Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The 2011 movie year in box office trends part I: Sequels drop domestically, but soar internationally.

I generally dislike trend pieces. I'm a strong proponent of the idea that how well a film does is specific to the movie itself.  That having been said, there were a handful of interesting patterns that did rear their ugly or not-so ugly heads this year.  These pieces will be more about box office trends and what they may mean for the future.  Without further ado, here we go...

Sequels grossed less here, but much more over there!
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, with a few exceptions, it was generally a foregone conclusion that sequels would cost more than the originals but gross a bit less.  Normal were sequels like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom ($184 million versus $242 million for Raiders of the Lost Ark) or Batman Returns ($162 million vs. $251 million for Batman).  Yes, you occasionally had a break-out franchise like Lethal Weapon ($65 million for Lethal Weapon, $147 million for Lethal Weapon 2), but the franchise growth pattern was generally closer to the likes of Beverly Hills Cop or Gremlins.  But sometime around 2001, starting with The Mummy Returns ($202 million versus $155 million for The Mummy) and Rush Hour 2 ($226m/$141m), we started a ten-year trend of sequels generally out-grossing their predecessors domestically.  You could argue the first big example was Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, which out-grossed its predecessor in just its opening weekend in June 1999, but the general rule quickly became that a well-marketed sequel to a popular original could be expected to out-gross its immediate predecessor in America.

We saw all three Lord of the Rings films, the first three X-Men films, and the first three Bourne pictures step up the domestic gross of their predecessors and The Matrix Reloaded crush the domestic gross of The Matrix.  We saw the second Pirates of the Caribbean film set a new opening weekend record while clobbering the first film's hefty domestic ($423m/$305m), while Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen did the same ($402m/$319m).  It wasn't always a foregone conclusion, as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone remained the series high mark until the eighth and final chapter, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones failed to come anywhere near The Phantom Menace, and each Spider-Man picture made less domestically than the last.  But the idea that a sequel could capitalize on the success of the original in a major way, that it could 'pull a Dark Knight' became the standard way of thinking.

But this year that all came to a screeching halt.  With the exception of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II, which earned a series high domestically ($381 million) and worldwide ($1.3 billion), the big sequels generally grossed less in America than their respective predecessors while far outpacing the earlier films overseas.  Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides earned 'just' $241 million, which would have been a genuine flop on a $250 million budget had it followed suit overseas.  But the film ended up with $1 billion worldwide, so we are sure to see Pirates of the Caribbean: Voyage of the Bored.  Transformers: Dark of the Moon may have been the best of the series and a watershed moment in quality live-action 3D, but it still grossed $50 million less than the reviled Revenge of the Fallen.  Third films not quite equaling the grosses of their first sequels is not that unusual, as fans of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End or The Matrix Revolutions can tell you (don't say "Ha ha, what fans?" unless you're trying to pick a fight).  But Transformers: Dark of the Moon, like Harry Potter 7.2 and Pirates of the Caribbean 4, got a real 3D-bump worldwide where it ended up with $1.12 billion and became the fourth-biggest grossing film of all-time.  Cars 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part I, X-Men: First Class, Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, The Hangover part II, and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows all somewhat under-performed compared to their predecessors, and almost all of them did or will surpass their worldwide totals of the prior entries due to muscular overseas figures.

None of these films are flops, far from it.  Let me repeat that, all of these films are solid hits if not outright smashes thanks to strong overseas numbers and generally reasonable budgeting (more on that in a later piece).  But it may signal an end to the era where a sequel capitalizes on 2-3 years of pent-up anticipation to explode out of the gate.  The two exceptions to the rule, sequels that far out-grossed their immediate predecessors if not the entire respective franchises, Fast Five and Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol, were arguably the two entries that markedly improved on their long-running franchises (they were also, natch, breaths of fresh air in regards to real stunt-work and practical effects).  Meaning, at least in America, if you want to improve at the box office, you have to hope you can improve on the quality scale as well.

So if The Dark Knight Rises 'only' makes $450 million this summer or Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part II 'only' grosses $260 million next November, don't be too surprised (although both have the 'series finale' cachet that won't hurt in the least).  But those working out the budget details for the likes of Iron Man 3, Thor 2, and Star Trek 2: We Really Don't Want to Make This But Paramount Is Offering SO MUCH Money should take heed.  Just because they loved you once doesn't mean they will always love you just as much the second or third time around.     

Scott Mendelson

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