'The Shining,' 'Doctor Sleep' and the Late Sequel Gamble

Hollywood is shocked that a sequel to a 1980 classic failed at the box office. But its underperformance was hardly surprising.

Doctor Sleep And The Shining
Warner Bros.

When Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining opened in theaters on May 23, 1980, reviews were mixed but attendance was pretty decent for a 10-screen debut. In its first weekend, about 230,000 people saw the Stephen King adaptation. Its per-theater average was better than The Empire Strikes Back, which opened the same week. By the end of its run, the number of tickets sold domestically for The Shining reached about 16.4 million. That was more than Carrie had done a little over three years earlier and held the record for attendance of a King movie until The Green Mile drew in 26.9 million moviegoers in 1999.  Only IT and its sequel have done better since.

So, there’s no denying that a lot of people saw The Shining almost 40 years ago. Despite receiving two Razzie nominations and no Oscar recognition at the time, its acclaim and reputation has improved considerably. Many of its set pieces and shots and performances have become iconic, every aspect of the film has been dissected deeply by academics, and critics today value Kubrick’s movie as one of the best horror titles of all time. In the decades since its release, The Shining has built a tremendous legacy while also presumably growing an even bigger audience, and with it a substantial fanbase. So it had seemed.

Warner Bros. had good reason to have high expectations for the release of Doctor Sleep, its adaptation of the King novel of the same name that also serves as a sequel to Kubrick’s The Shining. Not only is King a hot name again at the moment, but Warner Bros. itself put out the IT movies, which are the most successful of the author’s adaptations ever. This year also saw the release of Paramount’s remake of Pet Sematary and that did just fine for a film of its size in this era, selling about 6.1 million tickets in its domestic run. According to Box Office Pro, expectations for Doctor Sleep‘s opening weekend attendance was somewhere between 2.2 million and 3.3 million. The reality was a crowd of only about 1.6 million.

Now everyone is saying that the studio never should have marketed Doctor Sleep as a sequel to The Shining. But Warner Bros. wasn’t the only one hyping the new movie as an anticipated legacy follow-up to one of the most famous movies of all time. We all misjudged the popularity and familiarity of The Shining, apparently. The 1980 film did receive a theatrical re-release a couple of years ago, but that didn’t matter. At the moment, The Shining is not on any of the more easily accessible (i.e. “free” or commonly subscribed to) streaming sites. Should the studios behind late sequels such as Doctor Sleep do better about pushing the previous installment(s)? Would the new movie have done better if The Shining had been on Netflix for the past six months? It was last there in 2017.

One thing Doctor Sleep lacks as a legacy sequel is a returning IC as opposed to a resurrected IP. That is, there is no iconic character back with this intellectual property. Danny Torrance all grown up and played by another actor is not the same as Harrison Ford as Han Solo paired with Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon again in Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode and a masked Nick Castle as Michael Myers in Halloween. You’d think Terminator: Dark Fate should have worked, then, since it brought back Linda Hamilton alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger. But only the latter had the IC, and he wasn’t playing that exact role again.

Animated features have it easy without even aging characters to worry about, which is why Frozen II won’t have an issue any more than Incredibles 2 or Finding Dory or Toy Story 4 did. Anna and Elsa are perpetual IC. But Hollywood should be aware of what is IC and what is not. Bad Boys for Life is not a promising venture because its main characters are not iconic. Neither was Jeff Goldblum’s character in Independence Day: Resurgence. Would it have done better with Will Smith’s character returning? Probably not. Another Indiana Jones movie will do very well. Blade Runner, not so much. It’s not about Harrison Ford; it’s about which of his characters are truly widely known. Solo and Jones, yes, Deckard no. Will Bill and Ted fare successfully next summer? Hard to say, since comedy IC is rarely a safe bet and they’re more iconic for the humor than the sci-fi elements of their franchise.

Wait, so what about Mary Poppins Returns, featuring one of the most iconic Disney characters of all time? Well, while it is true that characters are the real draw now more than movie stars, some IC still require the actor who made them iconic in the first place. Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, Bruce Willis as John McClane, Sylvester Stallone as Rocky, and Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins. Unless you establish a replacement early enough, as in the cases of James Bond or Batman, substitutions down the line will be difficult for audiences to accept. Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule. See Tom Hardy in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Here’s a look at various late sequels that have released this decade and how they performed on their opening weekend compared to initial forecast expectations (the rare overperformers are in bold):

Doctor Sleep (2019): $25 million forecast, $14.1 million reality
Terminator: Dark Fate (2019): $38 million forecast, $29 million reality
Zombieland: Double Tap (2019): $30 million forecast, $26.8 million reality
Mary Poppins Returns (2018): $40 million forecast, $23.5 million reality
Halloween (2018): $60 million forecast, $76.2 million reality
Super Troopers 2 (2018): $5 million forecast, $15.2 million reality
Blade Runner 2049 (2017): $44 million forecast, $32.8 million reality
Independence Day: Resurgence (2016): $68 million forecast, $41 million reality
Zoolander 2 (2016): $24 million forecast (four-day), $15.9 million reality
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015): $215 million forecast, $248 million reality
Creed (2015): $21 million forecast, $29.6 million reality
Vacation (2015): $25 million forecast, $14.7 million reality
Jurassic World (2015): $85 million forecast, $208.8 million reality
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): $38 million forecast, $45.4 million reality
Dumb and Dumber To (2014): $37 million forecast, $36.1 million reality
Men in Black 3 (2012): $87 million forecast (four-day), $69.3 million reality (four-day)
Scream 4 (2011): $50 million forecast, $18.7 million reality
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010): $20 million forecast, $19 million reality
TRON: Legacy (2010): $35 million forecast, $44 million reality

If Doctor Sleep is, unlike most of these sequels, fine to see without familiarity with the original, then Warner Bros. shouldn’t have marketed it so heavily with nods to The Shining. But the movie does lean heavily on Kubrick’s film, even if it works best with the new material and when it’s more distanced from the previous story featuring Danny Torrance. Had the studio not shown Doctor Sleep‘s meticulous recreations of The Shining sequences and simply sold it as a fresh King adaptation, audiences could have wound up confused. Its CinemaScore grade would have been much worse than the decent B+ it received.

Instead, Warner Bros. and the rest of Hollywood’s execs need to stop presuming what old IP is ripe for resurrection. Classic sitcoms, sure. Major franchises with truly iconic characters and costumed roles that can be resold, yes. As the streaming wars hint that old IP is more in demand than OC (original content), perhaps even older movies could drive interest in late sequels, though more than likely those sequels will need to be immediately available on the same streaming service. Where sequels once dominated theatrical box office, they’re not as appealing to moviegoers anymore. Good luck, Top Gun 2: Maverick, Ghostbusters 2020, Bill & Ted Face the Music, and Coming 2 America. Here’s hoping you’ve got iconic-enough lead characters!

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.