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What Makes a Sequel a Success?

The summer movie season is back, and what do we see the most of? Sequels! Some of us are getting a little tired of seeing so many themes repeated again and again and wonder why movie studios can't give us something NEW.

Movie studios take lower risks investing in sequels compared to original films, but this strategy doesn't always work. Whether or not a sequel is a hit depends on lots of things, many of which apply to more ordinary products like toothpaste and laundry detergent. Success or failure lies in the details. Researcher Mark Houston says, "We found that sequels have two advantages over original movies that are not sequels: They have higher average box office returns and are less financially risky. We can predict outcomes with more certainty because of the known value of the parent brand. The venture is less risky because of more precision in predicting the outcomes."

Whether or not a sequel is a hit or a box-office bomb is highly dependent on key variables. Some of these are the perceived quality of the parent movie; public awareness of the parent movie; distribution intensity; star power; continuity of the star, director, genre, and rating.

The top four factors turned out to be parent brand awareness (whether the public is aware of the parent movie), distribution intensity (the number of theater screens expected for opening weekend), parent brand image (if the first movie was widely considered good or not), and star continuity (whether the sequel has the same star as the first film).

Parent brand awareness was by far the strongest factor: it carried more than double the impact of the number of screens, and quadruple the effect of either parent brand image or star continuity.

Star continuity, though, was still important. For example, the researchers did the math on whether the first Spider-Man sequel, with all other factors the same, could have succeeded with a star other than Tobey Maguire. They found that making a similar flick not based on the Spider-Man brand would reap better returns than a Spider-Man sequel starring anyone else wearing the Spidey-suit.

With this model, key variables can be plugged in and results examined before investors plow millions of dollars into a project. Researcher Mark B. Houston says, "We can estimate beforehand what would happen if there was a different star or a different number of opening-weekend theaters or a different director or rating or genre."

But will the movie studios pay attention? Or will it be the "same old same old" NEXT summer too?

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