When it comes to sequels, 2012 runs the gamut. Alongside follow-ups to films that came out only last year, like Twilight and Paranormal Activity, you've got sequels to franchises that had laid dormant for a decade or more: Last week, Men in Black 3 underperformed ten years after its last installment, and coming up, we've got Prometheus, the sorta-prequel to an Alien franchise that's basically been on ice since 1997. It got us thinking: Is there an ideal amount of time that should pass between sequels to maximize the box office? To find out, we studied every modern-day live-action franchise that met the following criteria: The series had to span at least three movies, it had to retain most of its original cast or its director, and the first film needed to come out in 1990 or later (to limit the effect of inflation). What did we discover?
The Sweet Spot: Sequels that come out every two to four years.
Time and time again in our research, we found the best results from franchises that allow an average of three years' breathing room between installments—just enough time for a series to grow in people's minds and to find an even bigger audience on home video. Three years went by between the main movies in the X-Men series (not counting spinoffs) and the Austin Powers series, and each sequel bettered the last, often by a significant amount. Two years passed before the second Bourne movie outgrossed the first by more than $50 million, then three years passed before the third movie pulled the same trick, improving on the original by over $100 million.
The three Jackass sequels kept performing better with a gap of four years between each movie, while the four Resident Evil movies have pretty much trended upward with two to three years between sequels. Even when a series in this range peaks with its second installment — as the Transformers and Harold and Kumar franchises did — a gap of two to four years between sequels will ensure that there's not a significant drop-off for the third movie.
There were only two notable outliers in this sweet spot. The sequels to Ocean's Eleven were released every three years, and each did steadily worse with critics and at the box office. The real surprise? The original, Tobey Maguire–led Spider-Man franchise — a series where Spider-Man 2 is widely considered to be the strongest installment, as well as one of the best comic book movies ever made — decreased an additional $30 to $40 million with each sequel. Are some comic book franchises simply too frontloaded?
The Quick-Fix Gamble: Sequels that come out every year
It's a fairly recent trend for major franchises to pump out a new installment every year, and sometimes, the results can be big ... especially if the source material is a book series that the audience is passionate about. The Lord of the Rings movies trended significantly better each winter, while a Twilight movie has been released every year since 2008, and each improved on the last until the slight faltering of Breaking Dawn Part 1, the first part of the two-part series-ender. The Harry Potter franchise released its sequels with a gap of a year to a year and a half between movies, and pretty much stabilized its huge grosses around the fourth movie.
If you don't have the literary fanboys to count on, though, this release pattern can burn out quickly. The Saw franchise was pumped out every year and trended consistently downward after peaking with the second installment. Meanwhile, the Paranormal Activity franchise still has a high return on investment, but neither of its two sequels have topped the first.
The costliest decision? When a successful franchise-starter spawns two sequels shot at the same time and released within several months of one another: Sure, it saves money on production costs, but the third film always suffers for it. The second Pirates of the Caribbean movie landed in the sweet spot, grossing nearly $120 million more than the first after a release gap of three years ... and then the third film, shot in tandem and released mere months after number two, made only $4 million more than the first film (and around $110 million less than its predecessor). Same story for the Matrix movies, which jumped from $171 million for 1999's The Matrix to $281 million for The Matrix Reloaded in summer of 2003 ... and then came crashing down to $139 million for The Matrix Revolutions, released only a few months later in winter 2003. Absence truly can make the heart grow fonder.
The Inevitable Disappointment: Releasing a sequel six or more years too late
Still, if there's one franchise move that's always doomed to fail, it's releasing a sequel after too much time has passed since the last installment: roughly, six or more years. The Rush Hour, Meet the Parents, and Mission: Impossible series waited six years to put out a third film, and each hit a franchise low because of it. (Admittedly, the M:I series was uniquely hamstrung at the time by the couch-jumping Cruise's plummet in popularity, which he'd mostly recovered from by the fourth movie.) The longer the wait, the more spectacular the tank: The third Mummy film (released seven years too late) grossed around $100 million less than its predecessor, while the fourth Spy Kids film (eight years too late) made over $70 million less than number three. The American Pie and Scream franchises were recently resurrected after laying dormant for nine and eleven years, respectively ... and neither of these former $100 million grossers came close to their former glory (Scream 4 topped out at a measly $38 million). Yes, you could say that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull delivered a franchise-best total after nineteen years away, but here's where that tricky inflation rule comes in ... if you look at tickets sold for the entire series, which began in 1981, the fourth movie delivered by far the fewest.
Forecasting the Future: What sequels do these rules bode well for?
Fox recently announced two sequels that fall squarely into that three-year sweet spot: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the sequel to X-Men: First Class, both due out in 2014. Also likely to perform well? Grown-Ups 2 (due out three years after the first), the sequel to Star Trek (four years off), and this year's The Dark Knight Rises, coming four years after the titanic success of The Dark Knight. And we're not at all worried about Catching Fire next year, since the Hunger Games franchise has the passionate literary fan base to sustain a yearly release.
Something less than a sure thing is Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For, reuniting much of the original cast after eight long years (the same gap that cost director Robert Rodriguez in between Spy Kids installments). And that 300 sequel, which brings back only Rodrigo Santoro more than seven years after the first movie had its sleeper success? We'd watch the purse strings on that one. If only it had come out in 2009!
And then there's the franchise that most directly proves our many theses: Scary Movie. After the first movie made bank back in 2000, Dimension quickly rushed out a follow-up the next year ... and hit a franchise low. The third and fourth movies then rebounded after a healthy gap of two to three years between installments, but since the last film came out in 2006, next year's Scary Movie 5 (with its dated Black Swan parody) appears to be toast. Sorry, Scary: When it comes to box office numbers, we don't joke around.