the industry has put more effort into making solid sequels, and so they are much less risky these days than they had been in the past. 

 

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Managing editor. Fascinated by the history of film. "Film can teach us just as well as it can entertain us, and the things we learn from film can be much more beneficial to our lives than the short-term entertainment we extract from it."