Last year we had ‘Barbenheimer.’ This year it’s the summer of sequels.

(Image: WSJ)
(Image: WSJ)


The frenzy over ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’ showed that moviegoers are ready for something new

Last summer, Barbie and her high-heeled friends saved Hollywood—with a little help from J. Robert Oppenheimer and his atomic bomb.

The “Barbenheimer" frenzy pumped nearly $2.5 billion into the pockets of studios and theater owners, giving the industry reason to feel like the movie business was back in a big way, despite threats like the rise of streaming, the aftermath of Covid-19 and twin strikes that paralyzed the movie business for months. It showed that audiences are hungry for fresh stories, and willing to spend their money on creative, risky bets if they’re done right.

So what is Hollywood doing this summer? It’s releasing a bunch of sequels.

“Bad Boys: Ride or Die," the fourth movie in the buddy-cop series, comes out in June. In the 1995 original, star Will Smith, now 55, was in his mid-20s. “Despicable Me 4," is actually the sixth in the franchise, including the two “Minions" movies.

“Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga" is the fifth in a franchise that began in 1979 and was set in an imagined near-future dystopia. The most-anticipated movie of the summer is “Deadpool & Wolverine," the third “Deadpool" movie featuring Ryan Reynolds in the title role.

It might look as if the movie industry didn’t learn its lesson, but that’s not what’s going on. Movies take years to make under the best of circumstances, making it hard for studios to quickly pivot based on the lightning-in-a-bottle success of a few big hits.

Hollywood is less nimble than usual. It is still working through a clogged pipeline of movies from when the pandemic halted production. The actors’ and writers’ strikes last year further added to the backlog; movie releases were postponed because striking actors couldn’t promote them. This year is the industry’s first uninterrupted production year in half a decade.

“Last summer proved that movies based on new ideas, if they’re good, can be huge successes," said Patrick Whitesell, a top Hollywood talent agent and executive chairman of entertainment company Endeavor. “I think the studios know they have to take bold, big swings, but it takes some time to transition to that approach."

Despite a growing awareness of the potential for sequel fatigue among audiences, Hollywood, for now, is still turning to familiar, proven stories and characters to coax audiences into changing out of their sweatpants, getting off the couch, and spending money at cineplexes. Sometimes a sequel can be a smart bet, as the expectations for “Deadpool" show.

Barring a surprise, most box-office tracking estimates show this year’s total haul in the U.S. and Canada at just over $8 billion, compared with around $9 billion in 2023. That decline would be a step backward for the movie industry: Since 2020, when Covid-19 decimated the business, box-office receipts had been steadily increasing every year.

Memorial Day to Labor Day is a season for big-movie releases. Last year, summer releases accounted for about 45% of annual movie ticket sales, according to industry-tracking website Box Office Mojo.

‘Movies were back’

Barbenheimer stoked the hopes of theater owners and their boosters across the country. Moviegoing was an event. People came in costume and in large groups. “Barbie" fans saw “Oppenheimer" on the same day and vice versa, just for bragging rights. The whole phenomenon harked back to a time, pre-smartphone and pre-social media, when cinema was front and center in an American summer.

“We put DJs in our lobbies playing the ‘Barbie’ soundtrack. Instead of a red carpet there was a pink carpet. We had pink popcorn and drinks topped with cotton candy, creating this fun atmosphere that you just can’t get at home," said Anthony LaVerde, chief executive of Michigan-based Emagine Entertainment, a major theater chain with locations across five states. “Movies were back."

So far this year, the movies have lost their mojo. Through May 19, cinematic ticket sales in North America totaled $2.42 billion, down 21.4% from the same period last year—an unusually steep drop—according to box-office tracker Comscore.

Movies aren’t performing as well on a per-title basis, either. For the 37 widely released movies through late May, the average box-office gross was $53.6 million, down 28% from the same period in 2023.

“There hasn’t yet been a film to ignite audience interest" this year, said Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore. Upcoming summer titles need to “punch above their weight," he said.

Some titles, like “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire," (the first Godzilla premiered in 1954), “Dune: Part Two" and “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes" (the fourth in the reboot, or ninth if you go back to the original in 1968) have fared well.

Others, like “The Fall Guy," starring Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt and loosely based on a 40-year-old TV show, saw ticket sales sputter in their debuts. Ironically, the two leads were both coming off of Oscar nominations for their starring roles in “Barbie" (Gosling) and “Oppenheimer" (Blunt).

“Sequels are good—if the films are good—because you have some idea of the audience that’s going to be coming. But the new fresh movies are what keeps us excited and the business excited," said Bob Bagby, CEO of B&B Theatres, which is based in Kansas City and operates more than 50 locations in 14 U.S. states.

“If we fall short this summer, we’re going to make it up in the fall and in the fourth quarter," Bagby said.

His best hopes for the fall? More sequels: “Beetlejuice Beetlejuice" (a sequel to 1988’s “Beetlejuice") and “Joker: Folie à Deux" (a sequel to 2019’s “Joker").

Blame Maverick

There are signs that Hollywood is regaining its appetite for risk-taking. Several big studios have named new leaders in recent months, promoting executives known for championing artsy auteur films. Disney named David Greenbaum, the former co-head of Searchlight Pictures who as a producer helped shepherd Best Picture winners like “Nomadland" and “The Shape of Water," as well as more recent critical darlings like “Poor Things," as head of its live-action division and its 20th Century Studios.

