Numbers Game

How Hollywood keeps its sequels straight

Published November 8, 2023

Previously on “Your Resident Fact Checker Gets Way in the Weeds About the Titles of Things,” I forwent my usual column structure and did a big ol’ analysis of every title of every song that ever hit the Billboard Hot 100. Reader, I’m at it again.

As I mentioned last week, this is the question that sent me into another spreadsheet fever dream: I’ll give you the subtitle of an upcoming sequel, you name the film series. “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes”? “And the Lost Kingdom”? “Dead Reckoning Part Two”? The Hunger Games, Aquaman, Mission: Impossible

The initial version of this question read “Dead Reckoning Part II,” not “Part Two.” Ooh, that’s a sneaky one. But what makes a movie sequel use “Two” instead of “II” – or for that matter, “2”? Can we predict which a sequel might use based on genre or release year? And what the Vin Diesel is going on with the Fast & Furious films?

To tackle this inquiry, I identified the 234 English-language film franchises that have indicated a theatrically-released sequel with an Arabic numeral (2, 3, 4), a Roman numeral (II, III, IV), or a spelled-out number (Two, Three, Four). I collected the bulk of the dataset by scouring the top 200 films by domestic box office for each year since 1977, with a few additions if they came before or are upcoming. And yeah, I’m evaluating overall franchises, not individual films; Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 counts just much as all five numbered Police Academy sequels. Each franchise is logged by its first year with a numbered film, so even though Slumber Party Massacre came out in 1982, it’s listed under 1987, the release year of Slumber Party Massacre II. 

(okay, now you’re just making things up – Ed.)

Some final caveats:

  • I’m not counting Teen Wolf Too, Look Who’s Talking Too, or Dumb and Dumber To [sic], on charges of crimes against homophones.
  • Beethoven’s 2nd, Beethoven’s 3rd, and The Naked Gun 2½ are classified under Arabic.
  • Sometimes, movies are officially trademarked one way and marketed another. You won’t find any total consensus on Friday the 13th Part 2 vs. Part II across posters, credits, streaming services, and online sources. Chalk those up for other judgment calls. 

Okay, it’s data time! Remember that this dataset does not show the overall rise of sequels and reboots in the past 30 years, nor any balance between numbered vs. subtitled sequels. All we’re looking at is relative rates of “sequel styling” among franchises that have ever included a number in a film title.

Above is a stacked percentage bar chart showing the evolution of sequel styling over time, with at least one franchise getting its first numbered film every year (besides 1976) from 1974 to 2024. Individual years are not really meaningful data points; some only represent a franchise or two.

The pattern continues the one established in a decade-old Slate article. Kicked off by The Godfather Part II, before which sequels seldom used numbers, many franchises through the ‘70s and ‘80s opted for Roman numerals – including such prestigious series as Star Wars, Rocky, and The Care Bears Movie. Before 1990, 41 of 65 franchises – 63 percent – strictly used Roman numerals, and that’s not including the inconsistent nightmare of franchises like Halloween and Friday the 13th. (Kudos to Nightmare on Elm Street for its unwavering devotion to Arabic.)

But something happened by the time we got to the Clinton administration. Roman numerals were for fogeys, man! In the ‘90s, only 15 of 48 franchises – 31 percent – consistently used them. In the 21st century, that number drops to 14 percent. In the past ten years, Roman numerals for new franchises have mostly been reserved for unremarkable horror films… and Frozen II. As far as I can tell, that was the first children’s cartoon to hit theaters with a Roman numeral since the Care Bears did it in 1986.

Do I have a stacked bar graph by genre? I do! Considering this distribution, I suspect there’s a correlation between Roman numerals and how much a movie wants you to Take It Seriously. But maybe that’s the wrong conclusion for kids’ movie franchises, which were essentially non-existent before the advent of CGI in the ‘90s. (Even so, the data would look quite different if I were counting all the direct-to-DVD Disney sequels, which are mostly a mix of 2s and IIs.)

One last question: Are any other movies insane enough to spell out a number, like Dead Reckoning Part Two? Turns out, not many – but I suspect we may be seeing the start of a trend. The earliest I could identify was 1992’s Pet Sematary Two, and even then it was sometimes Pet Sematary II. There’s 2005’s The Ring Two, which took advantage of the spoooooky ring-shaped letter in that word, and 2011’s penguin-grooving Happy Feet Two. The remaining ones catch my attention: It Chapter Two in 2019 and the upcoming Dune: Part Two. Perhaps prestige literary adaptations are more likely to embrace the written word over mere arithmetic.

Mark Gartsbeyn is a resident fact-checker at Questionist’s parent company, Geeks Who Drink. He writes a weekly column on the idiosyncrasies of his work, which appears on Questionist each Wednesday.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *