In the perhaps surreal world of horror franchises there are three that stand-out, their boogeymen now inescapable parts of modern pop culture. These are, of course, Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Put another way – say hello to Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger.
Whether you came face-to-face with ‘the big three’ – Jason being the ‘good’, Michael the ‘bad’ and Freddy the ‘ugly’ ? – via a grainy video rental many years ago or by sitting in the theatre in front of the more recent reboots, everyone knows something about these irreplaceable killing machines.
Much has been written aboout these demi-gods of slasher cinema but what I want to do in this post is to take a look at the financial performance of the franchises over time.
Available box office data is unadjusted for inflation, which makes comparison over the time horizons for each of these series difficult. So what I’ve done here is to convert all the box office receipts into 2005 US dollars using the US GDP deflator so that we can compare performance over time. Bear in mind that data limitations mean we can only examine US domestic box performance because gross international receipts are not easy to come by for some of the sequels.
Let’s start with the quintessential slasher, Halloween.
Three things jump out from this chart. (1) The phenomenal success of John Carpenter’s 1978 original; (2) the sharp drop in box office returns beginning with the actually quite excellent Halloween 2 in 1981 and (3) the rebound in performance with 1998’s Halloween: H20 and also with Rob Zombie’s 2007 ‘reboot’.
It’s interesting to contrast the box office profile with that of Friday the 13th shown below.
Whilst again there is a decline in box office returns as we move throughout the 1980s, this fall is far more gradual than in the Halloween franchise. In the Halloween case, the franchise did not recover from the drop in income associated with the immediate sequel – namely, Halloween 2 – whereas in the Friday the 13th series, parts 3 and 4 clearly outperform Friday the 13th Part 2.
By the time of the dreadful Halloween 3: Season of the Witch in 1982, the Halloween series was oscillating around the $20 million mark. In contrast, it would take Jason until the almost comedic Part 8 in his own franchise to reach that level of box office income. In other words, Friday the 13th sequels were generally outperforming Halloween sequels.
There also differences in the performance of the more recent additions to the series. Whilst Rob Zombie’s reworking of Halloween did do a lot more business than most of the sequels, it did not do nearly as well as 2003’s Freddy VS Jason in reversing the trend in the franchise. Freddy VS Jason, the film that famously spent years in development hell , actually surpassed the box office performance of Sean S Cunningham’s original 1980 Friday the 13th movie. Moreover, the controversial reboot of Friday the 13th released in 2009 – essentially a botched merger of parts 1 and 2 – was raking in the same level of income as the early/mid 80s hits of the series, parts 3 and 4.
Talking of the dream master himself, let’s now turn to the nightmare franchise.
What’s fascinating with the nightmare series is the lack of any obvious trend in box office performance. The general assumption – or ‘stylized fact’ if you will – is that as a franchise goes on, box office receipts tend to exhibit a downward trend. Freddy bucks this trend – Parts 3 and 4 exhibit significant better box office performance than their predecessors and frankly aren’t too far away from the heights of Freddy VS Jason. It also surprised me that 1991’s Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare did better than the 1984 original – although, I think the 3D gimmick levied with Freddy’s Dead may have been enough to just push it over the line.
So, what happens when you look at the growth rates in box office income over the first six movies in each franchise, well you get the following per movie equivalents:
|Franchise||Per Movie Growth Rate in Box Office (first six movies)|
You can see the starker decay rate of Halloween, and the lack of a real trend in the Nightmare series.
What I haven’t covered so far relates to movie budgets. It is instructive to calculate box office-budget ratios for films in each series. What these ratios tell you is how much you get back at the box office for every dollar of budget i.e. for every dollar spent in making the movie. I have had to exclude the original entries in each series from this chart unfortunately because they distort the graphic. But, for reference, the original Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare movies had ratios of 145, 72 and 14 respectively. The Halloween ratio is staggering; for every dollar spend making the movie, 145 dollars were earned at the box office. That’s indeed why for many years it held the title of most successful independent motion picture of all time.
On this basis, it’s clear that Friday the 13th gave the most return per dollar budgeted, indicating why that franchise seemingly had no end (much to fan delight/critic annoyance). I would attribute this to two factors. Firstly, and most obviously, Friday the 13th movies tended to have markedly lower budgets than either their Halloween or Nightmare equivalents (partly explained by the lack of re-occurring stars aside from Jason, whose acting talent hardly cost much). Secondly, to the smaller ‘decay-rate’ of box office receipts in the Friday the 13th – as compared to Halloween – series. You can also observe that whilst Nightmare 4: The Dream Master is often regarded as the most successful of the franchises during the 1980s, the return per dollar of budget was much lower than either Part 3: Dream Warriors or Part 2: Freddy’s revenge. This was because the budget for The Dream Master increased by a greater percentage than the increase in the box office revenue.
Can we learn anything about the future from looking at this kind of historical data? Well, I suppose a movie executive taking a look at these figures might think that out of the three, audiences seem most willing to consider spending money on seeing updated versions of Freddy and Jason, rather than Michael. This is simply based on the strength of the rebound effect of recent reboots. You could well argue that the Halloween series was the first to experience a reboot, way back in 1998, with Hallwoeen: H20.
One final word: of course, once adjusted for inflation, Halloween (1978) is the top grossing film in any of the three series by some margin…..