Entertainment: The secret of winning sequels

Academics find there’s as much science as art in following up one hit with another.

Hollywood continues to pump out sequels to hit movies for a simple reason: on average, they have higher box office returns than original movies and are therefore less risky.

Not all sequels are a sure thing, however — which explains why the likes of The Empire Strikes Back shares lineage with the lamentable Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace, why Speed spawned the dud Speed 2: Cruise Control and why someone thought the world needed another Blues Brothers movie.

The Hollywood dream machine’s current big-money bet is a sequel to the 2008 teen romance-vampire megahit Twilight, which grossed more than US$380 million worldwide. The second instalment, marketed as The Twilight Saga: New Moon, is scheduled to set teenybopper hearts fluttering Nov. 20.

So will New Moon be a golden egg like Spider-Man 2 or a lump of coal like Dumb and Dumberer? Don’t ask the movie moguls, who have produced enough sequel dreck to disqualify them. Better to ask a trio of academics who say they have hit upon the formula for sequel success in the blockbuster business and who published their research in early November in the Journal of Marketing.

The eggheads’ recipe for spinoff riches came after examining 101 movie sequels released in North American theatres between 1998 and 2006. The answer boils down to how high the sequel scores on four factors: public awareness of the original movie, the number of theatres the sequel will appear in on opening weekend, the popularity of the original movie, and whether or not it has the same stars. “If you had to choose one thing to be consistent on, it’s the star power, keeping those same stars,” says Mark Houston, a professor of marketing with Texas Christian University and a co-author of the study. Houston points to the unequal sequels of two comedy hits, Cheaper by the Dozen and Dumb and Dumberer. The first kept stars Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt around, while Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels disappeared for what was in fact a prequel. “If you look at the reviews, both the sequels got shredded,” he says. “But the Cheaper by the Dozen sequel performed decently at the box office and people got what they expected, while with Dumb and Dumberer people took it as a cue, since those stars weren’t in it, that it wasn’t worth being in or going to be very good.”

To the academics’ list one can also add the effects of Father Time. Basic Instinct 2 was a box-office disappointment in part because Michael Douglas sat it out, but also because Sharon Stone, a sex bomb in the 1992 original, wasn’t nearly as explosive onscreen in the 2006 follow-up. What that means for the prospects of the remake of another Douglas hit, 1987’s Wall Street, is up for debate.

Of more current interest is the question of whether teen and “tween” girls will make New Moon a hit. Take it to the bank, say the marketing profs. Their formula predicts a U.S. box-office haul of US$267 million. (The first Twilight earned US$191 million in the U.S.) A comparable teen-romance vampire flick without the sequel advantages New Moon enjoys (same stars, same screenwriter) could be expected to draw an American box office three-quarters as big. “We are either going to look really smart or really dumb on this,” says Prof. Houston.