When Tim Burton’s Batman Returns was released in the summer of 1992, Warner Bros. had high hopes. It was the follow-up to his 1989 Batman movie, which had shattered the record for a film’s opening weekend at the US box office (marking the first $40 million+ opening on record in the States).
Batman went on to gross $251 million at the American box office alone, and is credited as being a major stepping stone in the invention of the modern blockbuster (after the likes of Jaws and Star Wars). Hopes were not small for the sequel.
Even as late as the early 1990s, the main indicator of a film’s commercial success lay in its American box office takings. By that kind of measure, this summer’s Terminator: Genisys would have been seen as a flop of sorts, given that it’s taken just $89 million in the US. Yet the movie has eaten up over $350 million elsewhere in the world, and its takings now total $440 million ahead of its home formats release. Enough for Paramount and Skydance to consider more.
But back to the late 80s. The original Batman had grossed $160 million outside of America. Hardly humble takings, especially in 1989, but it would have been the US gross that Warner Bros. had its eye on. It greenlit the sequel. Hence, 1992’s Batman Returns.
It seems like a different era entirely talking about early ’90s cinema, but the general feeling back then was that sequels very rarely outperformed their predecessors. Certainly, it was seen as a sizeable surprise if they did. As such, the rule of thumb was that a sequel would gross a minimum of 65 percent of the original film’s money to be deemed a success, and accounting was done with that model in mind. Any film that fell below the 65 percent band? It was regarded as a disappointment.
Again, to put that into context, based on American numbers, The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s take was 77 percent of the original’s (although when worldwide takings are folded in, the numbers are remarkably close). Enough, on previous criteria, to make The Amazing Spider-Man 3 a formality.
The early signs were that Batman Returns would comfortably zap the 65 percent obstacle to Arkham. Yet after a then-record opening weekend of $45 million in the US, word of mouth about the film spread, particularly amongst families.
Whereas the first Batman was deemed appropriate enough for a family audience on the whole, the second wasn’t. The darker tone, The Penguin’s nose bite, and the relationship between Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne – in both their guises – had parents buying tickets to watch Macaulay Culkin lob bricks off a roof in Home Alone 2 later in the year instead. The audience tailed off, and $162 million was ultimately banked in the US. Rounding numbers up, it took 64 percent of Batman’s money in America.
The personnel of the series would be heavily changed by 1995’s Batman Forever.
Another candidate? How about the Hot Shots! series. We’ve a soft spot for the screen adventures of Topper Harley, but Hot Shots! Part Trois was off the cards when the second film managed just 56 percent of the original’s money. Conversely, it becomes easy to understand why Warner Bros. continued with the Lethal Weapon series, when its decline was so steady. After Lethal Weapon 2 had stunned many by more than doubling the gross of the first film, the third film generated 98 percent of the business of the second. Meanwhile, Lethal Weapon 4 took 90 percent of the money of Lethal Weapon 3. Warner Bros. was happy.
Even a film as hugely successful as the aforementioned Home Alone 2 fell prey to the rule. Despite giving Fox a gigantic hit, it did 61 percent of Home Alone‘s business in the States. Later in the decade, Universal was happy enough with the 64 perent of Jurassic Park‘s US money that The Lost World brought in. And the reason New Line kept persisting with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films was the sheer economy of them. Film two reaped 58 percent of the original’s pizza, while the third did 53 percent of the second’s business. That said, New Line came from the horror model, where low budgets made the 65 percent barrier less of a problem.
But for the studios, it remained a big thing for most of the ’90s. And aside from the occasional exception, such as Terminator 2 (where Schwarzenegger’s star pulling power had increased heavily) and Ace Ventura 2 (likewise Jim Carrey’s), it was hard to find too many follow-ups that broke through. Instead, sequels generally struggled to recreate the commercial success of the first film, even if they were better (we’re looking at Addams Family Values in particular here).
The model would subsequently hold for most of the ’90s, but as the studios turned more and more to blockbusters, the expectations of a sequel began to turn.
The change began to happen at the very end of the decade. Skilful marketing was pivotal to Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me quadrupling the take of the first film (which hadn’t really hit in earnest until its video release), but Toy Story 2 demonstrated that, done properly, more people would come, growing business by 28 percent (in fact, each Toy Story film has outperformed the last).
Then more and more films began to rewrite the rule book. What were exceptions were turning more towards the norm. Examples? 2000’s Mission: Impossible 2 (119 percent of the original’s takings), 2001’s trio of The Mummy Returns (130 percent of The Mummy‘s takings) Rush Hour 2 (160 percent of Rush Hour‘s business) and American Pie 2 (a 41 percent increase), and 2003’s X2: X-Men United (136 percent). And whilst there were still sequels that underperformed, it seemed that the proverbial lid had been lifted off the top of what a sequel could achieve.
It didn’t hurt that the growing Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings movie series kicked off the decade, and helped condition moviegoers to the idea of more episodes in a given story. These films arguably marked the point when studios turned their attention to three film arcs at least, over standalone investments.
The 2000s, of course, also saw the dependence on international box office grow, and studios – who began to concentrate their efforts onto fewer films – moved sequels further up their priority list. As such, the marketing of such films got more attention, and sequels gradually attracted better and more interesting filmmakers. No offence to Jeannot Szwarc.
Now, fast forward to the present day, and over 140 sequels are currently known to be in development, with the expectation in most cases being that they’ll at least match, but hopefully outperform, the box office takings of their predecessors. And if they don’t do that in America? No worries. A good burst in China will sort things out.
Worst case? The films will look pretty in the box set, and make a few extra quid that way.
The greater focus on sequels is a development that came way too late for Grease II sadly, one of the very earliest follow-ups to a major blockbuster hit. The movie, which arrived in 1982, four years after the first Grease, would do just under 10 percent of the original’s money. Conversely, this year’s Jurassic World has so far, on American takings alone, taken 358 percent of Jurassic Park III‘s cash. Both extreme examples in their own way, but also an indicator as to how far the pendulum has swung…