Sequels and remakes in Hollywood, 1991 to 2010
This week I look at the performance of sequels and remakes at the US box office from 1991 to 2010, inclusive. The data used is the sample of 1000 films I looked at in my paper on genre trends at the US box office (here), and includes data from Box Office Mojo on the top 50 grossing films in each year across a twenty year period.
Figure 1 shows the frequency with which remakes and sequels achieve a top 50 box office ranking in the US from 1991 to 2010, inclusive. I do not consider films based on the same source material as remakes: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and Robin Hood (2010) tell the same story but the latter cannot be considered a remake of the former. Similarly, there are lots of versions of A Christmas Carol, and it would be foolish to consider any of them remakes of one another. I also do not include the film originating a series of sequels, since they originally may not have been intended to part of a series (e.g. The Matrix) or a planned series did not materialise (e.g. Superman Returns). I also haven’t classed reboots (e.g. Batman Begins or Star Trek (2009)) as sequels or remakes, though I have included James Bond movies in the data.
This gives us a total of 157 sequels and 46 remakes, accounting for 16% and 5% of the 1000 films in the sample, respectively. This does not suggest the dominance of sequels and remakes to the extent we may have expected, but it is clear from Figure 1 that there is an increase in both types of films after 2001. From 1991 to 2000, sequels account for 10% of the highest grossing films. In the period 2001 to 2010, sequels account for 21% of films reaching the top 50. The same trend can be seen in the increasing in frequency of remakes, which double from 3% to 6% from one decade to the next.
Figure 1 Remakes and sequels in the top 50 grossing films at the US box office, 1991 to 2010
The low number of sequels in 2005 appears to be due to the fact this year was the odd year in the release pattern of many the major franchises, with only Star Wars: Episode III – The Revenge of the Sith and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire being released.
Not only do sequels increase in frequency from 2002, they increasingly occupy the highest positions in the box office chart. Sequels do account for the number 1 position in 1991 (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and 1999 (Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace); but with the exception of Avatar, the highest grossing film in every year since 2003 has been a sequel. It is worth nothing that the highest grossing films in 2001 and 2002 were Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Spiderman, respectively, which means that since Saving Private Ryan clinched the number 1 spot in 1998 a franchise films has been the top grossing film in the US in eleven of the past twelve years.
Looking further down the rankings, we note that prior to 2001 sequels generally did not occupy the highest rankings:
- In 1992, three sequels round out the top four (Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Batman Returns, Lethal Weapon 3) behind Aladdin.
- In 1995, four of the top 10 films are sequels, including Batman Forever (2nd), Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (5th), Goldeneye (6th), and Die Hard with a Vengeance (10th).
But in 1993 the highest ranking achieved by a sequel was Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit at 19, and Star Trek: Generations was the highest grossing sequel in 1994 reaching 15 and Star Trek: First Contact reaching 17 in 1996.
From 2001 we start to the sequels colonising the upper echelons of the box office charts:
- Five of the top twenty films in 2001 are sequels.
- Seven of the top sixteen films in 2002 are sequels, including half of the top 10.
- In 2003, 10 of the top 25 grossing films are sequels
- In 2004, five of the top eight grossing films are sequels, including Shrek 2 and Spiderman 2 in first and second place, respectively
- Two of the top three films in 2005 are sequels
- Five of the top nine films in 2006 are sequels
- In 2007, six of the top 8 films are sequels
- Four of the top nine films are sequels in 2008
- Although Avatar was the highest grossing film released in 2009, the next three places are occupied by Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2nd), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (3rd), and The Twilight Saga: New Moon (4th), with sequels accounting for nine of the top 25 films.
- In 2010, eight of the top twenty-five films are sequels, including four of the top five.
Although this represents the domination of the box office charts by sequels in the early twenty-first century we are talking about a small group of franchises, including Shrek, Toy Story, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Transformers, Twilight, Spiderman, Batman, Iron Man, X-Men, Pirates of the Caribbean, and James Bond.
Remakes account for a much smaller proportion of films, but as noted above tend to follow the same trends as sequels. Remakes also tend to perform worse than sequels, occupying lower box office ranks. None of the number 1 ranked films in the sample are remakes, compared to 9 sequels. The highest ranked remake in the first decade of the sample was True Lies, which reached number 3 in 1994. Other high grossing films in this decade include Father of the Bride (9th in 1991), three films in 1996 (101 Dalmatians (6th), The Nutty Professor (8th), and The Birdcage (9th)), and two films in 1998 (Doctor Doolittle (6th) and Godzilla (9th)). Generally, remakes perform relatively poorly and there are even two years (1992 and 1993) in which no remakes made the top 50. In the second decade covered by the sample, the frequency with which remakes make the top 50 doubles but this does not necessarily translate into higher rankings. High grossing remakes include Ocean’s Eleven (8th) and Planet of the Apes (10th) in 2001 and War of the Worlds (4th) and King Kong (5th) in 2005.
There is also empirical evidence that remakes perform poorly at the box office relative to the original version: Ginsburgh, Pestieau, and Weyers (2007) compared the quality and box office performance of remakes relative to the original movies. This is their conclusion:
The main conclusion one can get from this simple and straightforward analysis is that remakes do worse in terms of quality and in terms of box office. The first conclusion is not surprising, the second is more so, but is consistent with the heavy tails in the distribution of returns on movies …, and leads us to conjecture that producers invest in remakes in the same way as they invest in sequels, hoping for a hit, or at least for a positive revenue. What Terry Press, the marketing chief of DreamWorks, writes about prequels and sequels (“when you have a title people recognize, part of your battle is already won”) applies probably to remakes as well.
This argument strikes me as unusual since we may expect that remakes would be of higher production quality that originals, especially since the producers of the later version will have access to new technologies for filmmaking. For example, the production quality of Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) may be judged superior to Willis O’brien’s stop-motion original from 1933 because it uses CGI and motion capture to create a more realistic experience for the viewer. This does not mean the viewer will automatically prefer the most recent over any other version (though I’ve never met anyone who liked the 1976 version with Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges). It all depends on how you define ‘quality.’ Obviously judging ‘quality’ is a very difficult thing to do, and I do not think the method used in this paper is sufficiently reliable since original and remake will be rated based on different criteria. For example, the rating of the remake will take into account its relationship to the original while this is obviously not possible when rating the first version of a film. Furthermore, the definition of quality will depend not only on the relationship between original and remake but also on the relationship between each film and its contemporaries. The contemporary relationship is likely to be more relevant than the historical: the comparison between Peter Jackson’s King Kong and other high grossing films in 2005 (Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, War of the Worlds) is likely to be more relevant in judging quality than between this version and the original. However, this research does not appear to have considered this as a factor.
It is certainly a reasonable argument that producers think of remakes in the same way they think of sequels, and that the opportunity to exploit a recognisable brand underlies the impulse to make both types of films. But even a cursory glance at the box office rankings such as this post shows that remakes do not offer the same level of financial reward as a Shrek 3 or Iron Man 2. From a financial point of view, sequels are to be preferred to remakes.
Ginsburgh V, Pestieau P, and Weyers S 2007 Are Remakes Doing as Well as Originals? A Note, Working Paper 2007/05, Center of Research in Public Economics and Population Economics, University of Liège.