Each movie must exist on its own, but 2019 did yield some trends
At the start of 2019, there was only one guarantee when it came to the year’s batch of franchise movies: Disney was going to clean up. While that has certainly come true, the rest of Hollywood trotted out a mix of sequels and potential franchise launchers with decidedly mixed results.
On one hand, Warner Bros.’ plan to give the Joker his own mid-budget movie paid off beyond all expectations; “Joker” became the first superhero Golden Lion winner at the Venice Film Festival and the first R-rated billion-dollar hit. “Jumanji: The Next Level” is proving to be a strong Christmas alternative to “Star Wars,” and “John Wick: Chapter 3” gave Lionsgate its biggest hit since “La La Land.”
On the other, audiences were not at all interested in seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton reunite for another “Terminator” movie. Combined with the poor results from “The Shining” sequel “Doctor Sleep” and “Charlie’s Angels,” “Terminator: Dark Fate” caused a chain reaction that led the entire November box office to fall below projections. “Hellboy” and “Men in Black: International” also stood as examples of failed attempts to bring a dormant IP back to life.
So what can we learn from Hollywood’s attempts to make a mint on name recognition and nostalgia? Here are our takeaways.
1. Endings Can Be Big…If They’re Earned
When coming up with big tentpole films, studios often look for a hook to keep audiences interested in a sequel. But the promise of an ending can be just as much of a hook as well.
“Avengers: Endgame” was clear proof of this. The culmination of a decade of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, “Endgame” was the biggest movie in box office history and a global event unlike any ever seen in the history of film. Even though the MCU goes on, “Endgame” promised a final bow for several of the characters that stood at its center for the last decade — and delivered a kind of closure for fans.
But it wasn’t just Tony Stark whose final chapter was written. The promise of an ending was used in the marketing for other films like “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” an animated saga that might not match the cultural footprint of “Toy Story” but certainly was deeply important for millions of young moviegoers who grew up over the course of this decade. While the February threequel didn’t make as much money as “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” which came out in summer 2014, it still managed to gross over a half-billion worldwide.
2. Not Every Franchise Can Wait Five Years for a Sequel
But not every story can wait five years for a new chapter like “How to Train Your Dragon” did. Some sequels to films released in 2014 saw their grosses drop precipitously compared to their previous installments. Warner Bros. was a particular victim of this as “The Lego Movie 2” and “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” fell 45% and 59% compared to their respective original releases.
“The Lego Movie” became a cult hit and 2014’s “Godzilla” was seen as the best American take on the kaiju franchise. But both films had lost much of their novelty by the time their sequels arrived. Warner had released two “Lego Movie” spinoffs based on Batman and Ninjago, making “Lego Movie 2” in reality the fourth installment of the franchise. In addition, the franchise’s style of humor from creators Phil Lord and Chris Miller has become extremely popular and used in kids titles like “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and “Teen Titans GO to the Movies,” causing the sequel to lose another bit of its uniqueness.
A similar effect might have harmed “Godzilla,” as creature features like the two “Jurassic World” films, “Rampage” and “Kong: Skull Island” have given audiences plenty of chances to see giant beasts smash things on the big screen; a battle between Godzilla and Ghidorah in “King of the Monsters” may not have been so appetizing for anyone but hardcore fans. Sometimes it’s not just the most recognizable elements of a franchise film that can lose their luster.
3. Not Everything Needs to Hit the Jackpot to Be a Hit
In an age where Disney is releasing a film that grosses $1 billion every other month, it’s important to remember that a film doesn’t necessarily have to hit that figure in order to be a hit (especially if the production cost is well below a Marvel extravaganza’s). Warner’s $100 million superhero film “Shazam!,” for example, was able to turn enough of a profit with $364.6 million worldwide to secure a sequel.
Universal was never going to be able to make “Hobbs & Shaw” into as big a hit as the billion-dollar “Fast & Furious” films, but was able to raise awareness of the spinoff’s connection to “F&F” enough to earn $759 million worldwide. And Lionsgate, after a 2018 where nothing seemed to work, earned its first $100 million-plus domestic hit in over a year with “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” — the rare threequel that earned significantly more than both its predecessors.
4. Nostalgia Has Its Limits
Remakes of Disney Renaissance films like “The Lion King” and “Aladdin” have shown that nostalgia can be a potent force with moviegoers, but reviving a familiar title isn’t always going to be enough. A lesson on the limits of nostalgia came hard in early November when “Terminator: Dark Fate,” “Doctor Sleep” and “Charlie’s Angels” all bombed at the box office.
All three films were trying to capitalize on titles that first entered pop culture in the ’70s and ’80s: “The Terminator,” “The Shining,” and the original “Charlie’s Angels” TV series. But while all three have their devoted fanbases, revivals still need general interest to find success. An entire generation has come of age without “Charlie’s Angels” or “The Shining” in their lives, and the “Terminator” series hasn’t had a widely beloved entry since 1991. If the 18-25 demographic doesn’t have any interest, your franchise won’t last long.
5. Always Have a Backup Tentpole
A major reason why 2018 was such a massive year is because many studios unleashed some of their best tentpoles: Disney had “Avengers,” Universal had “Jurassic World,” and Paramount had “Mission: Impossible.”
But aside from Disney, studios can’t rely on a single franchise to provide a reliable source of money year in and year out. On years where those top titles aren’t on the slate, there needs to be a backup plan. With no “Jurassic” or mainline “F&F” on the slate, Universal has been able to keep going with “Hobbs & Shaw,” “Secret Life of Pets 2” and some non-franchise films like “Us.” Warner Bros. pushed “Wonder Woman 1984” to next year but still found success with “Joker” and “It: Chapter Two.”
Paramount, on the other hand, has seen its rebound 2018 collapse into a disappointing 2019 with no films grossing over $100 million domestically. The studio should have a better 2020 with sequels to “A Quiet Place” and “Top Gun” coming, but Tom Cruise won’t be able to bail the studio out forever. We will see in the coming year which studios have enough depth in their tentpole charts to keep box office numbers consistent.