Why Does Hollywood Produce So Many Sequels?

Every time I talk about movies with friends or even acquaintances the question comes up of why there are so many reboots and sequels coming out of Hollywood. Well, “question” isn’t the right word, because it’s more of a criticism and complaint. You’ve probably felt it too: Why can’t Hollywood make original movies with new, contemporary characters?

There are a number of reasons for this phenomenon, but the best way to understand the thinking of the production and funding teams behind major blockbusters – both those that skyrocket to success like Wonder Woman and those that plummet immediately into the mud like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword – is to look at the list of biggest box office hits in the history of cinema. Luckily that’s easily found in the online world and Wikipedia has a great compilation.

avatar production still
“Avatar”, the most successful film of all time.

Top of the list should be no surprise if you’ve paid attention to cinema: Avatar. With a staggering production budget of $237 million, the visually lush but somewhat daft environmental film pulled in over $2.7 billion worldwide at the box office. By far, the most successful film of all time. But don’t focus on revenue, focus on cost here.

By contrast, the mediocre Keanu Reeves martial arts fantasy 47 Ronin is considered one of the most expensive flops, costing $175 million for production and another $50 million for marketing. Its total box office take: $38.6 million. Net loss: $186 million dollars.

titanic production still
“Titanic”, the second most successful film ever.

Success or failure, big films have big budgets and involve huge risk, so it’s no surprise that the organizations and investment companies that fund films have become risk averse. Take a chance on an unknown character in an unknown story and lose your $200 million investment? No thanks.

And so let’s have a quick look at the top twenty films by box office gross. I’ve already highlighted that Avatar is #1. What you might not realize is that another James Cameron film is #2: Titanic, grossing $2.1 billion. No wonder Cameron is famous for saying he’s “king of the world!” in Hollywood. What’s amazing is that he hasn’t done much to parlay this extraordinary success into more box-office hits.

And then we get to the sequels. At #3 is Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($2.06 billion worldwide), Jurassic World is #4 ($1.6 billion), Furious 7 is #6 with $1.5 billion, Avengers: Age of Ultron #7 with $1.4 billion, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 is #8 with $1.3 billion.

All sequels.

For completeness, #5 is The Avengers, #9 is Frozen and #10 is Beauty and the Beast (2017), none of which are sequels, though the third is a remake, of course. Well, you might be able to argue that The Avengers is a sequel since the characters were introduced in their own films prior…

skyfall production still
“Skyfall”, the most successful James Bond film.

Of the top ten gross films, six are sequels or reboots. Expand the list to the top twenty and it’s even more clear: only one isn’t a sequel or part of a franchise: Minions. Oh! Wait! It is. It’s a spin-off sequel from Despicable Me, isn’t it? In fact, #10 – #20 are all sequels: The Fate of the Furious, Iron Man 3, Minions, Captain America: Civil War, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Skyfall, Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Dark Knight Rises and Toy Story 3.

If you’re keeping count, that means that sixteen or seventeen of the top twenty movies are in the category of reboot or sequel. Is it any wonder that Hollywood keeps churning these out? We movie-goers are the problem, walking up to the box office at the local cineplex and opting for sequels instead of new content, original films and contemporary storylines.

What’s astonishing is how few of these top twenty films are actually good movies (yes, a completely subjective perspective). Indeed, of these, only a couple are on my ready for a rewatch list: Beauty and the Beast and a personal favorite of mine, Skyfall. The others are safe bets, perhaps, but quite honestly, next time you feel like complaining about the lack of originality in Hollywood and at the cineplex, take a look at your own moviegoing habits, because you and I, we’re the culprits, not the big pocket production companies.

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