The Endless Story: The numbers behind Hollywood’s risk-aversion

By: Rich Van Heertum

Benjamin Disraeli (possibly) once said, “there are lies, damn lies and statistics.” In the world of fake news and radical skepticism we live in today, it is more important than ever to be vigilant in doubting the validity of any claim, whether backed by data or not, particularly when they come from that blustering buffoon we call our Commander and Thief. That said, the simple task of counting the money a particular movie earns tends to be a little less fraught with controversy (and variance). One will find slight differences from one source to the next, but Box Office Mojo (BOM) has become a reliable reference point.


The question

In that vein, I have compiled gross revenues for films from 2016 all the way back to 1967, along with a host of other data points described below. My hope is that the empirical data will give some shape and substance to the historical context published last week, and help us on the path to the most important questions of all… why has Hollywood turned from original storytelling to the endless re-articulation of sameness?


Hollywood’s rising dependence on recycled ideas

Money makes the world go round, obviously, but there has been a clear trend in movies to equate “money” with “guaranteed audiences,” particularly international ones. Just look at the rise in the number of sequels and franchise films since 1967 (the dashboard below charts the number of films out of the top 20 grossing each year, so can be understood as a percentage).

In the dashboard above, we see the very trends discussed in last week’s article on the rise of the blockbuster. First of all, we see a dramatic uptick in both franchise and sequels/prequels/remakes in the mid-’80s, followed by a small decline in the indie-inspired ’90s and an upward trajectory since 2000, leveling off in the last few years. There are also clear signs of the increased importance of Superhero films to the studio’s bottom line, starting with an uptick around 2004 and then a more dramatic increase since 2011. And the same can be said of films directly marketed to kids, which were pretty steady until Pixar started to churn out hits and has risen, with a few fallow years, since then. The most compelling case for the overall trend this article is addressing is the precipitous rise in sequels, prequels and remakes (SPR) that started in earnest in the early 2000s.

From 1967 to 1980, the total number of sequels, prequels, and reboots never rose above 3, with the vast majority part of the James Bond, Star Wars, Jaws, or Rocky franchises, alongside a few comedy or horror entries. The numbers begin to slowly increase in the ’80s, particularly with the six entries in 1983 and 1985, but the old model of building a trilogy kept things from getting as out of control as our current White House. However, it is important to note here that between 1967 and 1979, not a single top-grossing film was a remake or sequel and only six led to a sequel after their great financial success. In the ’80s, three were sequels and seven some part of a franchise. In the ’90s, two were sequels and only four part of franchises, maybe showing the rebound in quality filmmaking and independent fervor of the decade. Moving to the first decade of the new century, eight of the films were sequels and the other two the first entry in a franchise! And since 2010, five of the seven were sequels, with it uncertain (though likely) if Frozen will have its own sequel and The Avengers, a landmark film in the Superhero franchise battleground. Moving back to the number of sequel, prequel, and reboot films, they began to rise soon after the turn of the century. There were never more than 5 from 1991-2001, rising to 9 in 2002 and 2003. Then, the enumber exploded with 11 in 2007 and an astounding 16 of the top 20 in 2011. The number in the top 20 has declined since then a little, but they have still accounted for more than half of the films in that category in nine of the past 10 years.

A similar trend is true of franchise films, though one sees the number rising as we approach and crossover into the halcyon “New (old) Hollywood” of the ’80s, the result of the aforementioned franchises from the ’70s, along with the growing popularity of slasher films and a tendency to make sequels of popular mainstream comedies like Smokey and the Bandit. The number of franchise films in the Top 20 hit its pre-millennium maximum of 9 in 1984, followed by 8 in 85, before steadying between 3 and 7 throughout the rest of the 20th century. The dramatic rise here began a year after Y2k, and has hovered between 9 and 14 entries, except for the outlier of 7 in 2005, ever since. Looking back at 2001, we see a jump from 6 to 14 franchise films among the top 20, a rather extraordinary shift, possibly a beneficiary of further advancements in CGI in films like Gladiator/a>(the rare stand-alone blockbuster) and the first entry of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There was a slight dip between 2004 and 2006, when more war films were being made and the post-9/11 malaise set in, but the number has only dipped below half of the top 20 twice since 2007. This shows both a clear strategy and the effectiveness of the studio model today, spending large sums of money on films that studios already know have an audience in wait. And don’t discount that year 2007, as that was when the DVD sales (on the back of VHS sales) began to crater on the way toward a downturn that has continued unabated ever since.


