By and large, critics didn’t really like Independence Day: Resurgence. But then again, they didn’t much care for 2012. Or The Day After Tomorrow. Or White House Down. Or pretty much any of the big, glossy entertainments director Roland Emmerich has brought us over the course of his long career. As Emmerich recently said himself, “If you went by the critics, I shouldn’t make movies.”
But as Michael Bay knows only too well, critical notices don’t sell tickets, and Emmerich’s films reliably sell at the box office. Away from the smaller-scale passion projects like Anonymous and Stonewall, Emmerich’s effects-led disaster-adventure movies have made millions, even when their aggregate scores on Rotten Tomatoes have struggled to pass the 50 percent mark. So what’s going on with Independence Day: Resurgence? Domestically, the invasion sequel made $41.6m on its opening weekend, meaning its performance was far below what was expected of it.
The $165m-or-so film will more than make its money back, but Fox may be wondering where it went wrong with Resurgence. It was, after all, a film eager to please: full of eye-popping ‘trailer moments’ – dramatic scenes of skyscrapers falling and unfeasibly huge flying saucers breaking Earth’s atmosphere – and lashings of self-aware humour. Was it the lack of Will Smith – bumped out of the movie because of his astronomical salary – that did for the Independence Day sequel in the end? Was it the rather unassuming group of younger actors who play the film’s new generation of alien fighters who failed to hook in audiences?
A summer of sequels
Whatever Resurgence has missing, it’s by no means the only sequel to underperform so far in 2016. Alice Through The Looking Glass, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows and Divergent: Allegiant have all fared pretty dismally. X-Men: Apocalypse’s $500m-ish take doesn’t sound too bad until you stack it up against its predecessor, Days Of Future Past, which made something closer to $750m. Likewise Batman V Superman – a follow-up to Man Of Steel which made less money than expected, despite an aggressive marketing campaign and the reassuring presence of Batman. And we’ve almost forgotten about The Huntsman: Winters War, a sequel to Snow White And The Huntsman that was received with a collective shrug from audiences.
You might say the common factor in all these films is that they received poor reviews; but again, critical damnation seldom prevents audiences from turning up in enthusiastic hordes for the Transformers movies, and even the latter entries in the Pirates Of The Caribbean series managed to shake off the effects of middling notices. Besides, the comedy sequel Bad Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising was widely praised by critics, yet it still failed to make more than a third of the grosses enjoyed by the first film.
So what’s going on? Is it the case that audiences are growing weary of special effects, falling skyscrapers, or just the notion of sequels in general? Certainly, the huge success of Finding Dory suggests that audiences will still flock to a sequel if it captures their imagination. To a slightly lesser extent, the same is true of The Conjuring 2, which has made $242m worldwide on a relatively tiny budget of $40m. Those are very different films aimed at specific audiences, and seem to provide at least a bit of evidence that the movie-going public hasn’t gone entirely sequel-phobic.
As I see it, there are two reasons why the films listed so far have underperformed: competition and apathy. Let’s look at each in turn.
There was a time when entertainment was scarce yet cheap. Before the advent of the video recorder or that new-fangled internet thing, mass audiences had two options if they wanted visual entertainment: they stayed in and watched one of the handful of channels available on the television or they went to the cinema. Back in, say, 1970, the average price of two cinema tickets in 1970 was just 90p – or about $1.20, depending on how the pound’s faring against the dollar by the time you read this. Now, even when adjusted for inflation, that meant that going to the cinema 40 or so years ago was far cheaper than it is now, which meant that punters could theoretically afford to go to the pictures a few times a month.
You don’t need me to tell you that going to the cinema these days is extremely expensive, with the average price of a cinema ticket reportedly rising from an average of £4.87 in 2006 to £7.17 in 2015. With price hikes like that, it’s hardly surprising that audiences would become more picky about what they spend their money on – and sure enough, there are plenty of statistics which show that cinema attendance levels have been dropping for years, with 2014 being a particularly grim year for theatre chains.
As the price of a cinema ticket has climbed, the sheer wealth of entertainment audiences have to choose from has also soared. Even if you completely ignored the allure of videogames or stuff you can pirate from the web, there’s competition from streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. As I type this, Game Of Thrones is trending on Twitter; an enormously popular series, it’s a TV show that offers the kind of visuals and quality of direction that, until relatively recently, was the sole preserve of the big screen.
Now that we can stay at home and watch Game Of Thrones, or our favourite Blu-ray, or any one of the dozens of well-reviewed TV shows currently airing on our 60-inch televisions, it’s easy to see why film studios are finding it harder and harder to convince us to get off our sofas and drive to our nearest multiplex.
You only have to take a quick glance at the box office numbers for the year so far to see what kinds of movies people are willing to leave their houses for. Zootopia and Finding Dory are the product of great animation studios with a track record for producing films that films of all ages can enjoy together. The allure of the Marvel brand and the novelty of Captain America and Iron Man going toe-to-toe was enough to make Civil War the highest grossing film of 2016 so far. And then there’s Deadpool, which surprised just about everybody by making north of $770m and becoming the fifth biggest film of 2016 at the time of writing. Deadpool was violent, vulgar, and R-rated, yet it still managed to upstage Fox’s far more expensive X-Men: Apocalypse in critical and financial terms.
Looking back over the films released this year so far, I think there’s a clear reason for this: Deadpool felt fresh and different. Yes, it’s a superhero movie, but it’s one that pokes fun at a genre with some now well-established conventions. Above all, Deadpool didn’t just provide what most of 2016’s sequels have offered: more of the same.
If there’s a common factor which unites the Alice sequel, Independence Day 2, Turtles: Out Of The Shadows and X-Men: Apocalypse, it’s that cloying sense of sameyness. I enjoyed the ramshackle, B-movie charm of the Independence Day sequel, but it’s likely that wider audiences looked at the trailers and TV spots and concluded that it’s another loud invasion flick. The movie itself doesn’t dwell excessively on the destruction of cities, but those images were placed front and centre of its advertising campaign. The same may have been true of X-Men: Apocalypse, which was sold on scenes of chaos and made its disaster-laden premise clear in its title.
As for Turtles, Alice and Allegiant, they’re all sequels to films that were fairly poorly received; audiences may have supported them last time, but they clearly had little appetite to return for more.
There was a time when a law of diminishing returns applied to sequels. As a series of films wore on, the audiences for them would dwindle, so studios would in turn spend less and less on each entry until interest from both sides fizzled out altogether. A good case study for this: the Planet Of The Apes franchise. The first film was made in 1968 for $5.8m and clawed back more than $30m in the US alone. The sequel, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (1970) was made for $4.6m and made about $19m. The one after that was made for $2m and brought in $12m, and so on.
It’s only in the last quarter of a century or so that we’ve started to see a shift in this thinking; at $80m, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns cost more than double the budget of 1989’s Batman – a business decision that probably would have made those old Apes producers at Fox bite their cigars in half.
For years, the buzz word in mainstream films has been spectacle: audiences love it, and there’s only one way to make the next film more dazzling than the last – more money. Yet it’s possible we’ve now become inured to spectacle alone. After decades of outlandish, sumptuous visuals, the sight of a city in its death throes no longer has the same impact. And as we’ve already discussed, expensive TV shows like Game Of Thrones can sometimes deliver moments of spectacle and high drama to rival any Hollywood movie.
Between the twin pillars of competition and apathy, sequels that offer more of the same are in danger of being crushed. This year’s sequels have offered bigger, louder and more – but audiences, it seems, are hungry for something new.