In 2012, Universal Studios released Snow White and the Huntsman. The film, a Disney-homage for adults (sort of), was released to mixed reviews, earning a 49% on the rating website Rotten Tomatoes and $155 million at the domestic box office.
Although not necessarily a failure, the film wasn’t close to being considered a middling success.
What would typically happen here? Universal would pack up and leave its Huntsman in the rearview mirror.
But it didn’t. The studio doubled down in 2016 with the release of The Huntsman: Winter’s War, a prequel to the original film. While the original film had raked in $396 million worldwide to double its $170 million production budget, the total worldwide gross of Winter’s War capped at $164 million, barely covering its $115 million costs.
The reviews for the prequel were also significantly less kind, with Winter’s War receiving a score of 17% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The Critics Consensus on the site effectively sums up the issue: “The Huntsman: Winter’s War is visually arresting and boasts a stellar cast, but neither are enough to recommend this entirely unnecessary sequel.”
This begs the question: if the sequel was unnecessary and unwanted by both critics and audiences, why was it made in the first place?
The answer, it turns out, may not be so simple.
Sequel-itis is not a new problem in the film industry. In fact, it is a natural part of the cycle, which constantly hits upon new trends before returning to old ones.
The Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980, three years after A New Hope, on a budget of $18 million. Disney now releases Star Wars films on an annual basis, with budgets upwards of $200 million.
Part of the modern issue with sequels, according to Exhibitor Relations box-office analyst Jeff Bock, is that the invention of streaming and binge-watching has led to studios pushing to release sequels sooner and sooner.
“The problem is, it’s hard to do these films this well, this quickly. It’s a different beast,” Bock told USA Today.
The example of Star Wars also highlights another part of the issue: When sequels are properly set up for success, they tend to defy expectations. Released during the holiday season of 2015, The Force Awakens was produced on a gross budget of $306 million, but went on to capture $2.066 billion across the world and become the third highest-grossing film of all time.
Meanwhile, 2016’s Alice Through the Looking Glass opened to $26.8 million, which pales in comparison to the $125.3 million opening weekend of the first installment Alice in Wonderland.
The true reason for the number of sequels and reboots saturating the market, it seems, is that financially they are a safer bet than original ideas.
Generally, the films nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars don’t crack the list of top grossing films in the year that they were released. Therefore, while movies that are made with awards in mind are often artistic, original, and of high quality, they are also seeking prestige and not a massive return on their investment. This is a financial risk that larger movie studios are not willing to take.
Author and journalist Shane Snow examined the data from every sequel over the past ten years in order to discover trends. After examining the average box office earnings of movies by year as well as the average earnings of sequels, he discovered that sequels in a given year make more money.
“While the chances of making a hit original movie are small—originals are either going to do really well, really poorly, or just okay—chances are good that a sequel based on an existing hit will beat the average,” Snow said in an article for Linkedin.
When sinking such large amounts of money into potential blockbusters, making the wrong decision is potentially catastrophic. Despite the long-term success of Disney, if The Force Awakens had flopped on a $300 million budget, the consequences would have been devastating.
While speaking at the University of Southern California in 2013, famed filmmaker Steven Spielberg predicted that such a misstep would eventually come to pass.
“There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm,” said Spielberg.
Such a shift may be inevitable, as budgets continue to skyrocket and the superhero movie bubble continues to grow. It is estimated that the budget of the next two Avengers films, which are being shot back-to-back, is currently set at a staggering $1 billion, which would make them the most expensive movies ever made.
With so much money on the line, perhaps studios are indeed better off dismissing new ideas in favor of one more Captain America outing.