Box Office Experts Weigh the Odds of 2021’s Many Long-Awaited Legacy Sequels

Next year brings legacy sequels from 'Top Gun: Maverick' to 'The Matrix 4.' But which will break out and which will flop?

2021 Movie Release Schedule Box Office
Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick is one of many upcoming legacy sequels. Paramount

There are several key dos and don’ts when it comes to crafting a high-quality legacy sequel and audiences better hope Hollywood studios have been paying attention. By our count, 2021 will deliver as many as six films that can be classified as long-awaited, years-in-the-making continuations of beloved on-screen brands. These include The Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark (March 12), Chris Rock’s Saw continuation Spiral (May 21), Ghostbusters: Afterlife (June 11), Top Gun: Maverick (July 2), Space Jam 2: A New Legacy (July 16), and The Matrix 4 (December 22).

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Hollywood averages would dictate that some of these become successful blockbusters, some of these struggle at the box office (you know, assuming movie theaters still exist), and some may cause irreparable harm to the legacy of their brands. To understand why we’ve entered a golden renaissance period of long-awaited continuations and to decipher which films stand the best chance at success, we spoke to box office experts to help project the future.

Paul Degarabedian, Comscore’s Senior Media Analyst

Degarabedian understands why, as studios have turned away from original fare and embraced pre-existing brands, legacy sequels have risen in popularity in recent years. Simply put, they’re easier sells.

“Legacy movies create an immediate emotional reaction with fans thanks to nostalgia” he said. “You don’t have to spend the bulk of marketing on explaining a new concept or character since audiences are already familiar. Fans see the movie or character they originally fell in love with years ago and hope that a new film can improve or modernize the legacy without ruining it.”

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Despite the power of nostalgia, it would be wise for Hollywood not to underestimate audiences. Regurgitating a familiar face or franchise is the bare minimum and hardly a guarantee of success.

“Movie fans are very savvy,” he said. “They know when it’s a money grab or when it’s a legitimate and authentic continuation. It really all comes down to quality. There are some legacy sequels that are just terrible and simply a way to capitalize on name brand awareness. But, in recent years, many of these types of films have seen their quality improve.”

Jeff Bock, Exhibitor Relations’ Senior Box Office Analyst

Bock points to Bad Boys for Life, which is currently the highest-grossing English language film of the year with nearly $430 million, as a good example of this phenomenon. Studios can save money and leverage prior interest if they don’t need to pitch a new formula. Given the volatile nature of theatrical cinema long before the pandemic, relying on tried and true IPs may have been an inevitability.

“To tell you the truth, Spiral and Ghostbusters should be solid hits, while Matrix and Top Gun may turn out to be bonafide blockbusters,” Bock said of next year’s slate. “Space Jam was never really everyone’s jam, even back in the day, despite having a loyal cult following. I wouldn’t expect huge numbers for LeBron’s sequel, just as I wouldn’t for Many Saints of Newark. These are much smaller fanbases, and for Sopranos, the iron isn’t remotely hot anymore.”

Shawn Robbins, Box Office Pro’s Chief Analyst

Robbins sees two of these films rising above the pack with the rest representing a wide array of possible outcomes for their respective studios.

“I think the clear favorites for now are Top Gun: Maverick and Ghostbusters: Afterlife, in part because their marketing campaigns already started before the pandemic took hold and interest levels were measurably strong across social media and other advance tracking,” he said. “Likewise, as some of the (hopefully) first tentpoles to release after such a long wait for audiences to come back to theaters, there could be some over-performing potential for many films as moviegoers are likely to gravitate to all varieties of escapism and familiarity.”

Tom Cruise continues to be a box office draw in the Mission: Impossible franchise and the original Top Gun remains a generationally beloved action flick, Robbins argues. Similarly, as a direct follow-up to the original films and with Jason Reitman continuing what his father helped start as writer/director, Ghostbusters: Afterlife has a leg up that the 2016 reboot did not.

The rest of the films are wild cards. TV-to-film adaptations are hit or miss at the box office, making The Sopranos prequel a gamble. The horror genre always has high-upside, but Spiral will be the ninth entry in the series since 2004. We’ve yet to see much promotion for Space Jam 2, so the jury is still out there.

“Meanwhile, The Matrix 4 probably has the widest range of possible outcomes,” Robbins said. “On one hand, you have a franchise that peaked in popularity with the first film, financially with the second film, and ended on a lukewarm note for many audiences with the third. It’s not quite like the long-awaited, fourth-film revival of something like Indiana Jones after a widely popular trilogy decades earlier. On the other hand, the X factor is Keanu Reeves and his resurgent popularity. If the film can offer something fresh and exciting from a storytelling and visual point of view, those elements and his star power could outweigh any potential baggage the franchise brings with it.”

Box Office Experts Weigh the Odds of 2021’s Many Long-Awaited Legacy Sequels