TL;DR: While there are plenty of other factors involved – including the poorer critics’ reviews for Lego 2 and the spin-offs that came before – another major issue for this sequel was that five years after the original is just bad timing for an animated follow-up. Based on my analysis of fifty animated sequels, the best time to make one is either two-four years after the original movie to catch the same audience as the previous title, or over a decade after the original as a nostalgia play. Releasing a sequel between 5-9 years after the first statistically is more likely to lead to an underperformance. Also if you don’t read anything else, scroll down and look at the tables to get some more details of how the numbers turn out.
So…what happened with Lego 2?
Ahh, the fun of box office tracking. Some weekends, you get numbers right along expectations. Other weekends, like the one nearly a year ago when Black Panther opened, a movie smashes all predictions. Then sometimes…you get box office results that are quite far away from expectations, but not really in a good way. That was the case this past weekend with WB’s animated sequel The Lego Movie, which collapsed with a domestic opening of only $34M, a far stretch from the mid-$50Ms reported by tracking just a few weeks ago.
What went wrong? There are a bunch of factors to point to, including slightly poorer critical reviews this time. The original Lego boasted a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes with an 8.1 average. This time around, its an 85% with a 7 average, with many reviewers noting there’s still a lot of fun to be had, but that things just aren’t as original this time around. Plus there’s just plain-old franchise oversaturation. Despite being this weekend’s title being only a sequel to the first movie, its the fourth movie in the franchise overall once you include in 2017’s Lego Batman and Lego Ninjago.
Past all of these factors, there might be another fundamental, mostly undiscussed, problem plaguing Lego 2. We’ve seen it before recently, when Disney’s Ralph Breaks the Internet failed to increase significantly from its predecessor, despite that many had high hopes for the sequel thanks to its change-up in setting and inclusion of the iconic Disney princesses.
That factor is the time gap between a movie and its sequel. For children-focused animated movies in particular, its important because the main target audience – kids – can be fleeting. A seven year-old might be interested in the same franchise when they’re ten, but if they’re fifteen by the time the next entry comes out, they may feel they’re too old for “just a kids movie”. There’s also the simpler problem of a franchise’s brand potentially losing its luster over time and becoming stale.
Calculating it out
So, what is the best time to release an animated sequel? To calculate it out, I started by building a list of the fifty highest-grossing animated sequels. To make calculating the differences in grosses between movies across potentially long periods of time more equitable, for this analysis I’ll just be focusing on domestic grosses. Also to form a common base comparison point, all domestic numbers have been adjusted for 2018 average ticket prices.
In addition, here we’re only focusing on traditional sequels. So for example with the Madagascar franchise, the numbers between the three main movies (Madagascar 1-3) are compared, but the spin-off film Penguins of Madagascar isn’t counted. Movies also must be fully animated or nearly exclusively animated to be included here, so no Mary Poppins Returns here. Finally, sequels need to get at least some sort of domestic theatrical release to be counted, so no Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania or all that other direct-to-disc stuff.
So here’s the full top fifty list of animated sequels, sorted by the sequel’s domestic adjusted gross:
Next, I’m adding two wrinkles to the table. The first is a column called “% Change”, which looks at the change in adjusted domestic gross between a movie’s predecessor and its sequel. So for example, a movie with a 50% change would mean the sequel grossed 50% more than its predecessor. The second is a column called “Years between films”, which calculates the distance in time between a movie and its predecessor. So simply enough, if it says three years in that column, it means three years elapsed between the two movies. To make calculations easier, distances in years less than one are measured to the decimal point, not in months.
Now, let’s look at the top fifty domestic adjusted animated sequels, sorted from the biggest sequel increase to the smallest. A sequel increasing in gross from its predecessor has its cell shaded green, and a decrease is shaded red:
The most interesting thing that stands out at first from this table is that the sequel-making business for animated movies isn’t by default a very good one. In fact, despite that studios would logically only greenlight sequels to movies where the previous title did well and had strong audience interest, its much, much more likely for an animated sequel to do worse than its predecessor than better. Only eight out of the fifty sequels analyzed here actually did better than their predecessor. The vast majority did worse. Making a sequel on average means about a 33% drop from the previous movie’s adjusted domestic numbers, showing just how hard it is to strike lightning twice when it comes to hits.
Nonetheless of course, despite these drops, I still realize there are still plenty of reasons to make sequels. They normally guarantee at least some level of interest and are seen as less risky than making another completely original movie. Plus, building out a franchise means being able to goose up merchandising, theme park licensing, and other branding opportunities. (See the Cars franchise for a perfect example of that.)
When do sequels perform the best?