Disney’s Bob Iger has said that the company’s movie studios—especially Marvel—have indulged in too many sequels. At a financial conference in March of last year, shortly after returning to lead Disney as CEO, he questioned whether “you need a third or a fourth" iteration of a movie, “or is it time to turn to other characters?"

The company says it’s now being more selective about which sequels it makes. On an earnings call this month, Iger pointed out that in animation, Disney is “now swinging back a bit to lean on sequels," including the new “Inside Out" and a planned new “Toy Story" installment.

“There’s a lot of value in the sequels, obviously, because they’re known, and it takes less in terms of marketing," he said.

In its efforts to divine our tastes, Hollywood tends to extrapolate from past success.

Just two summers ago, “Top Gun: Maverick," a flashy aerial-action sequel to a 1986 blockbuster, was hailed as a box-office savior when it arrived in theaters on Memorial Day weekend. The Tom Cruise-led sequel hauled in $1.5 billion globally, even without a release in the important Chinese market.

For many in the film industry, the lesson of “Maverick" was that familiar story lines and tried-and-true franchises would lead audiences back to cinemas. Another lesson: it still worked to release them on long summer weekends.

By the following year, however, the appetite for sequels cooled. “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One," the seventh in the franchise, generated the franchise’s worst domestic box office gross since 2006. “Fast X," the latest sequel to “The Fast and the Furious," had the franchise’s worst domestic performance in two decades. (Both films found bigger audiences overseas.) And “The Marvels" was the biggest flop in Marvel history by a wide margin.

Even so, the movie many in the industry think has a good shot at becoming the highest-grossing film of 2024 is yet another sequel: “Deadpool & Wolverine," coming out this July.

It’s the third movie to be centered on Deadpool, the wisecracking mutant vigilante played by Reynolds, making the character a youngster when compared with the protagonists of the Avengers universe, some of whom have popped up in as many as 10 or 12 movies.

Last month at CinemaCon, the annual theater-owners convention in Las Vegas, Disney showed an extended trailer of the movie—the first “Deadpool" distributed by Disney—featuring the movie’s stars, Reynolds and Hugh Jackman. In one scene, Reynolds pokes fun at the outsize role sequels have taken on in Marvel movies.

Deadpool’s alter ego Wade Wilson is shown a vision of his future, interacting with other Disney-owned Marvel characters like the Nordic superhero Thor—a suggestion of potential sequels and crossovers to come. He turns to the camera, breaking the fourth wall to shout, “Suck it, Fox. We’re going to Disneyland!"–a reference to Fox’s 2019 sale of the franchise to Disney and a wink to hard-core fans.

It’s also the first Marvel movie released by Disney with an “R" rating. Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios’ chief and the architect of its “cinematic universe" strategy of interconnected story lines and characters, played up the movie’s R-rating and foul language while introducing it, saying from the CinemaCon stage that the movie was “f—awesome." He joked that “Ryan Reynolds would be so proud" of him for dropping the F-word in public—basically unheard of from the straight-laced Feige.

“Deadpool & Wolverine" broke records for first-day presales when they went online this past Tuesday, according to Fandango, the online movie-ticket seller. The movie was leading two Fandango surveys tracking audiences’ most-anticipated films of the year.

In response to the strong presales, Boxoffice Pro raised its projection for the movie’s opening-weekend domestic gross to a range of $170 million to $210 million, from $150 million and $180 million before.

Even with children’ movies—which have been relatively scarce in recent years—studios are relying on sequels on several key holiday weekends this summer, including June 14, when Pixar’s “Inside Out 2" comes out just ahead of Father’s Day, and July 3, when Illumination’s “Despicable Me 4" debuts.

These movies are a bet against the conclusion that much of Hollywood drew during the Covid pandemic: that parents prefer to stream movies for their children at home.

Illumination, the maker of the “Despicable Me" films, which are distributed by Universal Pictures, has produced a strong string of hits based on characters like its chattering yellow Minions and Nintendo’s Mario and Luigi.

Last year, its “The Super Mario Bros. Movie" ruled the family box office with $575 million in domestic ticket sales and a $1.36 billion global haul, second only to “Barbie."

That’s no Barbie box

A big weekend to watch is July 19, when “Twisters," the update to the 1996 tornado thriller “Twister," comes out. Bill Paxton, the star of the first installment, died in 2017, and is replaced as leading man by up-and-coming heartthrob Glen Powell, while Paxton’s co-star Helen Hunt will be replaced in the female leading role by Daisy Edgar-Jones.

Just as the “Barbie boxes"—life-size replicas of the doll’s packaging—were ubiquitous in cinema lobbies last summer, providing the perfect backdrop for thousands of social-media photos, “Twisters" has its tube. Moviegoers can go inside a phone booth-like enclosure and feel a rush of air blown on their bodies to simulate the feeling of high winds.

After Universal debuted the tubes at CinemaCon, a Gizmodo reviewer tried out one. It was “like standing in front of a really strong, large hand dryer," he wrote, and didn’t do justice to a real tornado. “It blew up my shirt a bit," the reviewer wrote.

Elizabeth Messier saw “Barbie" in theaters six times last year. She and her friends followed along as news and on-set photos trickled out before its release. They took selfies with a Barbie online filter and dressed in Barbie pink for the movie.

“This summer is looking kind of bleak," said Messier, who works in marketing for the local chamber of commerce in her hometown of Florence, S.C. “I can’t remember the last time there’s been a cast reveal or a clip from a new movie that made me as excited as I was with ‘Barbie.’ "

Write to Robbie Whelan at and Francesca Fontana at

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