Sequels Everywhere: Contextualizing the Fast-Burn of Recent Blockbuster Films

On July 30th, 2008, Zach Beane published a series of interactive stream graphs that display the box office earnings of major Hollywood films on a weekend-to-weekend basis. These graphs offer some interesting insight into the box office trends of a given year, especially regarding the staying power of certain films over others. Indeed, this ongoing struggle becomes particularly prominent during peak summer blockbuster season, when it seems as if one major franchise entry after another is released, and subsequently dethrones any and all other entries its wake. Ultimately, this display of performance and outperformance characterizes a phenomenon called the “fast burn”.

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To give a practical example of the “fast burn”, Beane’s graph of the summer of 2013 (shown above) illustrates the relatively successful opening weekend of the Superman film Man of Steel, displayed at center in hot pink. At the start of its run, this film earned a total of $116 million dollars domestically. However, by the very next weekend, it fell from first to third place at the box office, having been displaced by the next two big blockbuster releases of the season, World War Z and Monster’s University, respectively. As the weeks continue to roll, Man of Steel drops further and further down the chain, ultimately only staying in contention for about three weeks before it plummets down into the long tail. In all, this trend shows how franchise films, while usually successful on the whole, tend to earn most of their revenue much earlier in their theatrical releases.

With that said, I wanted to pursue Beane’s discussion of the fast burn further and apply it to a basis of sequels versus non-sequels. In other words, does the fast-burn affect different types of blockbusters in different ways? Indeed, I was particularly interested in taking a closer look at sequel release patterns since, generally, it seems as if more sequels are being released as the years pass; the trend line on the scatter plot below serves to indicate this fact. It should also be noted that the data displayed in this scatter plot only draws from the top 100 films of each year, from 2007-2016; so, for example, of the top 100 films of 2015, 27 of them were sequels. That’s close to a third! Therefore, with this much of a trend behind it, it stands to reason that sequels are becoming increasingly viable financial avenues for film studios, and are therefore that much more worthy of our attention.

Post3Graph1

After experimenting further with this box office data, I found that sequels do in fact tend to do better on their opening weekends than non-sequels. The bar graph below compares the top ten sequels and non-sequels with the best opening weekend grosses of the past ten years. In other words, the blue bar under the “1” rank stands for the highest performing sequel film based on its opening weekend revenue (that being, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens), whereas the orange bar stands for the highest performing non-sequel film based on its opening weekend revenue (that being, The Avengers). In each case, a sequel film outperforms its corresponding non-sequel film, sometimes by as wide a margin as a third—in the tenth slot, for instance, the non-sequel film earned about 100 million on its opening weekend, whereas the sequel film earned over 150 million.

Post3Graph2

Possible reasons for this consistent outperformance might include the fact that there is more of a built-in audience for sequels, since moviegoers might be more familiar with the previous installments of the franchise. Additionally, sequels tend to open in more theaters than non-sequels, making them more accessible for audiences to see; based once more on averages from the past ten years, sequel films tend to open in about 14,770 theaters nationwide, whereas non-sequel films tend to open in only 8,400 theaters.
However, while sequels tend to do better than non-sequels on their opening weekends, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that they do better than non-sequel films holistically. The second bar graph below evidences this fact; it displays the top ten highest earning films of the past ten years based on their worldwide box office intake and, as one can see, there is a smattering of both sequels and non-sequels throughout, with a non-sequel film, Avatar, even taking the top spot by a fairly wide margin. And yet, it should also be noted that the non-sequel films in this chart aren’t exactly what you’d call indie; all four are still major tentpoles of their own franchises, and had the benefit of being funded by huge production budgets. So, essentially, while all of these films earned the most money at the box office, that doesn’t mean that they were the most profitable, or that any of them, sequel or otherwise, were immune to the fast-burn trend.

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Overall, the box office performance of sequels versus non-sequels warrants further investigation, since it seems that mega-franchises with multiple entries are becoming Hollywood’s new bread and butter. It would be especially interesting to see whether or not sequels experience a faster fast-burn, so to speak, than non-sequels, or if there have been more entries in recent years that have proven themselves as exceptions to the fast-burn trend. In any case, as has been proven by Zach Beane’s project, tracking the box office performances of blockbuster films can yield some interesting, even essential, results; after all, these types of films are having far-reaching effects upon the livelihood of the film industry, despite their short-reaching stays in theatrical venues.


Data Source:  Nash Information Services, LLC OpusData full extract from April 26, 2017

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