Why the #@%! are there so many sequels?
There are a bucketload of Youtube videos where some faceless dude opens with a “Hey guys!” and begs you to “like and subscribe” before proceeding to waste 20-50 minutes of your life complaining about the barrage of superhero movies which he will blame on two things: Hollywood is out of ideas and all the big studios want to do is chase that money. They’ll inevitably stretch this train of logic into a list of a dozen things and if you’re really lucky they might cite a few sources or say something witty like how my 2-year-old can pronounce ‘Pikachu’ but not his own last name.
This is my fir
st blog article since March and I’m not going to do you like that.
I’m even going to tell you up front what the primary reason for all the sequels is …
Okay guy, what does Market Data have to do with movie scripts? Well, it’s this simple and this complicated all at the same time: Big movie studios can use data farming internet monoliths like Google and Facebook to project revenue. Google knows exactly how many people like Batman, exactly how many people have seen each Batman reboot, and exactly what percentage of that audience chose to see each of those Batman movies on opening weekend over its competitors.
In fact, the current wave of data science is a thing called a ‘market segment of one’ which means that Google and Facebook understand their individual users so well that they can predict things like whether or not your teenage daughter is pregnant before even she knows.And if you don’t think that’s creepy, you might want to go see a therapist or something.
Google (and Facebook, and Amazon, and Twitter) collects this information and then sells it to the studios who use it to project their revenue for a successful release. Like any other business, a movie studio that can project its revenue can cap its budget to ensure it pulls a profit.
Then, assuming they can at least put out a decent trailer, the studio can then use said internet monoliths to target the exact people who like the franchise they’re rebooting. With enough ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ the studio is able to project (again) if they have a hit or not. This allows them to either pump more money into the marketing, talent, and production, or cut their losses and run to the next franchise. If the studio hits a dud, they can just hold on to the property until the public forgets how bad the last reboot was (roughly 3-5 years) and reboot again.
You might be thinking: ‘But Matt, is that really all there is to it?’ Well … kinda. In order to understand just how powerful it is to be able to project a movie’s gross revenue, let’s explore a few different factors.
Sequels and Money
It used to be that sequels produced diminishing returns (or at least people thoughtthey did). For example, Michael Keaton and Tim Burton teamed up for Batman(1989) and grossed $411 million against a budget of $80 million. Then they came back with Batman Returns (1992), grossing $267 million against $100 million. Notice how the production cost went up and the gross went down? This was the conventional wisdom for decades: that sequels cost more and made less and thus produced diminishing returns. However, the advent of data science really changed that perception.
These days, once a studio has a successful franchise, its kinda like hitting the lottery and then asking for the annuity. Just look at the James Bond numbers since Daniel Craig took over with ‘Skyfall’ in 2006. This is all starts because the movie studios can project their audience size and then cost effectively target that audience with extreme precision. The Bond audience expects a new Bond movie every 3-5 years and they’re still willing to go to the theater to see it.
If you’re wondering what these numbers look like for Marvel’s franchise, here you go. Marvel is really Exhibit A for what’s been going on here.
Success Attracts Success
Now, imagine for a moment that you’re a Disney executive who’s advanced his career to where Walt’s empire actually allows you to make some creative decisions. However, there’s one problem here: You probably know you’re really only kind of creative. You’re definitely not in the ‘I have original ideas’ creative sense, you’re more in the ‘I can figure out what normal people really want’ sense. The only problem is that you’re not always right all the time and when you’ve advanced high enough in a company where you’re actually judged based on results and not just your ability to say something witty at the 9 am stand-up conference call … well, you’d better be right.
This is where Market Data comes in. If you’re a movie executive wondering which new movie to back and your two options are to a) Back a totally original sci-fi film set in an entirely original world. b) Back a live-action Astro Boy. You can look at data from Facebook, Twitter, Google, e tc. and see how much market interest there is in Astro Boy. More importantly, you can estimate whether or not an Astro Boy audience warrants a $300 million production budget. Thus, the Astro Boy idea is going to be looked at first every time.
Remember what we were saying about production budgets? Producers and directors loveplaying with the BIG toys. So, if they can get their hands on a creative title that they think will do well, then they can use their projected audience numbers to negotiate a larger production budget. Even better if they can get most/all of their production budget paid for by product placement like the James Bond franchise. Work smarter, not harder, right?
Fans flock to Familiarity & Character
Why do I eat at McDonalds? Because I know my kids will each chicken nuggets. Of course, this only accounts for the power of branding and not the power of character. And as most creative types will tell you, an audience responds to character over plot 9 times out of 10. How many people do you know who have gushed about Iron Man’s death scene2in ‘Infinity War: Endgame?’
Anyone who has ever advertised anything knows that its waaaayyy easier to market character over plot. This separation between plot and character becomes even more pronounced in the movie industry where actors and actresses are the primary spokespeople for movies. Put Chris Pratt on the Tonight Show and you have a hit (see: the Jurassic Park franchise). However, try to get the average movie goer to grasp the plot of ‘Parasite’ in a 90 second trailer and they might leave scratching their head.
So, what does this mean for the rest of us? Where and when are the original ideas going to come? Well, that’s where novels and comics come in. You see, many of the non-remake movies that have come out in the last 10 years are adaptations to great novels or comics. Some of them have been less than successful. ‘John Carter’ was a bomb (though it technically made money). ‘Mortal Engines’ lost money. ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ was a mess (though it somehow grossed $225 million against a budget of $180 million).
Eventually, it’s my opinion that these adaptations will find a way to become more successful. You can’t stop creativity. It’s like water, it will go the path of least resistance until it finds a way to flow. That young writer who has written 6 great scripts that have all been rejected will eventually figure out that he/she needs to turn them into novels or graphic novels in order to be heard. Hell, they might even self-publish.
I know, because that’s what I did.