2019 has been pretty weird so far for cinemagoers. On paper, it seemed like we were looking at the most successful box-office year since records began. And, to be fair, with Frozen 2 and Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker on the horizon, there’s still a good chance it will be.
But there’s no getting away from it, 2019 has been equally disappointing for audiences and studios so far. Dead-cert sequel after dead-cert sequel has transformed into flop after flop.
There’s one major thing connecting all of them, and it’s a problem that’s been building for a while. It’s not because they were sequels – sequels can be huge and delightful. It’s because they weren’t sequels.
Not really. None of this summer’s flop sequels featured actors fans were emotionally invested in already.
Men In Black: International jettisoned Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, with Sony assuming CGI aliens were enough of a through line to carry a complete reboot, absent of Smith and Jones’ chemistry. They were wrong.
Still, MIB: International would have been one of the summer’s biggest films if Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson had been playing Thor and Valkyrie instead of H and M. That’s because Marvel has done the hard work of making us care about these actors in those specific roles – you can’t just lift them up and put them down into another franchise. Emotional engagement doesn’t work that way.
It was the first X-Men movie that didn’t feature Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine (even X-Men: Apocalypse squeezed in the Weapon X sequence), and it was, coincidentally, the first X-Men film that people didn’t bother to go and see.
Ah, but what about Godzilla: King Of The Monsters, that featured Ken Wanatabe’s Dr Ishiro Serizawa, right? Well, yes – but while he’s technically a legacy character, he’s a legacy character in a film people found underwhelming the first time around. Also, he didn’t lead the marketing – Millie Bobby Brown did. And we’ve already gone into the very specific reasons that film underperformed (though compared to a lot of the films we’re discussing, it actually did okay).
One monster movie led by a Stranger Things actor (here, David Harbour) that definitely didn’t do okay was Hellboy.
Again, it was assumed that you could stick anyone in that red rubber suit and plonk anyone on the director’s chair and people would still pay for a babysitter so they could go see it. Again, it was a mistake – a fundamental misunderstanding of what made people loyal to the franchise in the first place: Guillermo del Toro and Ron Perlman.
People don’t want to see a cut-price comic-book film led by a supporting player from a streaming service show. If they want to watch streaming-service actors, they’ll just stay home with Netflix.
People actually have a lot of entertainment options these days. Yeah, we know, weird isn’t it? You want people to go to the cinema, use movie stars. But, more importantly, take time to build franchises, identify what works about them and do everything you can to keep those elements together, while expanding them.
Look at the John Wick series (built around Keanu Reeves), which has done better at the box office with each sequel, and is one of the year’s success stories – even with a title like ‘Parabellum’. The more we get to know John, the more we like him, the more we want to see him. Our passion attracts interest, which brings in new audience members (after they’ve caught up with the previous films on streaming). It’s not rocket science.
It’s the reason Hobbs & Shaw will probably be okay. It’s taking similar risks to other films that failed this summer – it’s losing its key cast, promoting supporting characters to leads, and making the transition from being a series about cars to being a series about action set-pieces – but it should still succeed.
It all depends on the reviews, and how much goodwill The Rock still has following a series of flops, but the series has slowly been moving towards being more about spectacle than character arcs for a while now.
We blame Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them for this rotten mess. Warner Brothers rolled the dice on a franchise extension without any of the actors or characters we cared about and won big – to the tune of nearly a billion dollars worldwide.
Other studios blew the dust off their own intellectual property and we’re seeing the consequences now, three years later. Only, here’s the problem – it seems audiences almost immediately learned their lesson from Beasts, that franchises without the franchise stars are actually pretty boring.
Follow-up The Crimes Of Grindelwald scored the lowest debut of the entire series. You can bet that if Warners had worked in a time-travel narrative that brought back Harry, Ron and Hermione, played by Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, it would have been one of the biggest films of the year instead of the lowest-grossing instalment of the franchise.
With so many major series ‘ending’ this year, it’s a problem the studios are all going to face in some form. 2019 proves that franchise-adjacent films won’t be enough to extend brands’ lifespans.
How will they counter the trend? By investing in new talent, new ideas, taking risks on new series? Or will they keep churning out seventh sequels to movies people vaguely remember, shoving TikTok stars and YouTubers into lead roles while hoping for the best? We know which we’d prefer.