Do sequels actually make more money?

To start, I thought it would be interesting to consider the top grossing American films, adjusting for inflation (see table below). Gone with the Wind wins in both the domestic and global categories. That’s quite an achievement in the midst of the Great Depression and a much less developed international film market, even considering that there was less competition at that time. This epic film, ignoring the racism for a moment, was a technological and narrative achievement of, well, epic proportions – helmed by the great David O. Selznick with backing from MGM. However, in comparison with the rest of the films on the list, it does highlight several interesting patterns. For one, only nine of the top 25 are part of traditional franchises, over half of which are the five of 8 Star Wars films that made it big, along with two Jurassic Parks and the film that maybe did as much to get us to the world of today as any, Spielberg’s 1975 summer blockbuster Jaws. Beyond that, you have a host of big budget films that were actually good by most objective (or, at least, subjective) measures. And even as it is easy to see why a Titanic sequel might have been a bit dull and Sound of Music II less compelling without those pesky Nazi’s chasing one of the most idyllically Aryan families to have ever graced the screen, many others on the list would have been ripe for remakes today.

Top 25 grossing films all-time (adjusted for inflation)
Rank Film Studio Adj. US Gross (2017 US$) Raw US Gross Year
1 Gone with the wind MGM $1,747,686,000 $198,676,459 1939
2 Star Wars Fox $1,540,734,500 $460,998,007 1977
3 The Sound of Music Fox $1,231,893,000 $158,671,368 1965
4 E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial Universal $1,227,040,000 $435,110,554 1982
5 Titanic Paramount $1,171,854,200 $658,672,302 1997
6 The Ten Commandments Paramount $1,133,150,000 $65,600,000 1956
7 Jaws Universal $1,107,881,800 $260,000,000 1975
8 Doctor Zhivago MGM $1,073,771,700 $111,721,910 1965
9 The Exorcist Warner Bros. $956,682,800 $232,906,145 1973
10 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Disney $942,850,000 $184,925,486 1937
11 Star Wars: The Force Awakens Buena Vista (Disney subsidiary) $935,195,600 $936,662,225 2015
12 101 Dalmatians Disney $864,284,200 $114,880,014 1961
13 The Empire Strikes Back Fox $849,262,500 $290,475,067 1980
14 Ben-Hur MGM $847,700,000 $74,000,000 1959
12 Avatar Fox $841,258,100 $760,507,625 2009
16 Return of the Jedi Fox $813,613,900 $309,306,177 1983
17 Jurassic Park Universal $795,124,900 $402,453,882 1993
18 Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace Fox $781,199,400 $474,544,677 1999
19 The Lion King Buena Vista $771,116,600 $422,783,777 1994
20 The Sting Universal $771,085,700 $156,000,000 1973
21 Raiders of the Lost Ark Paramount $765,756,700 $248,159,971 1981
22 The Graduate AVCO $740,239,500 $104,945,305 1967
23 Fantasia Disney $718,326,100 $76,408,097 1941
24 Jurassic World Universal $683,775,600 $652,270,625 2015
25 The Godfather Paramount $682,680,200 $134,966,411 1972

Of course, it is also true that the vast majority of these films have either been remade, including an ill-advised update of Sound of Music, or had at least one sequel, though there are seven of the top 25 grossing films of all time that had neither (I’m shocked it’s that many). I think the broader point with this list is both that big budget movies that have compelling characters and story lines have been successful in Hollywood for some time, particularly once the Hollywood Formula its Golden Age came to full fruition, and that the entries since the early ’80s are of a lower general quality than those that preceded them. Looking toward the bottom of the Top 25, we even find two gems that were actually not hugely budgeted films, The Graduate from 1967 and The Sting from 1973.

