In Defense of Sequels

“But people like sequels!” they say, time and time again when the complaints hit Hollywood over the increasing number of sequels they churn out, year over year. Film critics certainly don’t, but then Hollywood is not in a business to please film critics—they’re in the business to make money, just like every other business is. How do they make money? By making movies that sell tickets and DVDs. And what sells tickets and DVDs?

Well, sequels. Apparently.

Last weekend the Guardian reported on research done by academics from the Cass Business School in London which produced a straightforward business formula for the likeliness of a good Return On Investment for movie sequels. Meanwhile, there is still little to no research into why people en masse enjoy sequels as much as they do.

Even the aforementioned research, to be published later this month in the Journal of Marketing, does not explore the “why”s behind the public’s appetite for movie sequels. Mark Batey, chief executive of the Film Distributors’ Association, is quoted in the Guardian saying:

“There is clearly a public appetite for new stories taking favourite characters on new adventures and from an industry point of view, there is arguably less risk in investing in the production and release of a property which has a proven track record,”

Whilst not aiming to deny or disagree with Batey’s statement, the words “there is clearly” have left me dissatisfied, wondering instead about the root cause behind this phenomenon. As I subscribe to the Kaizen school of thought for most things in my life, I explored this with some basic research in an attempt to unearth the reasons for the public’s appreciation of sequels.

I started out with this hypothesis and pseudo-formula:

People like sequels because they are an equal amount of entertainment for a less costly input value, compared to original movies.

This warrants some elaboration on the terms: by “equal amount of entertainment”, I’m referring to the fact that a decent movie—sequel or original—will deliver on an average of two hours of entertainment to the viewer, and the amount of entertainment being no different between sequel and original movie. We’re not here to assess the quality of sequels versus original movies[1], so this part of the premise is sound.

The second part is where it gets interesting: “a less costly input value”—what is meant by that? In a word, it refers to the investment that you, the viewer, make into the movie. You invest your time, energy and attention into watching the movie, and the product of your input is the entertainment you receive in return. This investment, however, is not equal between a movie sequel and an original movie.

With an original movie, you have to invest your attention into three factors: the characters, the setting (world, universe), and the plot. With a sequel movie, your investment for the first two—characters and setting—is almost nil: you already know them, after all. This leaves more room in your mental investment for the plot—but is that the reason why? Is it a desire for more plot that has people enjoying sequels?

Given the traditionally mediocre quality of plots in sequels, even compared to their own original movie, I suspected that this was likely not the root cause after all. People like plot; people love plot, even. But sequels aren’t liked because of their somehow-presumed-superior plot.

I then turned my focus to the cognitive load of this movie investment instead. I’ve written about cognitive load before, then in the context of interfaces for software programs and devices, but cognitive load studies apply to all aspects in life. Originally, cognitive load theory was formed in correlation to the learning ability of humans, but as entirely independent research such as Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice (also known as the Tyranny of Choice [PDF]) effectively points out, there is a strong correlation in the real world between the availability of many options and the way humans interact with these options. Schwartz’s research applied to consumer choices for products, explaining that some choice is better than none, but that more is not always better than less. The sweet spot, he argues, is “somewhere in the middle”.

Applying these principles of cognitive load and the paradox of choice to movies and sequels, I researched the number of movie releases of the past 60 years versus the population growth in the same time period. These figures come from the IMDB Yearly Archive, which may not necessarily be 100% complete for each of the years, but is certainly the most complete archive available.

Starting with Table 1, we look at the movie releases by decade, with the last decade marked by 2000 and 2009:

Table 1 shows the number of movies released for each ten-year mark starting at 1950 and ending with 2009.

Year Movies X
2009 27,927 12.0
2000 13,842 6.0
1990 7,123 3.1
1980 5,341 2.3
1970 4,884 2.1
1960 3,434 1.5
1950 2,320 1 (baseline)

The third column shows the multiplication of movie releases per year from our baseline in 1950. As you can see, there are twelve times as many movies that have come out or are coming out in 2009 than there were in 1950. This is not particularly surprising—the movie industry has grown immensely over the past decades, and especially in today’s Youtube-led Internet Video landscape where making and distributing a short film can be done with just a tiny budget, this explosive growth will only continue.

