Three years ago Pitch Perfect became the rarest of cinematic commodities: A genuine cult hit.
While the movie was still in theaters, one film critic wrote a literal lover letter to it. Once it moved to DVD, a huge fan-created Pitch Perfect wiki project was built to break down minutiae from the movie. So if you ever wanted to know the character names of the members of the Barden University Harmonics, one of the movie’s minor fictional a cappella groups, that’s covered. And if you needed to nail down the full lyrics to the song sung in the pretend national finals by the Treblemakers, it’s there. (To understand the full scope of devotion, scroll down to the comments on the wiki pages where contributors debate which of the fictional singers is the super-duper hottest. Donald—a character you almost certainly don’t remember, because he had almost no spoken dialogue—has a huge following.) People were so besotted with Pitch Perfect that someone took the time to create an inspired presentation arguing that the movie is actually a sub rosa 9/11 conspiracy theory. This little comedy about college a cappella really got into the cultural bloodstream.
You can measure the cult status of a movie along two vectors: economics and cultural footprint. Pitch Perfect charted high on both counts. The tiny movie cost just $17 million to make, yet opened to $15 million in its first weekend of wide release. All by itself, this represents a large success.
But you approximate a movie’s cultural impact not by watching the total amount of money it makes, but by measuring the ratio of its opening weekend to its total box office take. The average wide-release studio movie typically finishes its domestic run with roughly 2.9 times the opening weekend gross. This multiplier is a good proxy for how much audiences actually cared about the movie. For instance, on the same weekend Pitch Perfect debuted, the thoroughly average Taken 2 was released. Taken 2 took in $49.5 million in its first weekend—a lot more than Pitch Perfect. But Taken 2 finished its theatrical run with a total of $140 million, for a multiplier of 2.8, which is just a tad below average. You’ll notice that no one, anywhere, really cares about or talks about Taken 2.
Pitch Perfect finished its run with $65 million—less than half as much as Taken 2. But that total gave it a multiple of 4.3, which is extremely high. As a general rule of thumb, movies with a box office opening weekend multiple greater than four tend to be regarded as instant classics, the kind of movies that everyone loves and talks about for years and that suck you in if you ever flip past them on TNT. Another sign of how beloved a movie is its home video sales proportional to box office (which we would totally call VoBO). Typical movies make roughly half as much on home video as they do in the theater. Taken 2, for instance, made $64 million in DVD sales, giving it a ratio of 0.46—thoroughly average. But once Pitch Perfect moved to home video, it took off, making $104 million in DVD sales, for a really high VoBO of 1.6.
If you had never seen Pitch Perfect, you could look at these numbers and understand that its cultural footprint would be enormous. Movies like Taken 2 are forgotten 15 minutes after people leave the theater. Pitch Perfect inspired something like devotion from audiences.
Pitch Perfect 2, however, may have killed all of that. In its first weekend, Pitch Perfect 2 shocked the world by making $69 million—more than the original movie’s entire theatrical run—which made it the number one movie in America. Yet despite this financial success, people hated the sequel.
And with good reason. PP2 is a disaster of a movie. Where the first installment was smart and nimble, everything in the sequel is contrived and belabored. Where most of the characters in the original had legitimate arcs, the sequel dispenses with the idea of character development entirely. Where the first movie got laughs by coming at jokes from off angles, the second tries to get them from a parade of celebrity cameos. It’s a lazy, disjointed, mess. But don’t take my word for it—here’s the film critic who wrote that love letter to the original:
I haven’t felt this deflated after seeing a movie in a long time. I had really been looking forward to Pitch Perfect 2 and I felt myself actively hating it while watching. That’s a pretty difficult trick to pull off, because when I’m anticipating a movie, I usually will try to make excuses for that movie while I’m watching it. I mean, I want to enjoy everything that I’m watching . . . being miserable isn’t fun. It’s only after that I have to make a critical decision. But to get me to turn so drastically while I’m watching a movie that I couldn’t wait to see? Oh, boy.
The math confirms this. The opening weekend multiple (OWMT) is a function of the percentage decline from one weekend’s income to the next. Where Pitch Perfect’s box office dropped by 37.6 percent and 27.1 percent for the first two weekends, the sequel dropped a by a knee-buckling 55.5 percent and 53 percent. Those numbers show audiences fleeing the movie, rather than talking it up to their friends and coming back a second time. The upshot is that Pitch Perfect 2’s multiple is likely to be half of the original, meaning that while more people saw it, they didn’t like it.
In this, Pitch Perfect 2 joins a small, but interesting genre: Sequels which did enormous business but were so reviled that they destroyed the good will created by their classic predecessor.
Remember how great Pirates of the Caribbean was? Johnny Depp as a funny, maybe-gay pirate! So many double-crosses! But then came Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest. It made 50 percent more money than the original, but people hated it and its multiple was half of the original movie’s multiple.
Remember The Matrix? It was the future of science fiction! There was a whole genre of books written about the symbolism and philosophy of the red pill in the film. People made parlor games out of trying to decode the wisdom of the Oracle (played by the late, great Gloria Foster). And we knew this raft of fan devotion was coming because The Matrix had an astounding multiple of 6.1. Then came The Matrix: Reloaded. It made 70 percent more money than the original, but its multiple was a thoroughly pedestrian 3. The Matrix’s spell was broken and by the time the third installment came out, no one cared. It made even less money than the first movie.
So the box office math essentially guarantees that there will be a Pitch Perfect 3 in the future, and that it will be a dog.
There is a lesson here about artistry and the demands of the market. Making movies is a complicated collaborative process. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s a difficult, mysterious endeavor. The legendary film editor Walter Murch once said that making a good movie was as hard as winning a game of negative twenty questions. (Which, itself, is an exercise in illustrating the complexities of quantum mechanics.) If writers and directors knew how to make cult classics, they’d do it all the time.
But when they do create a cult hit, there’s tremendous financial pressure to come back to the well again. The lightning rarely strikes twice—that’s a given—but sometimes the sequel is so bad that it actually taints the original. The safer artistic path is to avoid the sequel altogether. Imagine what we might think about The Princess Bride or The Big Lebowski today if there had been Princess Bride 2: Wesley’s Revenge or The Big Lebowski 2: The Dude Returns.
Instead, the producers of Pitch Perfect joined Pirates of the Caribbean, The Matrix, Speed, Die Hard, Bring It On, Meet the Parents, Pitch Black, and a host of other movies whose sequels made the originals look far less compelling.