Moving further up, we find a few of the blockbuster equivalents of the ’50s and ’60s, including Ben Hur, Doctor Zhivago and the remake of Ten Commandments, by the director of the black-and-white, silent original, Cecil B. De Mille. One should also note that, with the exception of The Graduate, all came from the original Big 5 studios plus Disney (who own Buena Vista films). MGM has three films on the list, 21st Century Fox has six, Paramount has four and Warner Brothers a paltry one. Universal Studios, the upstart that became a big player in the ’70s, clocks in with an impressive five films. And then there is the new kid on the block, Disney, who in combination with their biggest live action studio Buena Vista, have four of the Top 25. However, only 10 of the top 25 films are from the first 70 years of Hollywood’s production history, from before the the three ’70s films that have forever changed Hollywood.

The rest have come in the wake of the success of 1973’s The Exorcist, and are peppered by two of our most popular filmmakers, Lucas and Spielberg. The two combine for an impressive 10 films on the list, explaining their place as the two richest filmmakers in history and why Lucas continues to beat his contemporary in net worth with far fewer films and only one, immensely lucrative, franchise to his name. Moving beyond the ’80s, one of the telling aspects of those films is a general sense that the quality does not measure up to their forebears (either in the opinion of critics or audiences), with a host of lesser Star Wars entries, the two Jurassic Park films, more known for their compelling special effects than any transcendent story, character or larger theme, the troubling class and racial politics encompassed in Lion King and the visually stunning but B-movie storyline of Avatar. Titanic is a worthy more recent entry, but it does speak to two truths the film industry would rather you not pay attention to: 1. They are selling far fewer tickets than in the past, even as price increases have far outpaced inflation, and 2. Foreign markets have become more and more important as time has gone on and are at the heart of the new profit model.


The highest-grossing films (unadjusted)

Top 25 grossing films all-time (domestic & foreign gross)
Rank Film Studio Gross Domestic Gross Domestic % Foreign Gross Domestic % Year
1 Avatar Fox $2,788,000,000 $760,507,625 27.3% $2,027,500,000 72.7% 2009
2 Titanic Paramount $2,186,800,000 $658,672,302 30.1% $1,528,000,000 69.9% 1997
3 Star Wars: The Force Awakens Buena Vista (Disney subsidiary) $2,068,200,000 $936,662,225 45.3% $1,131,600,000 54.7% 2015
4 Jurassic World Universal $1,670,400,000 $652,270,625 39.0% $1,018,100,000 61.0% 2015
5 Marvel’s The Avengers Buena Vista $1,518,800,000 $623,400,000 41.0% $895,500,000 59.0% 2012
6 Furious 7 Universal $1,516,000,000 $353,000,000 23.3% $1,163,000,000 76.7% 2015
7 Avengers: Age of Ultron Buena Vista $1,405,400,000 $459,000,000 32.7% $946,400,000 67.3% 2015
8 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 Warner Bros. $1,341,500,000 $381,000,000 28.4% $960,500,000 71.6% 2011
9 Frozen Buena Vista $1,276,500,000 $400,700,000 31.4% $875,700,000 68.6% 2013
10 Iron Man 3 Buena Vista $1,214,800,000 $409,000,000 33.7% $805.8 66.3% 2013
11 Minions Universal $1,159,400,000 $336,000,000 29.0% $823,400,000 71.0% 2015
12 Captain America: Civil War Buena Vista $1,153,300,000 $408,100,000 35.4% $745,200,000 64.6% 2016
13 Transformers: Dark of the Moon Paramount (DreamWorks) $1,123,800,00 $352,400,000 31.4% $771,400,000 68.6% 2011
14 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King New Line $1,119,900,000 $377,800,000 33.7% $742,100,000 66.3% 2003
15 Skyfall Sony $1,108,600,000 $304,400,000 27.5% $804,200,000 72.5% 2012
16 Transformers: Age of Extinction Paramount $1,104,100,000 $245,400,000 22.2% $858,600,000 77.8% 2014
17 The Dark Knight Rises Warner Bros. $1,084,900,000 $448,100,000 41.3% $636,800,000 58.7% 2012
18 Toy Story 3 Buena Vista $1,067,000,000 $415,000,000 38.9% $652,000,000 61.1% 2010
19 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest Buena Vista $1,066,200,000 $423,300,000 39.7% $642,900,000 60.3% 2006
20 Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Buena Vista $1,048,900,000 $528,000,000 50.3% $520,900,000 49.7% 2016
21 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides Buena Vista $1,045,700,000 $241,100,000 23.1% $804,600,000 76.9% 2011
22 Jurassic Park Universal $1,029,200,000 $402,500,000 39.1% $626,700,000 60.9% 1993
23 Finding Dory Buena Vista $2,028,200,000 $486,300,000 47.3% $541,900,000 52.7% 2016
24 Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace Fox $1,027,000,000 $474,500,000 46.2% $552,500,000 53.8% 1999
25 Alice in Wonderland Buena Vista $1,025,500,000 $474,500,000 32.6% $691,300,000 67.4% 2010

