Why Sequels Have Taken Over the Box Office

There has been little original fare among recent box-office blockbusters

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Chris Evans and Robert Downey, Jr., reprise their roles as Captain America and Iron Man in "Marvel's The Avengers."

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Hollywood studios have latched onto a new strategy: delivering big explosions, car chases, and CGI, served with a hefty helping of deja vu.

In 2011, nine of the 10 top-grossing films worldwide were sequels, led by the final Harry Potter installment ($1.3 billion), Transformers: Dark of the Moon ($1.1 billion), and the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean offering ($1 billion), according to online movie database Box Office Mojo. So far this year, six of the top 10 top-grossing movies are part of bigger franchises, including four sequels (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Men in Black 3, Madagascar 3, and Wrath of the Titans), one film with sequels to follow (The Hunger Games), and one hodgepodge of heroes from other films (Marvel's The Avengers). Another of 2012's top hits, Titanic 3D, is a high-tech reissue of the 1997 hit.

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Moviegoers have a smorgasbord of recycled characters to choose from in part because studios want to make absolutely sure they keep theater seats full.

"It's an industry rife with uncertainty in that every time you make a movie, you're making a prototype product that you have no idea that anyone wants," says Lawrence Turman, film producer and the chair of the Peter Stark Producing Program at the University of Southern California.

Not only are box-office revenues uncertain, he points out, but piracy and online viewing have helped to take a bite out of the revenues that come after a film's theatrical release.

"It's a little harder for major studios to make money now because their DVD sales have dropped precipitously," he says.

Consumer spending on buying and renting discs and digital movies fell by 2 percent in 2011, to $18 billion, as USA Today reported earlier this year. And while Blu-ray disc sales grew by 19 percent, DVD sales—a much bigger market—dropped 20 percent.

In addition to giving studios a surefire path to more revenues, making sequels can also simply be more efficient.

"It can diminish the need for casting an all new set of actors. And they're often also filmed in a series, which saves time and money," says Agata Kaczanowska, lead entertainment industry analyst at market research firm IBISWorld. For example, all three Lord of the Rings movies were filmed back-to-back.

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Still, while making a sequel can save some trouble and maybe some money, film studios still tend to stick to big-budget, CGI-heavy blockbusters when it comes to franchises. In other words, moviegoers shouldn't hold their breath for Black Swan 2 or Revenge of the Social Network.

"The idea of doing sequels was not invented by this generation, but the kind of sequels have totally changed directions. Now the only sequels are the big rock'em sock'em ones," says Turman. "The studios have learned that the biggest revenues come with the biggest cost, the most expensive risk. And if it worked once, why not a second time?"

Indeed, a glance backward suggests that sequels didn't always dominate. In 2000, only one movie in the global top 10—Mission: Impossible II—was a sequel (though Meet the Parents and X-Men went on to inspire more installments). In 1990, only two films in the global top 10 were sequels.

Big-budget action films make big money not just because they're fun; it's because they market well to foreign audiences. Thus far this year, over 70 percent of Men in Black 3's grosses have come from overseas, along with 58 percent of The Avengers' $1.4 billion.

"To put it in blunt terms, the big companies—Warner, Sony, Universal, Paramount, all those—they are essentially making movie for people who do not speak English," says Turman. A film that involves lots of visual stimulation without thousands of words of reading, he says, will be more enjoyable for many non-English-speaking audiences.

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Put more simply, hearing Prometheus' Noomie Rapace scream in terror as she delivers an alien via a robot-administered C-section requires no translation. Hearing Colin Firth's King George VI overcome a speech impediment requires a more nuanced explanation, not to mention a fair amount of reading for foreign audiences.