Box Office Autopsy: Why Hollywood Makes so many Sequels & Remakes

Every year, especially around summer time, people start complaining about the number of sequels and remakes coming out of Hollywood. “Why,” they ask, “can’t they come up with any original ideas anymore!” The answer is simple: original ideas don’t make as much money. As much as people talk about wanting to see original films, and being tired of the superhero movie machine, box office receipts show otherwise. I took a look at the 2016 box office takings of the big seven movie studios (Disney, Fox, Lionsgate/Summit, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warner Bros) to assess just how big this problem is.

This paragraph is about my methodology used in this study, if you want to skip to my conclusions, go ahead and scroll past this paragraph. I took the budgets of all the films released theatrically by the big seven studios in 2016, not including their smaller subsidiaries (Focus Features, Fox Searchlight etc) and compared them to worldwide grosses to come up with profit numbers. Marketing expenses are not included in the budgets, since studios almost never release such numbers. So it is very possible I will list a movie as profitable, when in fact it isn’t once all expenses are taken into account. In order to come up with a profit I divided the worldwide grosses by 2, since roughly half of the money from ticket sales goes to the theaters, rather than the studios. Then I organized the films into four categories: Original films, adaptations, sequels and remakes. Some movies are sequels and adaptations, or sequels to remakes, and some movies were hard to definitively place (Deadpool and Suicide Squad). If you have any further questions about my methodology or a problem with any of my conclusions, feel free to let me know in the comments. Again, these profits are based only on ticket sales, and don’t include marketing costs. Home video helps balance the budget, but since both marketing and home video aren’t taken into account here, it’s probably a decent indicator of how profitable a film is/will be even if the exact numbers are off.

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They’re smirking because they grossed over $1 billion worldwide

So far this year the big seven studios have released 30 original films, 23 sequels, 5 remakes and 11 adaptations. When you figure that most independent studios release exclusively original films, it is clear that more original movies were made than adaptations, sequels and remakes combined. This has always been the case, but has become less so in recent years. My findings revealed that on average, original films made $32 million in profit, adaptations made $41 million, remakes made $32 million and sequels made a whopping $50 million. This may not sound so bad for original films, but there are three key elements throwing off the curve.

Firstly, animated films. Animated movies are having a major boom, and have a built-in audience most original films don’t have. Zootopia especially benefited from the Disney brand, which has become one of the most bankable worldwide since rebounding from  the dark period of the 00’s. Zootopia alone made $362 million of the $625 million profits from original films. Secret Life of Pets racked up $289 million in profit. If you factor out the animated films (Zootopia, Secret life of Pets, Sausage Party, Norm of the North) original films on average had profits of only about $200 thousand.

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A still from Light’s Out (2016)

The second factor is low-budget horror movies. It’s easy to make a horror film for less than $10 million and with an easy to market premise, profits can be huge. Why do you think we’re on our third Purge film? If you factor out this year’s sub-$10 million horror movies (Don’t Breathe and Light’s Out) original live-action films lost an average of more than $2 million.

An average loss of $2 million may not sound that horrible when studios deal in hundreds of millions, which brings me to my third and final point. Original films cost way less than sequels, but still don’t make money. In fact, the reason most of the profitable original films this year were profitable, is because of their very low budgets. On average original films cost $34 million, vs $49 million for adaptations, $102 million for sequels and a whopping $133 million for remakes. Only two live-action original films budgeted over $30 million made a profit, Central Intelligence and How to be Single. The former is from a perennial favorite genre with clear marketing and huge star power. The latter was only profitable thanks to a surprisingly large overseas take. Only two original films (Zootopia and Gods of Egypt) had budgets over $100 million. In Zootopia’s case there was obviously a huge profit, but in the case of Gods of Egypt the studio ate a $67 million loss.

Adaptations performed a bit better than original films, but still weren’t as safe a bet as sequels. The $41 million profit average is only if you count Deadpool as an adaptation. If you factor out Deadpool, the average profit for an adaptation was $12 million. If you factor out Angry Birds, it was only $1.8 million. A $1.8 million return on an average investment of $49 million is not too encouraging, so adaptations aren’t a much safer bet than original films.

DEADPOOL
Deadpool tells Nega-sonic Teenage Warhead that they’re filthy rich

Remakes were not as successful as I thought they’d be when I started this study, but 2016 could just be an off year. In fact, the average profit for remakes was slightly lower than original films (before taking into account animation and low-budget horror). Of the five remakes released this year, only one of them turned a profit–The Jungle Book. With the Jungle Book, remakes averaged a profit of $32 million, but without it they averaged a loss of $29 million. Paramount’s Ben-Hur remake is the biggest bomb of the year, losing $79 million. Yes, it will make a bit more before it closes, but it will never be anywhere near profitable. Are audiences losing interest in remakes? Too soon to tell, but considering five of this year’s sequels are sequels to remakes, probably not.

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$35 million was spent on the mop-head Morgan Freeman wore for the film (Ben-Hur 2016)

Much has been made this year about sequels under-performing at the box office. Even with many sequels coming in under their predecessors, though, sequels still averaged $50 million in profit, despite costing an average of $102 million to make (much more than original films or adaptations). They weren’t all successful, of course. Zoolander 2 lost around $22 million and Star Trek Beyond is still $63 million in the hole. But when you consider Captain America Civil War has amassed $326 million in profit and four other sequels racked up over $100 million in profits so far, it’s easy to see why studios take that risk.

From this article I hope it’s apparent why studios release more sequels, adaptations and remakes than original films: they just make more money. And that’s to be expected. It’s hard to get someone interested in a film without some prior knowledge. There are more entertainment options than ever, so to get someone to leave their home buy a ticket and sit in a dark theater, for most people the movie had better be a safe bet. Even though most sequels are less liked than their predecessors, it’s easier to justify the trip for something you already know than an unknown entity. As long as films are dependent on ticket sales, sequels and remakes will rule the roost.

All data is based on estimated box office grosses through 8/28/16.

Update 9/8/16: after taking a second look at the numbers, I realized I foolishly left the highest grossing movie of the year, “Finding Dory” out of my calculations. With its numbers taken into account, sequels averaged nearly $60 million in profit, significantly higher than previously presented. My major points remain unchanged by this information.

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