Turning to the highest grossing films of all times without adjusting for inflation, we unsurprisingly see a dominance of contemporary films and franchises, as well as the profound importance of international markets to the bottom line of Hollywood. In this list, only one film, Titanic, hasn’t been either franchised, redone or at least involved in a sequel (the boat sank, after all. That’s pretty final). And while the adjusted worldwide gross list is still topped by Gone with the Wind (over 3.4 billion) and includes Titanic, E.T., The Ten Commandments, Dr. Zhivago, The Sound of Music, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (a film remade in various forms over and over again, but never really provided with an originalist sequel), it also includes two Star Wars entries, Avatar (soon to get not one but possibly up to four sequels), and Jaws. Turning back to the non-adjusted list, the uninspiring Jurassic World, the overwrought The Avengers, overrated Furious 7, the Avengers: Age of Ultron (a sequel of a sequel within a franchise), Frozen, and the truly awful Iron Man 3 (noting a pattern within the Marvel Cinematic Universe?) all make the top 10. In fact, the Top 25 seems littered with fair to middling films, like Minions, most of the superhero fare and the Alice in Wonderland remake, and includes some downright twaddle like Furious 7, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Strangers Tides and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.


Hints at a rationale

In fact, this list might start to answer the question of why Hollywood has made such a strong turn to the never-ending story. It was the seventh entry of the Fast and Furious series that reaped the highest return (aided by the timely but tragic death of one of its stars). Three more recent entries of the Star Wars empire earned more than the originals (though, to be fair, the originals do better when adjusted for inflation, which doesn’t matter much to the studios today). Jurassic World made more money than Jurassic Park. The last Harry Potter out-earned all of its predecessors. Minions far outdid the film from which it spun off. This is also true of Captain America, Transformers (twice), Lord of the Rings, Skyfall (Bond), The Dark Knight Rises (even as almost any honest critic or fan would rate it lower than the second film in the Nolan trilogy), Toy Story 3 (probably the best of the bunch), and Finding Dory.

The overarching point is that audiences come to see what happens next no matter what the critics think or say, ignoring any of their own acknowledgement of diminishing returns on their ticket investments. The quality of a product seems to have less and less to do with its success than it did in the past, even as we can find some exceptions peppered across our analysis. And it appears equally true that hype and marketing are as, if not more, important that at any time in the history of film. I will explore the reasons for this and its implications more in the finale to this series, but I think the table above certainly gives us plenty of popcorn for thought.


Films broken down by type

The Numbers is another nice source that provides more targeted insight into the industry and its decision-making. The tables below break down the data on Hollywood between 1995 and 2017 in interesting ways that further exemplify the reasons why the industry has become so enamored with their franchises.