That aside, twelve times as many movies also mean twelve times as many options to choose from. This adds a serious amount of cognitive load to the average moviegoer, who now has to do a lot more pre-movie investment (e.g. choosing) before even getting to the movie they eventually choose.

This increase in cognitive load could theoretically be offset by an increase in the population, but as you can see from Table 2[2], the numbers don’t break down equally between movies and population:

Table 2 shows the world population marked in decades since 1950, the increase factor for each decade taking 1950 as the baseline, and the same statistic and metric using the U.S. population numbers in the last two columns.

* in billions
** in millions

Year World Population* X U.S. Population** X
2009 6.79 2.7 305.529 2.0
2000 6.06 2.4 282.171 1.9
1990 5.27 2.1 249.438 1.6
1980 4.44 1.8 227.224 1.5
1970 3.70 1.5 205.052 1.3
1960 3.02 1.2 180.671 1.2
1950 2.52 1 (baseline) 152.271 1 (baseline)

The world’s population has grown by a factor of 2.7x since 1950, and in case that might not have been a big enough influence for U.S.-centric Hollywood—where the bulk of these movies still get made—the U.S. Population has grown only by a factor of 2x in that period.

Combining these numbers, we’ve established that between twice the number of people since 1950, we now have six times the number of movies to choose from per person[3]. Put another way, if you were to go see a movie once a week in 1950, you’d have a (theoretical) choice of 44 different movies each week. Now, in 2009, you have a choice of 537 different movies each week, or 76 different movies each day.

Worldwide movie production, distribution and differing film durations aside, it’s not even remotely possible to watch that many movies in a single day.

With so much more choice in movie offerings, the cognitive load for the average moviegoer increases, and the movie satisfaction goes down. Sequels, as established above, produce a smaller cognitive load on the moviegoer, thereby increasing movie satisfaction simply by demanding less of the viewer.

Coincidentally, this cognitive load analysis also explains why there is such a strong demand (among the public) for movies based on existing franchises like comic books or childhood toys: much like how you don’t have to invest heavily to enjoy a sequel, your investment is not as significant for the first movie if it is based on an existing set of characters and a universe that you’re already familiar with. Transformers, G.I. Joe, Spider-Man, Batman—all these require far less of a cognitive load (or investment) to watch if you’re already familiar with them from their original products.

This cognitive load/tyranny of choice aspect is of course not the only reason behind people’s predilection for sequels; the investment in the original movie’s characters has a continued influence in our decision-making process. The more we like the characters in a movie, the more likely we are to want to see them experience new adventures together. This, I believe, is one of the reasons the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels were so widely successful in the box offices: despite not living up to the first movie in terms of writing, plot or character development, people downright hungered for more adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow and his frenemies.

That’s not to say that sequels are always worse than their originals; that’s something that’s left entirely up to Hollywood. We as viewers can only hope that Hollywood produces more sequels like Empire Strikes Back, and fewer like Transformers 2.

Movies are enjoyed by millions of people daily, but the primary reason why people watch movies is to be entertained. We care more about this entertainment than about the choices we have to make to get that entertainment, for as the number of choices grows, our willingness to invest into brand-new characters and worlds decreases. The sequel is not just an industry-efficient means for a movie studio to make more money, it is something that we, the public, are subliminally asking for by increasingly choosing to see the movies that don’t require as much of an investment on our part.

The sequel, in other words, is here to stay.

  1. Given that “quality” of a movie is a highly subjective characteristic to begin with, I suspect no amount of research would be able to produce satisfactory results for that.
  2. Population figures come from the following sources: UN publication on population of the planet [PDF], Wikipedia: World population, NPR: U.S. historical population and U.S. Census Bureau Statistics.
  3. Note that this ignores broken down statistics on the percentages of people who actually go see movies in theaters, people who buy DVDs and who don’t, or the number of movies people watch per year. While those statistics would undoubtedly portray a slightly different picture overall, it’s a well-established fact that people watch more movies on average now compared to 1950, not less.

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