IT’S A summer tradition. Each year, moviegoers giddily count down the days until the release of the newest film in their favorite franchise ... and then leave cinemas soured when it doesn’t live up to the original outing. But just as audiences have started to resign themselves to coughing up precious dollars for lackluster sequels, the recent releases of stellar third films in hit trilogies are upending that trend. New installments in two franchises—studies in polar opposites—are continuing the upswing. One is about three men who get really, really drunk; the other about an introspective couple with a penchant for staging monumental evolutions in their relationship in various European cities every nine years. Both, however, are the unlikeliest of franchise success stories.
The Hangover and Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight series both release their third installments this week. That each of these franchises has made it this far is an accomplishment that would have seemed impossible years ago—for reasons the least of which include not being based on a comic book, adapted from a wildly popular young-adult novel series, or produced by Pixar.
When The Hangover premiered in 2009, it was made on a modest $35 million budget (compare that with, say, Transformers’ $150 million) and featured a trio of barely known actors. Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis played groomsmen who lose the groom during a blackout night of debauchery in Las Vegas and have to piece together an evening that included kidnapping Mike Tyson’s tiger and stowing a naked Asian crime lord in the trunk of a car as they search for the groom. Early tracking predicted that The Hangover would premiere in the $20 million range, in line with other recent ribald R-rated comedies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Pineapple Express, and director Todd Phillips’s earlier hit Old School. Instead the film stunned by taking in $45 million in its first weekend, on its way to a $277 million domestic gross. The last R-rated comedy to rake in that kind of money was Beverly Hills Cop, 25 years prior. A Hangover sequel was fast-tracked and released a mere 23 months later.