A few years ago, I had made the argument that putting name stars in movies didn't mean what it used to. Avatar became the biggest grossing film of all-time with an actor no one had heard of in the lead. And it beat a film, Titanic, whose "stars" weren't stars at the time. Sure, they both already had Oscar nominations on their resume, but they weren't actors you relied on for huge box office.
Since then, Hollywood apparently saw what I did and now you see relative unknowns put in tent-pole films more frequently. Most people had never heard of Chris Helmsworth before Thor. And most people have never seen a Chris Evans film, but he landed Captain America anyway. The logic, simply, is this: if you're going to spend a couple hundred million making a film, why spend an extra $10 million on an actor whose name will only bring you another $10 million at the box office. It's a wash. Instead, you cast someone who's RIGHT for the part instead, i.e., Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man; Heath Ledger as the Joker; etc.
Unfortunately, once Hollywood realized that it wasn't the names of the actors that brought in the big bucks, they began to rely on the names of the movies. The Sequel Syndrome seems worse now than it ever was. But the question is: How well does it even work anymore? Let's take a look at this year's sequels, starting at the bottom:
Now, most people barely remember the first one. It wasn't exactly a huge box office hit ($51 million domestic), but someone at Weinstein Brothers obviously thought a sequel was easy money. I'm sure they weren't expecting a whopping 80% drop-off. Ouch! Kiss this franchise goodbye.
Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son
This one might fall under a special category of a studio banking on a sequel AND a star at the same time. Although, despite it's drop from the previous movies' numbers, this one will still likely break even. The first Big Momma movie grossed $117 million; The second, $70 million; and the latest, a paltry $37 million, barely above 50% what the previous entry made and likely the end of this franchise.
Another case where the sequel made just enough to not cost anyone their jobs. The first three Scream movies made, in millions, $103, $101 and $89, respectively. That's the kind of consistency a studio looks for in a franchise. And, it seems, they saw the writing on the wall after the drop in the third film to walk away for a while. 11 years to be exact and the fourth film could only bring in $38 million. It looks like the Scream franchise has been silenced.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules
I have a soft spot for this series. Most people just ignore it. And this is one of the cases where it seems the studio doesn't really care. On average, they cost about $18 million to make and, on average, they bring in almost $60 million at the box office. It's a smart investment. The downside is that those are the AVERAGES. The first Wimpy Kid film made about 20% more at the box office and cost about 20% less to make. (Although, worldwide, they grossed about the same.) That said, if they want to keep using the same kids, the studio could pump out more sequels based on the book series and not worry too much about losing their shirt.
X-Men: First Class
This was a solid film and an improvement, I felt, over Wolverine. I like superhero films, but the X-Men never really did it for me. I thought the first one was okay. The second one is overrated and not much better than the first. The third one is underrated and about the same as the first two. And Wolverine was just okay. First Class was at least an attempt to try something different. But that didn't help at the box office. It's the lowest grossing entry in the series. But when the previous lowest grossing entry was the first film in the series, it's hard to argue that other sequels won't do better. And, since it's already been announced that there is another Wolverine movie coming down the chute AND a Magneto film as well, we will soon see if this one can find its magic again.
Kung Fu Panda 2
This one I find interesting. The domestic gross for Panda is down $55 million from the first film, but the foreign gross is actually higher. Just not enough to justify making another sequel. Spending $150 million to make a film that brings in $160 just isn't good business. I would be surprised to see this one come back.
Okay. Cars 2 is still in theaters, yes. But its run is just about over and it won't make much more than it already has. Right now, it's made close to $80 million less than the first Cars. And what's worse, it cost $80 million MORE to make. In fact, it's going to be the first Pixar movie to not make its money back domestically. It took nearly 4 weeks for it to pass A Bug's Life at the box office, Pixar's all-time lowest grossing film. And it likely will not pass the first Toy Story. One can only wonder just how bad Cars 2 would have done if it weren't for the extra money paid to see it in 3-D.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
This JUST opened, but considering all the records it broke this weekend, I think Warner Brothers should continue making more Potter movies. If only....(sigh).
This is a franchise that continues to shock me. The first one was entertaining. The second felt like a money grab. It went away for 3 years, only to come back with Tokyo Drift which seemed REALLY desperate. Another 3 years go by and BOOM! The fourth film becomes the highest grossing entry in the series. Until the FIFTH one! And the 5th beat the 4th by over $50 million dollars! At this point, there's just no reason to stop. People still want to see this. Just keep going.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
This is another strange one. When this film leaves theaters, it will likely be the fourth highest grossing film of all-time worldwide. The only films that will have grossed more are Avatar, Titanic and the final Lord of the Rings. Why is this strange? Because domestically, it BOMBED! While $237 million is a whole lotta money, when you consider that no previous POTC movie made less than $300 million in the U.S., that's a HUGE drop off. But, when a movie makes over $800 million outside of the U.S., it's pretty hard to argue that a franchise is over. Expect to see more of Jack Sparrow.
The Hangover Part II
This one is another tough argument. This sequel is so far in the black, how can you NOT make another sequel? So what if the general consensus is that it pales in comparison to the first? So what if it cost more than TWICE as much to make? When your worldwide profit is nearly a half billion dollars, you're going to do another sequel. Enjoy.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
This series is done. While they managed to reel the budget in a bit with the third one, it's currently $100 million behind the gross of the second one. And I'm sure Megan Fox somehow thinks it has something to do with her not being in it. These movies are staggeringly expensive (though less than POTC) and I think the market is closing on it.
So how are the NON-SEQUEL movies doing this summer worldwide?
Thor nearly tripled its budget.
Bridesmaids cost $32 million to make. Has made over $200 million.
Super 8 cost $50 million. Approaching $200 million.
Bad Teacher has made its budget back SIX TIMES over.
Horrible Bosses has almost doubled its budget and only in the U.S.
Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen's highest grossing movie ever.
In fact, pretty much the only significant non-sequel bomb of the summer is Green Lantern. But hey, if it makes another $250 million before it leaves theaters, it should break even. The only problem is that it's already leaving theaters. Yeah. Someone will lose their job over that one.
The bottom line is this: Who knows? It seems that the right sequel can bring in big bucks (Fast Five, Harry Potter 8). The wrong one won't. (Cars 2, Scream 4). And then some make money regardless of demand or quality (POTC 4, Hangover 2).
But, in general, the right movie is going to make money if there's a number at the end or not. What IS interesting is that, with exception to The Hangover Part II, a bigger budget sequel isn't better. Just bigger.