Do movie trilogies have Fresher Tomatometer scores and make more money at the box office when one director (or co-directors) oversees all three films? Or, is it better if three different directors each tackle different films in a trilogy? With the wildly successful John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum marking the third Certified Fresh John Wick collaboration between director Chad Stahelski and Keanu Reeves (with a fourth on the way!), we decided to do a Tomatometer deep dive into theatrically released trilogies helmed by single directors. We wanted to know how the Tomatometer scores and domestic box office numbers for trilogies like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Jay Roach’s Austin Powers, and The Wachowskis’ Matrix films compare to trilogies directed by two or three separate directors.
Is consistency actually key?
After comparing the Tomatometer and box office data of 83 different trilogies we learned that when one person (or a duo like the Wachowskis) directs all three films, their trilogies make more money on average and have much higher Tomatometer averages than the trilogies in which two or three different people direct the entries. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but the numbers favor The Dark Knight, Spider-Man, and Back to the Future trilogies, which were lucky enough to have Christopher Nolan, Sam Raimi, and Robert Zemeckis see them all the way through.
If you’re interested in reading about the trilogy selection process, and seeing the list of selected franchises, you can check them out below. Also, we know Stahelski co-directed John Wick with David Leitch, but Stahelski stayed around to helm the second and third installments when Leitch moved on to direct Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2; since he has been on the project the entire time, we’re considering him to be “one” director.
Here is the data – and the trends we found.
Based on the Tomatometer averages, it’s clear that having one person (or team) direct a trilogy is the way to go for Freshness. The 68% Tomatometer average for trilogies with a single director or directing team isn’t super Fresh, but it’s well ahead of the 54% and 49% averages of the trilogies with multiple directors. The Fresh average can be attributed to exceptional franchises such as Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy (97.6% average Tomatometer score), How to Train Your Dragon (94.6%), and The Lord of the Rings (93%), trilogies that received multiple Academy Awards and include no films with Tomatometer scores lower than 91%. Another factor that sets the single director category apart is that 22 of the 34 total trilogies in this category (64.7%) are Fresh, whereas only 14 (56%) and six (24%) of the trilogies in the other two categories have Fresh scores.
The first, second, and third films in trilogies directed by one person or team all have Fresh Tomatometer averages (75.5%, 68%, 60.8%), and the 7.5% Tomatometer drop-off between the first and second film is pretty solid when compared to the 24% and 25.1% drops when it comes to trilogies with two and three directors, respectively. The sequels that contributed to the Fresh Tomatometer averages throughout the series are classics like John Wick: Chapter 2 (89%), Evil Dead 2 (98%), Spider-Man 2 (93%), Before Midnight (98%), The Dark Knight (94%), The Trip to Spain (82%), and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (93%). The coolest (or nerdiest) fact here is how similar the Tomatometer averages for the trilogies directed by two or three people are until their third films (45% compared with 35.5%). The Tomatometer dropoff for trilogies with three directors was caused by soul-crushers such as Robocop 3 (3%), The Bad News Bears Go to Japan (0%), and Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles (11%).
The $782 million total domestic average for trilogies directed by a single person would make any studio executive happy — and probably get them ordering another trilogy ASAP. It helps that eight of the 36 (22.8%) series with a single director or directing team, including the Star Wars prequels and The Hobbit trilogy, made over $1 billion domestically after adjusting for inflation. The $631 and $461 million box office averages for the other groups of trilogies are very respectable. However, only six of the 58 trilogies (10.3%) in the other two categories made over $1 billion domestically; these multi-director trilogies include Iron Man, Beverly Hills Cop, and the original Star Wars trilogy. The newest Star Wars trilogy will likely join their ranks.
The standout trend here is that the box office averages for the movies directed by one person or team all stayed above $200 million – the majority of the first film’s audience kept coming back for more. Trilogies directed by one person also had the smallest box office drop between each film; the $91 million (30%) box office drop from the first to third film is smaller than the $125 (45%) and $136 (60%) million drops for trilogies with two directors and three directors, respectfully.
Of course, when it comes to Tomatometer ratings, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has proven with their Iron Man (two directors), Thor (three directors), and Captain America (one single director and a directing team) trilogies that it sometimes doesn’t matter how many directors helm the movies. Also, the Pitch Perfect, Hannibal, Star Trek (2009-2016), Meet the Parents, X-Men, Beverly Hills Cop, and Wolverine trilogies pulled in huge amounts of money and had multiple directors. So, trilogies can absolutely work with multiple directors.
Since John Wick tells the continuing story of Keanu Reeves’s titular assassin killing hundreds of henchmen on his quest for revenge, we stuck with trilogies that told a continuous story featuring the same character(s) or plot lines throughout three films. Examples are Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, and Todd Phillips’ Hangover trilogy, which saw the exploits of the same characters to a conclusion. We didn’t include trilogies with loose-connections (Noriko Trilogy), similar themes (Three Colors), or actors (Cornetto Trilogy) tying them all together. Also, you may notice that some of the trilogies we included such as the Pirates of the Caribbean, Jason Bourne, Jurassic Park, and Scream franchises went on to have more than three films. We included them because they had three-film narrative arcs that were completed with the third installment (e.g., Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). Some of these films had fourth (or fifth or sixth installments), but most of these later installments were meant to be part of a new trilogy (e.g. Jurassic World and Scream 4, which was supposed to be the beginning of a new trilogy). If a trilogy did not have complete Tomatometer scores they weren’t included. That’s why you won’t see the Infernal Affairs or Samurai trilogies below. The trilogies also needed to have been released in theaters. We didn’t include series that completed their trilogies with direct-to-DVD releases .
Number of Trilogies directed by three people/teams – 25: Alien (1979-1992), The Bad News Bears, Beverly Hills Cop, Blade, Blair Witch, Child’s Play (1988-1991), Crocodile Dundee, The Expendables, Free Willy, Friday, Hannibal, Harold & Kumar, In the Heat of the Night, Johnny English, The Mighty Ducks, Oh God!, Omen, Pitch Perfect, The Ring, Robocop, Rugrats, Star Wars (1977-1983), Thor, Transporter, xXx
Number of Trilogies directed by two people – 24: 50 Shades of Grey, Bridget Jones Diary, Captain America, Cars, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Divergent, Iron Man, Jason Bourne (2002-2007), Jurassic Park (1993-2001), Kung Fu Panda, Look Who’s Talking, Major League, Meet the Parents, The Mummy, Naked Gun, Poltergeist, Porky’s, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Santa Clause, Smokey and the Bandit, Star Trek, Taken, Wolverine (2009-2017), X-Men (2000-2006)
Number of Trilogies directed by one person – 34: Austin Powers, Back to the Future, Before Trilogy, Da Vinci Code, The Dark Knight, Despicable Me, Evil Dead, The Godfather, Hangover, The Hobbit, Hotel Transylvania, How to Train Your Dragon, Indiana Jones (1981-1989), Jackass, John Wick, The Lord of the Rings, Madagascar, Mad Max (1979-1985), Matrix, Maze Runner, Men in Black, The Mexico Trilogy, Night at the Museum, Ocean’s Trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean (2003-2007), Purge, Riddick, Rush Hour, Scream (1996-2000), Spider-Man, Star Wars Prequels, The Trip, Unbreakable
Note: All Tomatometer data is accurate as of May 29, 2019