So the question from here is – when is the best time to make a sequel, if you’re going to make one? To figure that out, I split up the sequels from the table into four categories, based on the gap between the previous movie and its follow-up:
- The Quick And Dirty Sequel: under two years between movies
- The Standard Sequel: between two and four years
- The Too Slow Sequel: between five and nine years
- The Nostalgia Sequel: ten years or over
Looking at the numbers, its clear there’s an optimum time gap between movies in a franchise…and then there are the less-than optimum gaps:
The best time to release an animated sequel is either in The Standard Sequel slot (so two to four years after the original) or by playing the long game and releasing the sequel over a decade after the last film (The Nostalgia Sequel slot). The big question – why though? Let’s break down the types of movies that fill up each slot, and their strengths and weaknesses.
The Quick And Dirty Sequel
- Category: The Quick And Dirty Sequel
- Timing: less than two years since the previous film
- Average sequel performance: down 58.6% from their predecessor
- Best performer: Pooh’s Heffalump Movie (down 26.3% from Piglet’s Big Movie)
- Worst performer: Pokemon 4Ever (down 90.1% from Pokemon 3: The Movie)
Did you know that there were three Care Bears animated movies in the 80s, including one where they stick the bears in the middle of an Alice in Wonderland story, and that it has the includes the Cheshire Cat as a rapper? Apparently.
Since the criteria for this category is that the sequel was released less than two years after the previous movie, its full of low-key animated follow-ups like the many Pokémon films, and some of the early 2000s theatrically-released Winnie the Pooh movies from the now-defunct Disneytoon Studios. It’s no surprise the mostly rushed endless franchise content here is probably the biggest reason it has the worst sequel performance of all the categories, with the average follow-up here doing 58.6% worse than their predecessor.
The Standard Sequel
- Category: The Standard Sequel
- Timing: between two and four years since the previous film
- Average sequel performance: down 17.7% from their predecessor
- Best performer: Shrek 2 (up 50.2% from Shrek)
- Worst performer: Ice Age: Collision Course (down 63.7% from Ice Age: Continental Drift)
The Standard Sequel category is by far the best performing one, and its not hard to see why. Many of the films here are sequels to successful megafranchises like Shrek or Despicable Me from the big animation studios. The two to four year gap seems to be the best compromise between making sure the kid audience that liked your previous movie is still roughly in the right age bracket to enjoy your next one, while giving the studio enough time to produce at least a somewhat decent film without having to cut corners by rushing it out in under two years.
The Too Slow Sequel
- Category: The Too Slow Sequel
- Timing: between five and nine years since the previous film
- Average sequel performance: down 53.3% from their predecessor
- Best performer: Ralph Breaks the Internet (down 7.2% from Wreck-It Ralph)
- Worst performer: Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil (down 84.0% from Hoodwinked)
So while The Lego Movie 2 wasn’t included in the calculations here since it hasn’t finished its theatrical run yet (it’s only just started), its this category that it fits in – the one for the sequels that just took long to arrive. For the movies in this category, the problem seems simple. Yeah, the previous films in their series generally had a decent reception, but its just been too long for a sequel to still reach the same age category of kids as the previous title, yet at the same time too short of a period for nostalgia to kick in. So with the movies here, there’s a sense of remembering the previous titles, but more as something stale than beloved.
The Nostalgia Sequel
- Category: The Nostalgia Sequel
- Timing: over ten years since the previous film
- Average sequel performance: down 28.0% from their predecessor
- Best performer: Incredibles 2 (up 57.7% from The Incredibles)
- Worst performer: The Jungle Book 2 (down 85.9% from The Jungle Book)
With The Nostalgia Sequel category, the weakness of the Too Slow Sequel Category ends, with movies able to now go past feeling like a part of a stale franchise to be seeing as a return of the favorite part of some now-adult’s childhood. The goal for these sequels isn’t so much to get kids on board (although I’m sure many are), but to recater to the original child audience from a decade-plus ago now that they’re older.
When this strategy works, it works extremely well. Incredibles 2, which opened over thirteen years after the first film, was partially so successful because it was able to bring in not just new kids, but nostalgic adult audiences as well. Cue the biggest gain for a sequel on the entire chart, with 2 having a domestic total nearly 60% above the first movie, even when adjusted for inflation, and the eighth-best opening weekend of all-time with $182M, a start more in line with a four-quadrant blockbuster than your average animated film.
Wrapping it up
As I said at the start, this isn’t meant to be a definitive rulebook of what went wrong with Lego 2 or for any other movie for that matter. There are plenty of other factors that can cause changes in a sequel’s performance. Still, I think the data shows some interesting trends about performance versus sequel timing.
If anyone else is interested in building off of what I’ve put together, you can view and download the full set of data on Google Docs over here.