Sequelitis Infects Movie Box Office

Can The Great Wet Hope (aka Finding Dory) reverse the slow start to the summer season in the face of a glut of sequels. It may but there are still a lot of reasons for movie distributors to be on edge.

Disney's Finding Dory is The Great Wet Hope for the summer movie season

Only a month and a half into the summer movie season, the slump in box office grosses is already transmitting danger signals about the health of the big screen business in North America and worldwide.

While last year movie sales broke box office records, this year the summer season (from May 1 on to Labor Day) is down by nearly a quarter. The overall year is still up slightly, but for movie distributors a good year vs bad year depends on the summer. What Christmas is for the toy business, the hot weather months are for Hollywood.

The movie business has caught a bad case of Sequelitis.

The heart of the problem is that studio have become dependent on sequels based on past hits to drive their business. Sequels have grown popular because they offer a known and proven brand. Each is expected to bring back the same audience that loved the original (or the last sequel), so there is a base of business.

That high interest is also seen as driven by those who saw the movies in home video and aftermarkets, and fell in love with those characters and that story line.

That worked when sequels were a kind of special part of the movie menu, arriving driven by huge past hits, often original movies. However today sequels in terms of gross dollars have edged out the originals. There is little room for anything but the high budget repeaters.

WHERE HAS THE AUDIENCE GONE?

It used to be sequels were action movie with special effects but today they are also spun out for successful comedies, horror flicks and even some dramas. What once was special has become an annual glut, and many weekends at the multi-plex it seems like there is nothing else to see but the big action and sci fi flicks.

At the same time the audience has ever more high quality viewing and leisure time choices, including mobile, apps, streaming, YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat and ever more digital contenders. If a sequel isn’t somehow better and fresher than the original and everything else out there, it is quickly marginalized, which is when Sequelitis virus reaches the corporate bottom line.

The ever-faster transition to digital has hit the most important single movie audience with the greatest impact, including the Millennials. While last year was breaking overall records thanks to hits like Jurassic World and the return of Star Wars, statistics put out by the Motion Picture Association of America earlier this year reveal movie attendance actually declined among the crucial 12-to-17-year-olds and 18-to-24-year-olds, and rose only a fraction among those 25-to-39-years-of-age.

This MPAA chart shows that last year there was a decrease in movie-going by the youthful audience that goes to the movies the most

It is well known that most movie tickets are sold to the same group of people, who also tend to have more electronic devices and are more active in their recreation and leisure than others. That means about 10 percent of the population buys nearly half of all movie tickets sold. So satisfying that audience is crucial to any movie’s success.

THE EVOLVING HISTORY OF SEQUELSITIS

Two decades ago sequels were far less common, and seemed more special. Even so most sequels in the late 20th Century did only 40 to 60 percent as much business as the originals. As the kind of movies being made has evolved toward big comic book fare, sequels took off and began to regularly gross more – sometimes a lot more – than the original.

So far this year that formula is not working. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has grossed about $872 million globally, which is more than Man of Steel grossed in 2013 with $668 million. But both suffered from huge budgets, poor reviews and bad buzz.

It used to be that big comic book movies were considered review proof. Sure the arty critics don’t like it but the kids still flocked to see it not once but again and again. Now that has changed. Reviews matter and so does word of mouth. What once was driven by what you heard from friends and family today is driven by the instantaneous dissemination of reviews and buzz on the worldwide web.

The total number of major studio sequels so far this year will be 19 at the end of June, according to Box Office Mojo: “The big question with many of these is to wonder if they can improve on, or at the very least match the performance of their predecessors? As we’ve seen so far this year, that’s a tough task. “

The top grossing movie so far in 2015 isn't as big as comparable past hits

Even Captain America: Civil War, biggest hit so far this year with a North American box office of about $397 million, doesn’t match Avengers: Age of Ultron last year which grossed $445 million. Captain America: Civil War has done twice as much business outside North America, grossing $746 million (for a worldwide gross of $1.1 billion. Avengers: Age of Ultron last year did $1.4 billion worldwide.

Other high profile disappointments this summer include Alice Through The Looking Glass, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, The Nice Guys and last week’s Paramount miscue Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Out of the Shadows.

There were a few surprise hits, among them Angry Birds. With a gross of over $74 million, the inevitable sequels will fly out of Finland and onto screens within a year or two.

WHERE ARE THE BLOCKBUSTERS FOR WOMEN?