Films by genre, 1995-2017
Genre # films Total Gross Average Gross Market Share
Adventure 708 $45,005,657,648 $63,567,313 22.49%
Action 818 $36,462,906,827 $44,575,681 18.22%
Thriller or suspense 896/td> $36,462,906,827 $44,575,681 18.22%
Horror 483 $9,088,200,829 $18,816,151 4.54%
Comedy 2,303 $42,791,301,512 $18,580,678 21.38%
Romantic comedy 535 $9,396,000,079 $17,562,617 4.70%
Musical 146 $2,195,829,066 $15,039,925 1.10%
Black comedy 153 $1,267,612,009 $8,285,046 0.63%
Drama 4,442 $33,301,342,169 $7,496,925 16.64%
Documentary 1,841 $1,996,158,436 $1,084,279 1.00%

While dramas (4,432) and comedies (2,303) were the most commonly made genres over this period, the average gross returns for Adventure ($63 million) and Action ($44 million) far outstrip both (dramas: $7 million; comedies: $18 million).

Films by method, 1995-2017
Method # films Total Gross Average Gross Market Share
Spin-off 31 $2,728,726,888 $88,023,448 1.36%
Based on comic or graphic novel 180 $15,236,855,337 $84,649,196 7.61%
Based on TV series 203/td> $10,193,475,668 $50,214,166 5.06%
Based on folktale, legend, or fairytale 61 $2,493,557,110 $40,877,985 1.25%
Remake 290 $10,600,234,021 $36,552,531 5.30%
Based on factual book or article 170 $5,571,044,880 $32,770,852 2.78%
Based on fiction book or short story 1,800 $43,180,718,076 $23,989,288 21.58%
Original screenplay 6,355 $91,733,988,764 $14,434,931 45.84%
Based on play 235 $2,059,216,596 $8,762,624 1.03%
Based on real-life events 2,450 $9,503,897,295 $3,879,142 4.75%

When we look at the creative foundation of films, we see a more startling finding. While original screenplays dominate the films made (45.84% market share) to a surprising level, comic book adaptations (almost $85 million each) and general spinoffs (over $88 million apiece) far outstrip originals (only $14 million) in average gross, alongside healthy numbers for those based on TV shows (to the tune of $50 million a pop).

Films by creative type, 1995-2017
Creative type # films Total Gross Average Gross Market Share
Superhero 87 $12,847,171,753 $147,668,641 6.42%
Kid’s fiction 444 $25,480,890,180 $57,389,392 12.73%
Science fiction 536/td> $24,123,923,026 $45,007,319 12.06%
Fantasy 760 $23,314,369,805 $30,676,802 11.65%
Dramatization 817 $11,974,602,346 $14,656,796 5.98%
Contemporary fiction 5,813 $83,614,771,257 $14,384,100 41.78%
Historical fiction 1,181 $15,600,469,789 $13,209,543 7.80%
Multiple 28 $117,606,110 $4,200,218 0.06%
Factual 1,894 $2,683,645,423 $1,416,919 1.34%

Perhaps the most insightful of all, though, is looking at creative types. Superhero films far outpace any other creative type with a total average gross of $147 million, compared with $57 million for kid’s fiction, $45 million for sci-fi, only $14 million for contemporary fiction and $30 million for fantasy. Putting those numbers together, it is clear why Hollywood is making the choices it does, at least from a business perspective. And those numbers also tell us that these are the genres and stories that have most compelled audiences to head to the theater over the past two decades, at rates much higher than in the past.

In considering these numbers in context, we should at least admit that the sequel can occasionally be better than the original. A few examples that come to mind include Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Empire Strikes Back, Dawn of the Dead, Superman II, Before Sunset, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and The Dark Knight. It is also true that remakes occasionally outshine their forebears, as is arguably the case with True Grit, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Scarface, The Fly, The Thing, and Ocean’s Eleven, among others. However, these are exceptions to the rule that might actually reinforce that rule in the end. These films stand out from the endless remakes and re-articulations that surround them, almost invariably inferior to their predecessors. Too often, the impulse in the sequel is to recapture the magic of the first film, disregarding fundamental precepts of filmmaking like character arc, structure and an ending that wows the audience – particularly when those endings are simply a commercial for what is to come, or the audience goes in fully aware that this is only one part of an ongoing story. Clever inside jokes are often a huge part of the films, but generally far less clever than the postmodern intertextuality of, say, Scream 2 and 3 or 22 Jump Street; acknowledging the fact that none of those films would likely make most people’s Top 100.

