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Is the third time really the charm for movies?

POSTED: June 15, 2017 2:41 a.m.
Jeff Peterson/

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in "X-Men: The Last Stand."

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It’s no secret that Hollywood loves sequels — along with reboots, remakes, reimaginings and pretty much anything else that will reduce the risk of making/marketing a movie and bring it that much closer to “a sure thing.” Even though last year’s box office was hit hard by second installments that drastically underperformed compared to the originals — bombs like “Independence Day: Resurgence” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” according to Box Office Mojo — almost every weekend for the rest of this year has either a sequel or reboot scheduled to arrive in theaters, according to Business Insider.

The one thing Hollywood might love even more than a sequel, though, is a sequel to a sequel, aka a “threequel.”

This month alone will see two animated threequels taking over megaplexes. First up, Pixar returns this weekend to one of its most lucrative — albeit critically maligned — franchises with “Cars 3.” And on June 30, Universal will try to cash in on Minion madness one more time with “Despicable Me 3.”

Then, next month, there’s “War for the Planet of the Apes,” a third installment in a prequel series that also served as a reboot to a decades-old franchise that already had more installments than most people care to remember.

And that’s just looking at the summer calendar.

But when it comes to movies, is the third time really the charm? Are third installments ever improvements on their predecessors? Or, are threequels just proof of the law of diminishing returns?

Bigger, but rarely better

Generally speaking, the rule for sequels is that with every new, theatrically released installment in a series, the cost of making it goes up. Stars ask for more zeroes in their paychecks (such as Robert Downey Jr., who asked for $200 million for the next Avengers film, according to The Telegraph), writers try to one-up themselves with more exotic locales and flashier (read: more expensive) special effects and directors push for more financial leeway to realize their unique visions.

Just compare, for example, the budgets for one of the most well-regarded film trilogies of all time: According to Box Office Mojo, “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope” cost just $11 million — peanuts compared to what it made back. For “Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back,” the budget grew to $18 million. “Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi,” though, nearly doubled that figure with a budget of $32.5 million.

Or, to pick a more recent example, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy: “Batman Begins” cost $150 million, “The Dark Knight” cost $180 million and “The Dark Knight Rises” cost a jaw-dropping $250 million.

The same is true of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man Trilogy: $139 million for the first one, $200 million for the second and $258 million for the third.

Pick almost any three-or-more-movie franchise, and it’s the same pattern.

But even though the price tag goes up, box-office numbers don’t necessarily. In fact, a lot of the time, third installment ticket sales actually dip (if not full-on plummet) compared to their predecessors. Global box office for “Return of the Jedi” ($475 million), for instance, was about $63 million less than “The Empire Strikes Back” ($538 million).

Both the “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Spider-Man 3,” on the other hand, managed to beat their earlier installments in international box office, but domestic totals for both movies declined significantly — from $533 million for “The Dark Knight” to $448 million for “The Dark Knight Rises,” and from $373 million for “Spider-Man 2” to $336 million for “Spider-Man 3.”

Two’s company, three’s a crowd

It’s not just box office that takes a hit, either. A third entry that’s considered a legitimate improvement over the first or second movies in the series is almost as rare as hens’ teeth in Hollywood.

There are a lot of possible factors that could contribute to this, including so-called “franchise fatigue.” Something that’s fresh and exciting the first time around — like the modern classic that is “Taken,” to pick one example — might be fun to reunite with for a second date, but by the third time, the shtick starts to wear thin.

With more money on the line, studios also get more involved in the creative process, making mandates like which villains a director can or can’t include (as happened with Venom in “Spider-Man 3,” according to collider.com) or even what gender they'll allow a villain to be for maximum toy sales (which prevented a female villain for “Iron Man 3,” according to Variety).

And in still other instances, it’s that, by the third installment, most of the original creative team, including sometimes the cast itself, has jumped ship, but the studio decides to forge ahead anyway (“The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” or the James Cameron-less “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”).

Whatever the reason, threequels have a much-deserved reputation for being, well, bad: “Jurassic Park III,” "MIB 3,” “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “Blade Trinity" — the list goes on and on and on.

For those series that do manage to make it to a number three, a lot of times that installment ends up being a franchise killer (“The Divergent Series: Allegiant”). Or else, at the very least, it necessitates some major course correction like in the case of “X-Men: First Class” to keep things going.

The franchises that do stagger on after terrible third movies, though — “Superman III,” “Jaws 3-D,” “Batman Forever,” etc. — usually would have been better off if they hadn’t.

The exceptions

Of course, as uncommon as they are, there are great threequels out there — third installments that aren’t disappointments either financially or critically and that actually improve on the other movies.

The Alfonso Cuarón-directed “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” for instance, is widely considered to be the high watermark for the entire series. Even though it grossed less than any other Harry Potter movie, with a worldwide cumulative haul just shy of $800 million, it was hardly a bomb.

“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” is another possible example. After the somewhat disappointing second movie, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “The Last Crusade” returned to the series’ roots as Indy once again used his knowledge of biblical archaeology to outsmart Nazis.

And the good news for “Cars 3," at least, is that one of the greatest third installments of all time just happens to be Pixar’s only other threequel to date: “Toy Story 3.”

Although it cost more than twice as much as “Toy Story 2” ($200 million vs. $90 million), it managed to earn more than $1 billion worldwide, making it the third highest grossing 3-D animated movie of all time. And with a near-perfect 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — that’s four critics out of 291 that gave it negative reviews — it’s also one of the best-reviewed movies of all time, period. The fact that it’s a threequel is just one more remarkable thing about it.

With any luck, maybe “Cars 3” will follow suit.

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