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Don’t Let ‘Jurassic World’ Ruin The Franchise: A Guide To Judging Movie Sequels

The last time a Steven Spielberg franchise was rebooted, we were treated to Indiana Jones fighting aliens. I am really, really worried about “Jurassic World,” which comes out today.

I have — so far — had the luxury of not having any of my favorite franchises hit by a catastrophic reboot. I never fell into the “Phantom Menace”-induced “George Lucas ruined my childhood” Sarlacc-pit-of-despair because the film — which came out in 1999 — was released during my actual childhood.1 I didn’t grow up on “Terminator” movies, so I never considered “Terminator Salvation” a gut punch. I hadn’t even seen the Christopher Reeve “Superman” films before the shlock that was 2006’s “Superman Returns,” and while the “Star Trek” reboot in 2009 may have initially ruffled some Trekkie feathers, I love that movie to no end.

But even if “Jurassic World” is amazing, I’ll have plenty more opportunities to be disappointed. Franchises are king. This trend has been slow to come, but it’s now ossified. As Grantland’s Mark Harris wrote late last year:

Over the 25 years that followed Star Wars, franchises went from being a part of the business to a big part of the business. Big, but not defining: Even as late as 1999, for instance, only four of the year’s 35 top grossers were sequels

That’s not where we are anymore. In 2014, franchises are not a big part of the movie business. They are not the biggest part of the movie business. They are the movie business. Period. Twelve of the year’s 14 highest grossers are, or will spawn, sequels.

Sequels are now almost inexorable.2 Which, all complaining aside, is smart business. If you have a brand that people like, they may like more of it. Between now and Labor Day, we’re due for “Jurassic World,” “Ted 2,” “Terminator Genisys,” “Magic Mike XXL,” “Minions,” “Ant-Man,” and “Fantastic Four,” with nine more sequels by Christmas.

Yet, from a critical standpoint, franchises have diminishing returns — the average sequel ever so slightly diminishes the luster of each franchise, and there’s not a lot you can do to avoid that. As I’ll show in a moment, that’s a quantifiable fact. I was obsessed with “Jurassic Park.”3 I really liked “The Lost World.” I even enjoyed “Jurassic Park III” despite its myriad faults. Now, with “Jurassic World,” I need to find a way to let myself enjoy sequels and reboots. If every time I see a film and think “that wasn’t as good as the original,” it will become very hard to enjoy movies.

So what should my expectations be for “Jurassic World”? Now that the franchise has gas in the tank again, do I need to lower my expectations for what happens next? How often do sequels beat out expectations?

I pulled a list of franchises with three or more installments that made at least $1 billion combined worldwide, according to The-Numbers.com. That’s 40 franchises, everything from James Bond to Terminator to the Alvin and the Chipmunks Cinematic Universe,4 and 214 total films. These films go as far back as the 1960s, with the Bond films and “Planet of the Apes” franchise, but about 90 percent came out after 1980 and about two-thirds after 2000. I then pulled all the films’ Tomatometer ratings from Rotten Tomatoes. (Check out the list of franchises in the footnotes.5)

The Worst-Case Scenario

Every franchise has a least element. Math guarantees that. Even a really good series has an entry that is at least slightly less good.

So which film tanked a franchise the hardest? Sorry, “Star Wars” fanboys, but “Phantom Menace” isn’t anywhere near the worst. I took the average Rotten Tomatoes score for every franchise we have. I then calculated the average score for the franchise as a whole if each film had never been made.

For example: The “Men in Black” franchise has an average Tomatometer score of 67,6 with the first film scoring 92, the second 39 and the third 69. Let’s pretend the second film never happened. Then, the average Tomatometer rating for the franchise would be about 81, a jump of 14 points from its actual average. So we can say “Men in Black II” dragged the franchise down by 14 points.

Here are the biggest drags on franchises’ reputations:

FRANCHISE RATING
MOVIE TOMATOMETER OVERALL W/O FILM GAP
Little Fockers 10 44 61 17
The Matrix Revolutions 36 65 80 15
Men in Black II 39 67 81 14
Terminator Salvation 33 74 87 14
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor 13 38 51 13
The Hangover Part III 19 44 57 13
A Good Day to Die Hard 14 62 74 12
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace 12 59 68 9
Transformers: Age of Extinction 18 73 82 9
Shrek the Third 40 71 79 8
The Bourne Legacy 55 78 86 8
Jurassic Park III 49 64 72 8
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 49 64 72 8
Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem 12 57 65 8
Batman & Robin 11 70 78 7

So the movie that dragged a franchise down the hardest was “Little Fockers,” which has an abysmal 10 on the Tomatometer. If “Jurassic World” gets a Tomatometer score of 33 or lower, it will drag its franchise’s average down enough to be in the top 10 worst sequels ever.

The Average Scenario

Still, that’s a static and retrospective analysis. The defining element of an ideal franchise is that it does not end. We judge the performance of films not once all is said and done but as it happens. For instance, even though both “Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones” sucked, people don’t hate the latter film as much as “Phantom Menace” because the first prequel came out with sky-high expectations of quality and “Clones” did not.

