With 2019 lagging behind last year in terms of box office earnings, many have singled out the recent string of underperforming sequels as the main culprit of the deficit. Why are so many of these once glitzy and glamorous sequels underwhelming at the box office?
As is usually the case with the box office, memories are short and the huge recent successes of Avengers: Endgame and John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum must have already faded out of pundits’ minds as the industry is swept up in negative headlines. One disappointing weekend is a miss, two becomes a trend, and by the third—the sky is falling!
Let’s start with the positive. Lionsgate’s John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum opened in mid-May to rave reviews (currently at 89% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and a stellar franchise-best $56.8 million weekend bow, nearly doubling its predecessor’s debut. What is perhaps most impressive about the series is that it is barely five years old. The first film’s entire gross actually grossed less than Parabellum’s opening week. What sets this title apart from the early summer’s streak of disappointing titles? With its positive reviews and the social media buzz they engendered across the three major platforms we cover (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter), the film easily led all comparable titles. If no one is clamoring for your film online, it’s simply not going to do well—something especially true for sequels. Sequels are highly visible to their core demographics and, at least theoretically, are supposed to have higher awareness to generate a greater box office return. In this regard, Parabellum was a cut above the rest.
Other results weren’t as favorable, starting with Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which opened to $47 million, almost half of what its predecessor made back in 2014. Critics were not helpful in this regard as its 40 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes was a far cry from the 75 percent the last one received. Though it did have some bright spots on Instagram, its overall buzz levels were lacking, and it failed to generate enough interest from casual fans.
Next up, the pioneering franchise of comic book adaptations, Dark Phoenix, the closing chapter in Fox’s X-Men series. Critics weren’t kind, giving the title a 23 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, a low for the franchise. Looking at its social media returns, it was clear it was going to have trouble generating revenue after it struggled to generate buzz ahead of release. The warning signs started in earnest with its most recent predecessor, X-Men: Apocalypse, whichopened significantly below X-Men: Days of Future Past ($65 million versus $90 million). Dark Phoenix continued that trend.
The Secret Life of Pets 2 was a follow-up to one of the most successful movies of 2016 but couldn’t muster the same level of hype as the original, which opened north of $100 million and made almost $900 million at the worldwide box office. Critics didn’t particularly enjoy the sequel (it has a 57% fresh rating versus the original’s 73%), and while it will emerge as a modest hit, it likely won’t be the runaway success many had hoped. Family films generally tend to have weaker than average social media returns, but the fact that it lagged at around 25 percent or less of the numbers Aladdin managed meant that it was not on enough older moviegoers’ radars to become a crossover hit.
Shaft opened on June 14 and was not received kindly by critics (34% on Rotten Tomatoes) nor at the box office ($8.9 million). Its social media footprint was miniscule, with fewer than 25,000 total followers across all three social media platforms. For whatever reason, the film didn’t resonate with younger to middle-aged moviegoers, which proved to be its undoing.
Finally there is Men in Black International, which opened to a seemingly paltry $30 million over Father’s Day weekend. The three previous films in the Men in Black franchise had each opened north of $50 million. Once again, critical reception was negative (24% on Rotten Tomatoes), though the film’s overseas gross might help make it a bigger hit than its domestic opening suggests. Its social media returns were the strongest since Parabellum but still struggled to even get to 50 percent of the latter’s marks.
Looking at these social media figures, we have to ask ourselves: are North Americans truly showing sequel fatigue, or are we just going through a patch of poorly received films? Not a single one of the five sequels since John Wick: Parabellum crossed the 60 percent fresh mark on Rotten Tomatoes; regardless of marketing spend of franchise awareness, if you don’t have a quality product, you will often struggle to generate revenue. There are, of course, some exceptions. Timely sequels to hugely popular films can produce huge opening weekends despite poor reviews by resting on the laurels of the prior film. These films weren’t afforded that luxury.
Another issue they all struggled with was lack of interest among targeted audiences on social media. If your target audience is not talking about you and interacting with your posts on social media, it is highly unlikely you’ll get them to buy a ticket. With social media and engagement and marketing on those channels becoming increasingly more popular, it makes the lack of buzz even more glaring.
But as stated earlier, this bad crop of sequels doesn’t indicate the sky is falling. At least not yet. The upcoming slate has some titles that are performing notably well on social media, including Spider-Man: Homecoming and The Lion King. There is plenty of time to turn around this negative narrative and challenge the box office records set last year. When films do well, it’s usually seen as an indication of the product itself. When they fail to connect with audiences, however, the conversation often turns to shrinking audiences. It’s important to step back and see the full picture: we’re barely through half the year—there are still plenty of sequels left on the release schedule.