Sequel may be a dirty word among jaded moviegoers but it remains an exciting one for most of Hollywood. In troubling economic times, nothing excites studios more than consistent results, which explains why we’ve seen a slew of sequels across multiple series in recent years. Horror has largely dominated the realm – Saw and Final Destination immediately come to mind – but even more action-packed franchises like The Fast and the Furious have jumped on the bandwagon. This weekend’s top box office performer, Resident Evil: Retribution, offers another example. The fifth movie in the zombie action series based on Capcom’s popular video game, it arrives in theaters a decade after the original movie and sixteen years after the release of the first game.
The Evil series has performed increasingly well in theaters. Unadjusted for inflation, the movies, in order, have grossed $40 million, $51 million, $50 million, and $60 million domestically. Each new entry has also enjoyed a larger opening weekend than the previous film. A fifth title within ten years may thus seem as demonstrable proof of the strong staying power of the franchise, but Resident Evil’s success should be taken with a grain of salt. Upon closer inspection, the series highlights some surprising industry-wide trends that should panic studios and frustrate consumers:
1) 3D prices and ticket inflation are changing box office strategy
With The Avengers crossing the $200 million weekend barrier this summer, it might be surprising to find out that movie theater attendance is actually at a seventeen-year low. The record-breaking performance of some films at the box office is not due to an increase in attendance but rather to a steady increase in ticket prices. One of the most prominent causes of the rising cost of admission in the last few years is the emergence of 3D technology.
3D explains why the fourth entry in the Resident Evil series, Afterlife, simultaneously enjoyed the biggest opening weekend in franchise history and attracted the smallest number of attendees of any of the films.
The problem is that 3D is demonstrating itself to be unpredictably hit-or-miss. Afterlife was the first Evil entry to incorporate 3D and the higher ticket prices propelled the film to a franchise box office record. But Retribution replicated the formula once again and opened to disappointing numbers domestically. The result should frighten Hollywood. If the audience is both shrinking and refusing to repeatedly buy into any gimmick to give over more money, the success of future productions appears increasingly shaky.
2) International sales are overtaking domestic sales
2010’s Afterlife was produced on a $60 million dollar budget and grossed just $60.1 million domestically. When marketing costs and theaters’ percentage of the gross are taken into account, the movie appears to be a financial failure. In fact, the pattern for the entire series is consistently underwhelming. Second and third entries Apocalypse and Extinction grossed an unimpressive $51.2 million and $50.6 million, respectively, on a $45 million budget. So why are production studios Sony and Screen Gems so eager to pump out more Evil?
The answer lies in international sales. Resident Evil has improved its foreign numbers drastically with every sequel, climbing from $62 million for the original to an astonishing $236 million for Afterlife. Just this weekend, Retribution’s international gross more than doubled its domestic one ($51 million to $21 million).
International audiences are beginning to contribute larger portions of final gross to mid-budget pictures like Evil, and studios may be refocusing their strategy to lure movie lovers beyond American shores. Bad news? Not necessarily for Hollywood. But for American consumers, the results portend that studios may be increasingly indifferent about our viewer tastes. Expect more of the same redundant material in coming years.
3) Sequels are annoying consumers
Not only did Retribution attract the smallest audience in series history, it also received a poor C+ rating from audience-tracking firm CinemaScore. That’s lower than previous entry Afterlife’s B-. American audiences appear increasingly dissatisfied with both the quantity and the quality of Resident Evil sequels at their local theaters.
And Resident Evil 5 is no outlier. Rather, it fits perfectly into a common pattern of poor performance for non-original properties. Take a look at this summer’s releases. A ton of sequels – Madagascar 3, Ice Age: Continental Drift, The Expendables II – opened with worse weekend numbers than a previous title in the series. Even those properties that initially outperformed previous entries were underwhelming in the long run (Men in Black 3) and franchise rehashes like The Bourne Legacy and The Amazing Spider-Man also failed to generate peak interest. The digital revolution and the availability of entertainment options at home certainly explains part of the decreasing attendance at theaters but one can’t help but wonder how much the onslaught of repetitive content is limiting turnout .
Have we finally grown tired of sequels? Hollywood doesn’t seem to think so; Iron Man 3, Star Trek 2, Fast 6, and The Hangover Part III are all set for release in May. These titles will likely offer a more definite answer to the question. I suspect the trend will mirror that of summer 2012. Keep an eye out for these properties; their performance may not be as impressive as you think.
Written by Boris Paskhaver
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