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1 chart shows why Hollywood produces so many sequels

There's a reason why Hollywood relies so heavily on sequels — it shows them the money.

Out of the top 60 box office films since 2016 (excluding 2020, as most theaters were shut down due to the pandemic) just five can be classified as true original titles, with sequels driving the bulk of the industry's highest-grossing films.

The analysis, provided to Yahoo Finance from box office analytics platform EntTelligence, highlights movie studios' predictable reliance on sequels, franchises, and known IP to boost ticket sales.

"It's been pretty much the standard narrative," Boxoffice Pro chief analyst Shawn Robbins explained. "There are very few stories that haven't been told. It's all about reinvention."

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Adding to production pressures? The top 10 films, on average, have represented about one out of every three tickets sold in a given year over the past decade, according to EntTelligence.

That means the top films drive the business, which essentially forces Hollywood to bank on a "tried-and-true" content strategy as opposed to taking a chance on an original concept that may not perform.

"It’s purely financial," Travis Knox, film producer and professor at Chapman University, told Yahoo Finance.

"The cost of marketing feature releases is enormous, and with Hollywood’s target audience avoiding traditional ad-based television, it’s harder to get the word out," he continued. "Releasing a film that has familiarity is perceived as being a safer bet."

Knox added studios have also become accustomed to "chasing that first week," explaining, "Movies now live or die from the first weekend, so doing a sequel or something that's already out there in the ether, whether it's a Marvel character or based on a hit book, is always going to make it a little bit easier to sell tickets from a studio perspective."

Of course, there are original titles that surprise to the upside.

Sony's "Anyone But You" and Universal's "M3GAN" are recent examples of high-performing box office titles, securing global totals of more than $200 million and $180 million, respectively. (To note, "Anyone But You" is still in its theatrical run so it's possible its global haul could inch up even more.)

Both films benefitted from strong marketing campaigns and bursts of social media chatter; however, those totals, while impressive, don't even come close to breaking the top 10.

The 'Barbie' recipe for success

Margot Robbie poses on the pink carpet for the world premiere of the film
Margot Robbie poses on the pink carpet for the world premiere of the film "Barbie" in Los Angeles, July 9, 2023. "Barbie" surged to the top of the box office in 2023. (Mike Blake/REUTERS) (REUTERS / Reuters)

While originals have struggled to overcome sequels at the top of the box office food chain, some of the films making the biggest splash are the ones creating original experiences based on characters that people already know, like "Barbie."

"'Barbie' took this whole notion of basing a movie around a doll IP and turned it into a very meaningful narrative that culturally resonated," Boxoffice Pro's Robbins told Yahoo Finance. "It tapped into that familiarity but was also something that audiences could relate to."

According to EntTelligence, the Greta Gerwig-directed blockbuster was the first non-sequel movie since 2003's "Finding Nemo" to have sold the most tickets at the box office in a given year.

Biopics have added to the boon in known-IP films with "Bob Marley: One Love" still gaining momentum following its Feb. 14 debut. Meanwhile, Sam Mendes will direct four different movies about the Beatles, each told from a different band member's perspective. All four films are slated for release in 2027.

Still, not all familiar stories work. Most recently, Marvel's "Madame Web" bombed in theaters (and received an arguably worse reception from the general public) as superhero fatigue permeates the industry.

"'Color Purple,' 'Shazam,' 'Haunted Mansion' … like them or not, they were all huge disappointments at last year’s box office," Knox added. "Why did 'Barbie' succeed? Besides being a genuine crowd-pleaser, it had a brilliant marketing campaign that led to a ton of unexpected publicity. They successfully brought in audiences who hated the toy line but found a movie that still spoke to them."

Knox said the film's fresh and different perspective also appealed to audiences.

"Consumers don't want to be bored," he explained. "They don't want to be talked down to. They want to see something that is new and exciting. It's the 'Barbie' story itself and the way it was told that was so different."

It also didn't hurt that the film boasted an A-list cast, which included Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. Star power, in particular, can often serve as driver for films across the board, although Knox pointed out there's "no formula" when it comes to box office successes.

"The most basic answer is that consumers want something that feels fresh and familiar at the same time. It's an impossible scenario," Robbins added. "It's not just about making a great movie. It's not just about having a great cast and a great story. It also has to be pitched really effectively, sometimes well in advance."

Although Robbins and Knox both believe the sequel will continue to dominate, Robbins said this year could be a "stepping stone" when it comes to studios taking more risks at the box office.

"When we see films like Universal's 'The Fall Guy' kicking off summer — that's not your typical movie that you would expect to lead off summer," he said. "If that movie works well, that could really change the game."

Alexandra Canal is a Senior Reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on X @allie_canal, LinkedIn, and email her at alexandra.canal@yahoofinance.com.

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