Sequels are the financial lifeblood of Hollywood, launching multi-decade franchises and allowing studios to develop ancillary products and experiences. And horror movie sequels are something like an industry cheat code, often requiring much smaller budgets than other genres and, in some cases, delivering major box office returns.
Although sequels have been around since the dawn of the film business, horror sequels didn’t take off until the 1970s, when the 1973 release of The Exorcist led to the release of a series of follow-up films. Similarly, the summer blockbuster Jaws in 1975, led to the release of Jaws 2 several years later, ultimately making it the most profitable horror franchise to date when adjusted for inflation.
There’s been some debate as to whether Jaws is a horror film or an adventure film. A simple way to distinguish the two is to compare the ever-present terror the great white shark visits upon every resident of the fictional Amity Island throughout the film, contrasted against the brief skirmish Leonardo DiCaprio has with a bear in The Revenant.
One film, Jaws, depends on framing the animal as a preternaturally skilled menace relentlessly hunting all of humanity, while The Revenant places the animal in the same context as other common 1820s frontier dangers in America.
The most successful sequel of all time, Avengers: Endgame, brought in $2.8 billion worldwide. A clear win, even with a budget of $356 million. But those returns seem less impressive compared to the Paranormal Activity franchise. The first film’s budget was roughly $15,000 and earned $193 million at the box office. Eventually, this led to five additional low-budget films, with the entire series drawing in $1.1 billion (adjusted for inflation) over the course of a decade.
And when a franchise finds its niche, it can become a reliable source of revenue. The two best examples are the long-running Friday the 13th and Halloween sequels, which span four and five decades, respectively. Each franchise has yielded 12 films (not including reboots with new timelines), and each has generated about $800 million each. That’s as about as reliable as the film business gets.
A look at the thematic trajectory of the sequel business may offer some insight into cultural trends. The most successful sequels of the 1970 and 1980s revolved around the unknowns of nature, the leading sequels in the 1990s and 2000s centered on human killers, and the most popular sequels in the last decade have been focused on demonic spirits. The ever-present zombie genre often combines all of these themes.
How these film trends coincide with past economic and political trends is complicated, but the clear common denominator across every film is the fear of the unknown. And in a film industry constantly struggling to find a reliable box office foothold, it’s difficult to think of a more dependable and relatively low-risk venture than the horror sequel.