Before sequels became common at the multiplex, the general rule of thumb for studios was that a sequel would make, at best, half as much money as the original film, and subsequent sequels would follow that pattern. After all, why would anyone ever want to see a rehashing of a story from a film they had already seen? 1970s and 1980s franchises like Planet of the Apes, Jaws, Back to the Future, and Police Academy all followed this box office trajectory. However, by the late 1990s that model was torpedoed when it became relatively common for sequels to actually outgross the original — with the most extreme example being the sequel to Austin Powers, which grossed more in its FIRST WEEKEND than the original film made in its ENTIRE RUN. That’s exactly why studios keep pumping out sequels — because moviegoers keep buying tickets to them.
Of course, every once in a while one of the films in a franchise disappoints at the box office. Sometimes it’s a slight dip, other times it’s a monumental crash. So for the five highest-grossing movie franchises at the U.S. box office, what franchise entry has sold the least amount of tickets, and why?
As always, thanks to Box Office Mojo for the figures:
1) HARRY POTTER
The current franchise box office champ, the Harry Potter films all brought in an average of about $300 million at the domestic box office. The lowest grossing of them all? The third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which at $249.5 million brings that average down.
EXPLANATION: Oddly, Prisoner of Azkaban is considered one of the stronger films in the series by both critics and audiences, so quality wasn’t an issue here. However, the movie did open within the same six-week period as the two highest-grossing films of the year, Shrek 2 and Spider-Man 2, both monster hits. Seems like it was just a crowded box office that May/June that held Potter back.
2) STAR WARS
Since the Star Wars franchise started in 1977, it’s necessary to adjust for inflation, especially since the original three Star Wars films have been re-released several times. Thankfully Box Office Mojo has a chart that adjusts for inflation. However, even without adjusting the clear winner (loser?) is 2008’s animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which probably didn’t even make back the money it took to make it. Discounting the animated film, the lowest grossing is Episode II – Attack of the Clones… so far. Now that Disney will be putting out Episodes VII through IX, it’ll be curious to see how that trilogy does financially (though it will likely push the franchise past Harry Potter for the #1 spot no matter what).
EXPLANATION: Of course EVERYONE went to see The Phantom Menace — it was the first new Star Wars film in sixteen years! And almost as many went to see Revenge of the Sith since it FINALLY told the backstory that everyone actually wanted to see all along. Stuck in the middle is Attack of the Clones, which is just as poor of a film as The Phantom Menace but didn’t have sixteen years of buzz. As for the animated Clone Wars, it seems the only people interested in seeing animated Star Wars on the big screen are the hardcore fans, because clearly nobody else cared.
Batman has leaped up to the third spot thanks to The Dark Knight Rises, though The Dark Knight Rises isn’t the highest grossing film in the series (that honor remains with its predecessor, The Dark Knight). Like Star Wars, officially the lowest-grossing Batman theatrical film is an animated one (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm), but unlike Star Wars: The Clone Wars it isn’t considered by fans to be the worst of the series. That distinction belongs to the lowest-grossing live-action Batman film, which is Batman and Robin.
EXPLANATION: Do you really need an explanation here? Batman and Robin was so awful, so universally loathed, that it flat-out killed the series for eight years and took a visionary like Christopher Nolan to revive it. Absolutely nobody wanted to see George Clooney as Batman, especially spouting the cheesy one-liners he does in the movie, resulting in this movie regularly topping “Worst Movies of All Time” lists. I am still surprised that Nolan, as talented of a filmmaker as he is, was able to revive the franchise from such depths of awfulness.
4) JAMES BOND
Bond is a bit tricky: since the films have been released over a five-decade period, the films earlier in the series obviously have lower grosses than more recent entries due to the price of tickets. Adjusting for inflation puts Licence to Kill (at $69 million 2012 dollars / $34 million 1989 dollars) as the lowest-grossing in the franchise by a fairly significant margin.
EXPLANATION: The 1980s were a bad decade for Bond. Aging Roger Moore was long overdue for replacement and although Dalton’s Bond is held in higher regard today than he was in the 1980s, the box office just wasn’t there. Part of the dissatisfaction might have come from the film’s grittier, less-flashy approach to the storyline, which audiences wouldn’t be ready to embrace until two decades later with Daniel Craig‘s Bond. Indeed, the fact that the Pierce Brosnan Bond era largely continued the glitz of the 70s Bond films to great box office success makes it pretty clear that audiences of the 1990s preferred their Bond with a bit of fantasy. It also didn’t help that Licence to Kill was released in the same summer as such blockbusters as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters 2, Batman, and Lethal Weapon 2. With competition like that, it’s surprising that the movie ended up doing as well as it did!
5) MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE
We’re far from the end of the Marvel Comics Universe (and there’s no doubt this franchise will leap up a few spots by the time it does), but of the core-Avengers films it’s already clear that there are some winners and not-so-big winners. And despite the fact that he was probably the most talked-about star in The Avengers, 2008’s The Incredible Hulk is the lowest grossing of The Avengers franchise at $134.8 million, just barely beating the $132 million take of 2003’s Hulk (which isn’t officially counted as part of the Universe, though there is really no reason it shouldn’t be).
EXPLANATION: The Incredible Hulk opened to limited competition, so that can’t be blamed for keeping the grosses down. Perhaps audiences who didn’t like Hulk from only five years before stayed away, especially since The Incredible Hulk didn’t receive significantly better reviews than its predecessor. Despite Robert Downey, Jr. briefly appearing as Tony Stark in the film, Marvel had yet to really tie its franchises together, so perhaps if it was more apparent that this film was a lead-up to The Avengers movie four years later more would’ve flocked to theaters. Despite its lower grosses, there’s no doubt that audiences are interested in a sequel after the Hulk stole the show in The Avengers.
In a few years it would be worth revisiting this list to see how these franchise continue — and see if others, like The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings, move into the top 5!