First, it's important to clarify the methodology being used. In order to normalize the data a bit, prequels, reboots, indirect continuations of franchises (Muppets and Winnie the Pooh, for example), and sequels to movies older than 20 years are being excluded from the study. For Happy Feet Two and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1, domestic final grosses are being estimated at $75 million and $290 million, respectively, based on historical comparisons. However, with scattered and incomplete foreign runs, these two movies are being left off any international computations; in addition, movies that do not have significant foreign grosses (Madea, Harold & Kumar) are also being left off. Finally, movies that are numerical sequels but wind up being prequels (Paranormal Activity 3 and one other movie that will remain unmentioned due to potential spoilers), are being included. That leaves 16 sequels domestically* and 12 internationally for this specific study.
So far in 2011, sequels are down an average of 16 percent at the domestic box office. This represents a noteworthy decrease from 2010, when sequels were off seven percent, and 2009, when sequels were actually up four percent. Out of the 16 sequels, only two improved on their predecessors: Fast Five was up 33.5 percent from Fast and Furious, while Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 improved 29.2 percent. The biggest losers were Spy Kids: All the Time in the World (off 65 percent), Happy Feet Two (projected to be down around 62 percent) and Scream 4 (down 57 percent).
It's a completely different story at the international box office. The 12 movies tracked improved a massive 40 percent over their predecessors on the foreign circuit. That's up from an 18 percent gain in 2010 and a 12 percent gain in 2009. Adding domestic and foreign together for a worldwide figure, sequels were up nearly 18 percent in 2011 compared to just seven percent in 2010 and eight percent in 2009.
It's easy to look at the worldwide gains and conclude that sequels continue to be a worthwhile pursuit. It's important to remember, though, that studios ultimately take home only around 45 percent of foreign earnings compared to 55 percent of domestic earnings, which means the shift towards international box office isn't necessarily adding to the bottom line.
There are a handful of other interesting statistics related to 2011 sequels. Those that were released within three years of their predecessors were down only six percent domestically, while those released later than that were off an average of 45 percent. The lesson here is that at least as far as box office is concerned, it's better to get a sequel out as soon as possible.
Contrary to the negative narrative regarding 3D, the addition of the format didn't seem to have a major impact. Movies that added 3D fell 15 percent domestically (compared to 16 percent among all titles) and were up 42 percent internationally (compared to 40 percent overall).
Finally, family sequels got crushed in 2011. Out of the five movies tracked (Cars 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Happy Feet Two, Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2 and Spy Kids 4), domestic box office was down an average of 37 percent. This seems to indicate that perhaps parents aren't interested in paying for an expensive night out when they can just queue up a previous installment at home for fairly cheap.