A final point worth making relates to comedies, the genre audiences consistently say they would like to see more of. In a 2013 survey, comedies came in second to only action/adventure with 59% of respondents claiming the former as one of their favorite genres. Comedies are still made, of course, and some are quite good, but they must sit beside the stupefying oeuvre of Adam Sandler and the decreasing returns in satisfaction associated with most of the Judd Apatow universe, among a host of other arrested development and increasingly ribald entries in the genre.

Even the new female-centered comedies of recent years have followed this trend from the salacious Bridesmaids, Bad Moms, and Trainwreck to the slightly more measured Sisters and The Boss. Many more comedies made the top 20 list in the ’70s and ’80s than today. To just pick a few years as emblematic of my surmise, 1967 had eight films that could be classified as comedies and a host of others that included substantial comedic elements alongside their more dramatic core. Moving to 1980, 11 of the top 20 were clear comedies. In 1984, 9 make the list and in 1987 we hit 12, including Eddie Murphy’s Raw at number 20. 1993 still had 8 on the list and 1996 six. Moving closer to the present, in 2004 there were still 8 comedies in the top 20, but that included the awful Meet the Fockers, the kid’s movie Shark Tale, Sandler’s 50 First Dates, and the more middling than fair Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. 2010 actually had 8 or 9, depending on how you count, but those included a host of inferior sequels, like Shrek Forever After and Little Fockers, and several children’s films including Tangled, How to Train Your Dragon, and Megamind. Compare this to last year, when there were only four clear comedies, all for children. Again, comedies are still being made, but they are not doing as well in the theater, are more oriented toward children or tend to lean more toward cruelty, stupidity and vulgarity than in the past.


What’s next?

As I noted a few paragraphs above, the TV-to-film conduit is incredibly lucrative and only growing in magnitude with each passing year. With that in mind, Part III of this series will turn to the small screen and the ways television has followed, and sometimes challenged, these trends, along with the growing tendency for stories to move from one platform to the other or even continue on simultaneously. Some big entries in this realm are, in fact, right around the corner, including the much-anticipated return of Twin Peaks.


Methodological notes

Compiling this dataset was a rigorous undertaking, involving going through the Top 20 films each year from 2016 all the way back to 1967. Over those 40 years, I counted the number of films that were part of a franchise, either to come or already in process, the number of films that were a sequel, prequel or clear remake (I didn’t count films that were loosely based on earlier films, particularly if those films were low budget), the number of superhero films in the Top 20 and the number of children’s films. A few points of clarification are in order before I get started on the analysis. For one, I used a pretty loose definition of franchise films in the earlier decades to not stack the deck against them. Some only involved two or three films, but I only chose those if the films were of some note.

Second, I had to use two databases, BOM and Listal, and three data sets to create the list. From 1989 to 2016, I used the Worldwide Gross list of the Top 20 films each year, but from 1980 to 1988, I had to use Domestic Grosses, as BOM did not have the worldwide figures compiled in a useful way. Starting in 1979, I had to shift to Listal, who used Domestic Grosses to formulate their top 20. While some might question the validity of marrying these different data sets, I believe that the increased focus on global sales that started in the late 80s, together with the fact there is only minor variance between domestic and global Top 20 lists, makes this a reasonable compromise to look at the numbers over a longer period of time.

Third, I used a stricter version of “children’s films” than some might, not counting films clearly targeted toward teenagers. In that vein, only a few PG-13 films made the list and I made my own calculations of the target audience for those that preceded that rating being added to the MPAA. Finally, I was equally strict with my definition of Superhero films, ignoring those that might be considered marginally related to the genre, like the Transformer series.

About The Author

Richard has published over 25 academic essays, hundreds of articles in the popular press on movies, music, sports and politics, and three books, Hollywood's Exploited (Palgrave, 2010), Educating the Global Citizen (Bentham, 2011) and The Selling of Bohemia (RJV Books, 2015). He earned a PhD in cultural studies and education from UCLA and a masters in economics from SDSU. He is a rabid sports fan who roots for Arsenal, the NY Jets and Dallas Cowboys (he knows, he knows), the Yankees and the Celtics.

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