Sequels sell

Star Wars’ box-office sales confirm that Hollywood is now in the sequel-manufacturing business.

In the first few weeks after its release, Star Wars: The Force Awakens rang up a dizzying US$1.76 billion in global box office sales, thereby confirming beyond any doubt that Hollywood has become a sequel manufacturer. Webzine The Week explored the economics that have driven that transformation.

In 1999, only four of the top 35 box-office hits were sequels; 15 years later, 12 of the top 14 fit that description, says the webzine. Quoting author Mark Harris, The Week writes: “In 2014, franchises are not a big part of the movie business. They are the movie business.”

And they will continue to be, at least for now. In the next four years, there are numerous sequels planned in every genre — from Avatar and Ironman to Pirates of the Caribbean. Star Wars will come back not only with two new episodes, but with standalone movies set in the Star Wars universe.

Despite the high ticket price of 3D movies today, admission is in fact lower than it was around 1970 in real terms. However, production budgets exploded by 200% between 1980 and 2003 and marketing budgets rose by 230% between 1980 and 2007.

Since movies are more expensive to make than they used to be, Hollywood produces less and puts a lot more money into selling each one. Hence the use of sequels – which Mark Harris sees as a risk-avoidance mechanism.

The Walt Disney Company is an eloquent illustration of the new Hollywood landscape. Its movie division, reports French daily Le Monde, represents only 14% of total sales of US$52 billion, but it acts as the hub for everything else: attraction parks, derivative products, TV networks.

A key driver behind the new sequel-centrism is the global environment, which is forcing the movie industry to compete more ferociously than ever. “Hollywood is trying to cash in through theatres, video sales and digital distribution,” writes The Week, “to a multinational, multicultural audience that also has thousands of channels of cable and the Internet to occupy themselves with.”

The way to succeed, it seems, is not with original dramas that often rely on specific cultural traits and values, but with recognizable heroes, beloved stories, wizards, sword fights and lots of fireworks that speak to the multitudes.