Over the weekend, Inferno, the third installment of the Robert Langdon series hit screens across America. With celebrated collaborators Ron Howard and Tom Hanks reunited once more, expectations were high for the sequel to 2009’s Angels & Demons and 2007’s The Da Vinci Code. The film had a hard domestic landing with a 14.8 million opening weekend. Inferno is the latest big budget flick that’s struggled to find an audience in the U.S. Along with other tentpole stumbles like Alice Through the Looking Glass, Independence Day: Resurgence and Star Trek Beyond, it’s caused calls for sequelitis as a way to explain their poor performances.
If we look closer at the year as a whole, this assumption is overly simplified. In fact, 7 out of the 10 top grossing films at the domestic box office are sequels, reboots, or remakes. This number holds steady at the worldwide box office. Faced with this tidbit, some may rephrase the argument as a rejection of sequels no one asked for. Cases where too much time had passed, or no one were really clamoring for a sequel. While this might explain the failure of a film like Alice Through the Looking Glass (299 million worldwide on a 170m budget), which was released six years after its predecessor. Once you dig deeper, you come across several titles that disprove that theory. Most notably My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, which came 14 years after the original. With a 18 million dollar budget, the film grossed 88.9 million worldwide. However, despite the film’s success, it pales in comparison to the original’s haul of 368 million on a 5 million dollar budget.
This brings us to the core of the issue. A lot of these films are profitable, but not as successful as their respective studios would’ve liked. Box office success now becomes a debate about how profitable a film needs to be before it’s considered a hit. Consider films like X-Men: Apocalypse (543 million worldwide on a 178m budget), Ice Age: Collision Course (406 million haul on a 105m budget), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (873 million haul on a 250m budget), and Independence Day: Resurgence (389 million worldwide on a 189m budget). These are all profitable films, which at the end of the day will give their studios a payday of varying size (some thanks to ancillary markets like DVD sales, and TV licensing) . However, they all represent cases of films not earning as much as a studio would’ve preferred. As such, they get tossed in with the box office bombs, explained away as sequelitis.
In reality, audiences went to see these films in sufficient numbers to at the very least break even. While they’re not smash hits, it’s misleading to claim they were a victim of sequelitis. At least in terms of overall box office results. The decline in total gross from film to film may be caused by a degree of franchise fatigue with a specific title, or a general disinterest in a project. However, their numbers aren’t that of a film that audiences rejected outright (i.e. the remake of Ben-Hur, which only grossed 94 million worldwide on a 100m budget).
In the grand scheme of things, sequelitis has not set in, neither at the domestic or worldwide market. There are films that struggle to find an audience, but they are more exceptions than the consistent pattern. Sequels are still the biggest business in Hollywood. Rather, the issue is a an industry that expects sky high numbers from every title they put out, and as a way to explain away a film’s failure to meet these expectations, they blame sequelitis, franchise fatigue, or any number of things when the film’s actual failings likely was caused by any number of other factors.