Film Franchises: The Differences Between Sequels, Reboots and Spinoffs

Chris Pratt in 'Jurassic World'.
Chris Pratt in 'Jurassic World'. © Universal Studios/Amblin Entertainment

Any regular moviegoer knows that for at least the last decade Hollywood has gone overdrive on franchises. After all, that's where the money is —​ of the 10 highest-grossing movies of 2015, eight of them were part of a franchise. Though many film fans complain about the lack of originality in Hollywood, the studios are simply following the money.

When it comes to franchises, there are different types of continuations – sequels, prequels, crossover, reboots, remakes, and spinoffs. It's difficult to keep all of those terms straight, especially since countless media reporters use them interchangeably, and frequently incorrectly.

This list defines all types of franchise films, explaining what term is appropriate for what type of movie.

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Back to the Future Part II
Universal Pictures

Sequels are the most frequent ways Hollywood builds a franchise. A sequel is a direct continuation from the previous film — for example, 1978’s "Jaws 2" continues the story of 1975’s "Jaws," 1989’s "Back to the Future Part II" continues the story of 1985’s "Back to the Future." You can expect to see many (or all) of the same actors playing the same characters, and often the films have the same creative teams.

In some cases, sequels can be in a slightly different genre. 1991’s "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" is more of an action film than its sci-fi/thriller predecessor, 1984’s "The Terminator," but the sequel just continues the story in a different style.

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Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace

Whereas a sequel takes place after an original film to continue the story, a prequel takes place before the film to establish the backstory. The term is most associated with the "Star Wars" Prequel Trilogy, the 1999-2005 film trilogy that took place decades before the classic 1977-1983 "Star Wars" Trilogy and told the backstory of the series’ most iconic characters. Similarly, 1984’s "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" takes place a year before 1981’s "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Perhaps the biggest challenge of prequels is that audiences already have an idea of how the characters end up, so creators have to ensure that the prequel’s script will still hook audiences. Another challenge is having actors convincingly play younger versions of their characters. 2002’s "Red Dragon" takes place several years before 1991’s "The Silence of the Lambs," which required actors Anthony Hopkins and Anthony Heald to play younger versions of their 1991 characters.

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The Avengers
Marvel Studios

One movie can be a sequel to two or more different movies. A studio might do this to team up successful movie characters in another film. Perhaps the first-ever movie crossover was Universal Studios' 1943 film "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man." The movie pitted the two monsters — who had already starred in successful movies of their own — against each other. Universal continued the crossovers with 1944's "House of Frankenstein" (which added Dracula to the mix), 1945's "House of Dracula," and most successfully, 1948's "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," which featured those three monsters against Universal's successful comedy duo.

Other movie crossovers include 1962's "King Kong vs. Godzilla," 2003's "Freddy vs. Jason," and 2004's "Alien vs. Predator." However, by far the most successful is 2012’s "The Avengers." which combined all of Marvel Studios' superheroes in a single film. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now the highest-grossing film series of all time.

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Batman Begins
Warner Bros.

A reboot is when a movie studio makes a brand new version of an older movie, doing an entirely new version of the same concept with no direct in-story connection to the original. All previous continuity is disregarded. 2005's "Batman Begins" is a reboot of 1989's "Batman" — though it features the same characters and concepts, the stories take place in entirely different continuities. 2016's "Ghostbusters" is a reboot of 1984's "Ghostbusters" since it is set in a world where the previous "Ghostbusters" never happened.

What sets a reboot apart from a sequel or a spinoff is that it takes the story of a previous movie and completely starts over — it is not a direct connection to the original film or film series. Think of it as taking place in an alternate universe — same concepts, but totally different execution. In fact, this “alternate universe” concept is best illustrated in the 2009 "Star Trek" reboot, which takes place in an alternative timeline from the original "Star Trek" franchise (though the appearance of a certain time-traveling character from the original series also makes it a bit of a sequel).

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Ocean's Eleven
Warner Bros.

In a lot of ways, a remake and a reboot are similar concepts. They are both brand-new versions of previous movies. However, “reboot” is more commonly used for film franchises, while “remake” is more often used for stand-alone movies. For example, 1983's "Scarface" is a remake of 1932's "Scarface," and 2006's "The Departed" is a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong film "Infernal Affairs."

Sometimes remakes unexpectedly turn into franchises. 2001's "Ocean's Eleven" was a remake of 1960's "Ocean's 11," but the remake was so successful it spawned two sequels, 2004's "Ocean's Twelve" and 2007's "Ocean's Thirteen."

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Puss in Boots
DreamWorks Animation

In some cases, a supporting character “steals” a movie and becomes so popular he or she might rival the popularity of the movie’s main stars. This could allow a studio to continue a franchise in a different direction.

For example, the breakout character from 2004's "Shrek 2" was Puss in Boots, who was voiced by Antonio Banderas. In 2011, Puss in Boots received his own self-titled movie. This is considered a spinoff because it did not include the main characters from the "Shrek" franchise and focused on Puss in Boots instead. Similarly, Disney's 2013 film "Planes" and its 2014 sequel "Planes: Fire & Rescue" takes place in the same universe as Pixar's Cars series but with entirely different characters.

Depending on when the spinoff takes place, it can also be a prequel or a sequel to the original movie... but let's not make this anymore complicated than it already is!