June 16, 2009

RESEARCH: WHAT MAKES A MOVIE SEQUEL SUCCESSFUL?

Movie studios take substantially lower risks investing in sequels compared to original films, but whether a movie sequel is a hit or a box-office bomb is highly dependent on four key variables, not just the value of the original.

In a detailed study titled, "Conceptualizing and Measuring the Monetary Value of Brand Extensions: The Case of Motion Pictures,"Dr. Mark B. Houston of the Neeley School of Business at TCU, along with Dr. Thorsten Hennig-Thurau and doctoral student Torsten Heitjans, both of Bauhaus University of Weimar in Germany, narrowed down four quantifying factors that predict the success of movie sequels based on brand extension strategies. (Brand extensions are new products connected to well-known "parent" brands. The researchers focused on motion pictures but say their work is readily adaptable to other industries.)

Their report is scheduled to appear in a special "Marketing Strategy Meets Wall Street" issue of the Journal of Marketing later this year.

"Overall, movie sequels have two advantages over original movies: They have higher average box office returns and are less financially risky," says Dr. Houston, a professor of marketing.  Using a new valuation model, "we can predict outcomes with more certainty because of the known value of the original movie, the parent brand."

Success or failure, however, lies in the details.  The professors examined variables such as the perceived quality of the parent movie; public awareness of the parent movie; distribution intensity; star power; continuity of the star, director, genre, and rating; and more.

The top four factors turned out to be parent brand awareness (whether the public is aware of the original movie), distribution intensity (the number of theater screens expected for opening weekend), parent brand image (if the first movie was widely considered good or not), and star continuity (whether the movie sequel has the same star as the first film).

Parent brand awareness was by far the strongest factor, says Dr. Houston, carrying twice as much impact as the number of screens, and quadruple the effect of either parent brand image or star continuity.

Star continuity, though, was still essential. For example, the researchers did the math on whether the first Spider-Man sequel, with all other factors the same, could have succeeded with a star other than Tobey Maguire.  "We found that making a similar movie not based on the Spider-Man brand would reap better returns than a Spider-Man sequel starring anyone else wearing the Spidey-suit," says Dr. Houston.

The Spider-Man example illustrates the effectiveness of the valuation model designed by Dr. Houston and his colleagues. Key variables can be plugged into the model and the results examined before investors plow millions of dollars into a project.

"We can estimate beforehand what would happen if there was a different star or a different number of opening-weekend theaters or a different director or rating or genre for a movie sequel," Dr. Houston explains.

Data analyzed came from several sources: theater revenues and numbers of screens as reported by Variety; home video retail data from Nielsen VideoScan; and home video rental data from Adams Media Research/Home Media Retailing.  For brand image data they looked at reviews by professional critics (from Metacritic), consumer comments from the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), and industry experts (from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences).

Information on star continuity came from IMDb Starmeter.  Data on continuity of director and genre came from The Numbers, a free resource providing business facts on the movie industry.  Continuity of rating information came from the Motion Picture Association of America.  Numerous other parameters were also examined. 

The study looked only at the first sequels of original movies, not at subsequent sequels. Data were gathered for all 101 first movie sequels released during 1998-2006 in North America. These data were compared with that from 303 non-sequels released during the same time frame that were closely matched in characteristics with the movie sequels.

To capture the full value of a movie sequel, the study incorporated "forward spillover."  These are revenues expected from a new product because a known parent name is attached.  They also factored in "reciprocal spillover," revenues expected for the parent brand from the performance of the related new product.

"We found that the new product complements the parent brand because a movie sequel stimulates significant new sales for the DVD of the original film both at the theatrical release of the sequel and when the sequel is released on DVD," says Dr. Houston.

He points out that the valuation model isn't just about movies.

"We created a general framework adaptable to individual industries. While the variables we used were specific to motion pictures, any company can utilize the general framework as a foundation, employing their own industry-specific measures to predict the value of a possible extension of their parent brand," he says.

Dr. Mark B. Houston is the Eunice and James L. West Chair of American Enterprise and professor of marketing in the Neeley School of Business, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Texas.

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