What we’re really looking for is a way to quantify satisfaction and disappointment.

We can do that by assigning a rolling average rating to each film. For the first film in each franchise, the score is just that film’s Tomatometer rating. For the second, it’s the average of the first two, and for the third, it’s the average of the first three — and so on.

Let’s define our sequel satisfaction value as the net change in the moving average between a film and its predecessor. For instance, “X-Men” has a score of 82, “X2” has a score of 87, and the third film, “X-Men: The Last Stand,” has a 58 rating. The rolling franchise average was 84.5 after “X2” but dropped to 75.7 after “X-Men: The Last Stand.” So the sequel satisfaction score for “X-Men: The Last Stand” was -8.8, the difference between the two.

More often than not, sequels are not as highly rated as the first films in a series.

hickey-datalab-franchises-1

Indeed, the average sequel satisfaction value was -3.2, which means the average follow-up film made the overall franchise score drop 3.2 points.7

If “Jurassic World” comes out with a Tomatometer rating of 51, it’ll drop the overall franchise rating by 3.3 points and will be a standard franchise sequel.

“Men in Black II” heralded the biggest drop in franchise quality, followed by 1970’s “Beneath The Planet of the Apes” and then “Meet the Fockers,” “The Hangover Part II” and “Superman III.” These films might not have been the worst in the franchise, but they presaged the largest dips in quality and were often harbingers of worse things to come.

The Best-Case Scenario

So franchises typically get worse over time, but a film sometimes resurrects or improves a franchise. When a sequel bucks against the gravity of franchise deterioration, that’s really something special. It’s an exclusive club: Just 40 of 174 sequels or follow-up films have a higher rating than the very first film in their franchise, and nine of those 40 are “Star Trek” movies, as “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” really, really sucked. Only 12 out of 40 of the films that were second in the franchise were rated higher than their predecessors, and the third film in a franchise was better than the first one only 20 percent of the time.

Here are the top 10 films that improved their franchise’s rolling average the most:

RANK FILM RATING SATISFACTION SCORE
1 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan 90 22.5
2 Fast Five 78 7.9
3 Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol 93 7.6
4 Batman Begins 85 6.8
5 Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted 79 6.5
6 The Dark Knight 94 6.0
7 The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug 74 5.0
8 Furious 7 82 4.5
9 Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa 64 4.5
10 Superman Returns 76 4.2

These are the films that dragged up the quality of their franchises as we saw them, essentially.

So here are the stakes for “Jurassic World.” It needs to hit a 93 rating to match or beat “Jurassic Park.” I bet my shirt it won’t. But if the film gets a 65 or higher rating on the Tomatometer, it will have a positive satisfaction score, likely satisfying fans who are familiar with the whole franchise. If it gets a Tomatometer score of 82 or higher, it will knock off “Superman Returns”8 to be one of the 10 best-ever sequels based on this set. Since scores tend to fluctuate until the end of the weekend, we’ll know Monday where “Jurassic World” fits in the realm of sequels, successful or otherwise.

Footnotes

  1. Sure, once I got into “Star Wars” later on, I began to appreciate what a wreck the prequels are. But it never hit me as viscerally as it did the people who grew up on the original “Star Wars.”

  2. Want more? Case in point, look at Disney, where by the transitive property I happen to work. In Disney’s plans for the next two years, films based on established franchises outnumber original productions 2 to 1. This Vulture piece from 2013 is still germane.

  3. It sounds stupid, but Ian Malcolm is a major reason I took a liking to math when I was a kid.

  4. Or as I prefer to call it, the “AATCCU,” pronounced like a sneeze.

  5. The franchises are: Alien; Alvin & The Chipmunks; Batman; Bourne; The Chronicles of Narnia; Die Hard; the Fast and the Furious; The Hangover; Harry Potter; The Hobbit; The Hunger Games; Ice Age; Indiana Jones; Iron Man; James Bond; Jurassic Park; The Lord of the Rings; Madagascar; Marvel Cinematic Universe; The Matrix; Meet the Parents; Men in Black; Mission Impossible; The Mummy; Night at the Museum; Ocean’s; Pirates of the Caribbean; Planet of the Apes; Resident Evil; Rocky; Shrek; Spider-Man; Star Trek; Star Wars; Superman; Terminator; Toy Story; Transformers; Twilight; X-Men. We removed four films from their franchise list because they were animated or otherwise discontinuous: “Batman: Gotham Knight,” “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm,” “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” (2008) and “Transformers” (1986).

  6. The Tomatometer runs from 0 (bad) to 100 (good).

  7. I first thought this might have something to do with the time of release — if there’s a big gap between movies in a franchise, perhaps that changes the effect a subsequent film will have on a franchise. But I ran a quick linear regression, and it’s basically flat. So in reality, you could wait a year to crank out a sequel or you could wait 20 years to reboot a franchise, and you’re still, on average, going to make a movie that brings the franchise down a couple of points.

  8. While I don’t like “Superman Returns,” “Superman III” and “Superman IV” tanked the series rating so much that the 2006 film had a net positive effect on the franchise.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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