The Causes of Movie Franchise Fatigue

Why Have Audiences Been Losing Interest in Movie Franchises?

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Walt Disney Pictures

Though sequels were once uncommon in the movie business, the success of movies like Jaws 2, the Planet of the Apes series, the original Star Wars trilogy, and the James Bond series were all early examples that demonstrated that movie franchises could be significant moneymakers for studios.

But sequels are hitting multiplexes with much more frequency today. By the mid-1990s sequels became much more commonplace, and by 2005 most of the highest-grossing movies of the year were part of a franchise. In fact, in 2015 eight of the ten highest-grossing films at both the U.S. and worldwide box office were part of a franchise.

But 2016 and 2017 demonstrated the start of a reverse trend. Recent franchise films that underperformed—and some that completely bombed—at the U.S. box office include Alice Through the Looking Glass, Ghostbusters, Huntsman: Winter’s War, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, and The Divergent Series: Allegiant (all 2016), and Alien: Covenant, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Transformers: The Last Knight, and The Mummy (all 2017). Considering that the U.S. box office is the most lucrative for Hollywood (studios get less of a cut from the international box office, and the percentage varies from territory to territory), even if a movie makes a lot of money overseas it can still be a money-loser if it doesn't earn enough at the U.S. box office.

What are the causes of these seemingly sudden "franchise fatigue" after almost 20 years of sustained success? While it likely varies from franchise-to-franchise, here are some of the many factors:

Aging Audiences

While some appeal of long-running franchises is based on nostalgia, that isn’t true for all of them. The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was released in 2003. It’s a gamble that nearly 15 years later—and six years since the previous sequel—that audiences still want to see Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush as their pirates characters for a fifth time in 2017.

The same audiences that made the first three films massive box office hits over a decade ago may no longer be interested in the further adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow, and younger audiences may not be familiar with the franchise at all. If the number of interested new fans is much lower than fans who are no longer interested, it will be reflected in the lower box office.

Same Old, Same Old

While sequels like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Transformers: The Last Knight promise new villains and perhaps a new supporting character or two, the movies themselves follow the same formulas as previous movies in the cycle. If reviewers—whether professional critics or trusted friends and family—say the new sequels are too repetitive, subsequent audiences will stay away from theaters and likely wait to see the new movie when it’s available for home viewing in a few months.

The Hard Sell

Worse, even if there are unique elements to the movies, the marketing—posters, trailers, social media—are not doing an effective job of convincing theatergoers that these sequels are different enough to get them to go to the theater. After all, if the trailer for a giant robot movie looks too much like the previous giant robot movie, why spend money to see it?

So What Works?

While Hollywood has seen a number of franchises underperform in recent years, others continue to pack theaters like The Fast and the Furious, Star Wars, and the various films associated with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). While there is no across-the-board answer as to why, there are several possible factors.

For example, while films in the Star Wars universe and MCU are set within the same story framework, they often tell a variety of stories with a rotating cast of characters. This keeps the plot of each film fresh and enables the filmmakers to cycle characters in and out of the films to keep audiences from tiring of them.

In the case of The Fast and the Furious movies, the franchise went from movies about car racing that began to dwindle in popularity (2006’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift was the lowest-grossing of the series) to a franchise with an ensemble cast that features elements of heist, action, and thriller genres. By changing the tired formula and injecting fresh faces with box office appeal, filmmakers have been able to keep these franchises interesting.

Better Strategy

Naturally, Hollywood will still explore sequels for any hit original film – and many movies, like 2017’s The Mummy, are released with franchise plans already in place. But it’s clear that many films struggle to maintain audience interest past their first sequel.

It's impossible to predict what sequels will do well and what won't, but with the rise of social media and the nearly instantaneous feedback that comes with it, studios can do a better job of weighing the long-term interest in sequels. If the original movie seems to pass out of the public consciousness within six months—as movies like 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman and 2014's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did—are sequels really a wise investment?

If the current "franchise fatigue" trend continues, expect Hollywood to take a closer work at the decisions on what sequels it will throw its money at.