Movie going once was a habit for many people (attendance peaked in about 1946). Today it is an appointment to attend something which is quite costly when parking, ticket price and concessions are added together. With so many choices, in and out of theaters, only those movies that are familiar yet fresh, interesting to the point of being exciting, a sequel yet original work, draw a lot of interest quickly. Even then it takes ever more expensive TV advertising and digital marketing to reach fickle audiences.

The Lady Ghostbusters ready to raise the box office spirits

There is also the woman problem. Last year was a record breaker but pretty much all the big hits including Jurassic World, Fast & Furious, Avengers and Star Wars appealed much more to men than women. In the record breaking year of 2015, the only top hit movie that attracted more females than males was the animated Disney/Pixar blockbuster Inside Out.

Since women often drive the choice of a date night movie, that adds to the bad news of being so sequel dependent.

It will be interesting to see if the percentage of women rises when it comes to buying tickets for the Ghostbusters sequel due from Sony on July 15. This time the crew are all women.

Ghostbusters also tests how long you can wait to do a sequel. The second Ghostbusters was in 1989, when it grosseed $112 million. The original, released in 1984, grossed $229 million.

The only sure thing is that Sony Pictures Entertainment really needs a hit. It’s currently in sixth place in terms of market share with 6.4 percent, or about one-fifth of Disney. That might even be worse than being hacked.

THINK GLOBAL, LEAVE COMEDIES AND BASEBALL MOVIES AT HOME

A lot of growth in grosses in recent years has come from the markets outside North America. This international business boomed especially in Asia and Latin America as economy’s improved and new multi-plex theaters sprouted up at an incredible pace, often with premium offerings like Imax. Now the building boom may be hitting a level of saturation, even in China,, where the economy is cooling.

Often those foreign moviegoers prefer homegrown movies over the cookie cutter cartoonish blockbusters coming out of Hollywood.

One effect of globalization and sequelitis is to severely limit the kind of movies that get a wide releases. Comedies, movies about U.S. sports and many dramas just don’t work in many foreign cultures. What is left often feels like it came out of a cookie cutter.

There was a time when original movies could refresh the stock of available intellectual property. That is still somewhat true. Two of this year’s big hits (both from Disney) are Zootropia and Jungle Book, but they are breaking the rules not following them. The glut of high profile, over-promoted sequels seems to have edged out most of the originals.

There are some promising originals coming this summer such as Steven Spielberg's BFG, Universal's Secret Life of Pets and Suicide Squad.

The youthful cast of the YA movie Divergent: Ascendant

Even the YA movies (Young Adults) are no longer surefire hits. Lionsgate’s The Divergent series latest installment Ascendant is the lowest grossing of the three pictures, with a gross of $66 million, compared to $130 million for Insurgent in 2015 and the $150 million for the first Divergent in 2014.

The situation appears even worse when you consider that Disney dominates the yearly and summer box office. As of June 12, Disney has a 30 percent share of the total box office this year with $1.5 billion. Second is Fox with almost 19 percent ($908 million) and Warner Bros. at 12 percent ($592 million), having an unusually bad year that slightly brightened last weekend when the horror flick Conjuring 2 opened with a healthy $40 million opening weekend.

Universal, after setting new records in 2015, has come back to earth with movies like the video game inspired War Craft, which opened last week with a disappointing $29 million. It is number four in market share with 8.5 percent. Movies the Comcast-owned studio counted on this year like Ride Along 2 and Neighbors 2 are off sharply from expectations. In 2014, neighbors opened with $49 million and grossed $150 million worldwide. This summer's sequel Sorority Rising opened with $22 million and so far has grossed only $54 million.

THE GREAT WET HOPE

There is hope that help will swim in this coming weekend in the form of Finding Dory, sequel to the wildly successful 2003 family movie Finding Nemo, which had a $70 million opening weekend and went on to gross $381 million for Disney. Long time to wait for a sequel but thanks to kids watching at home, it is expected to draw a huge audience.

There are other promising movies including sequels to Independence Day, Ghostbusters, Star Trek, Ice Age and Bourne.

Movie theaters are only one link today in the revenue chain for a movie, which at times can be even more lucrative for merchandise sales and licensing, as a theme park attraction, and on the many TV and video platforms.

However, theaters remain the crown jewel because they are still the engine that can rev a brand up and drive all those other income streams.

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