The good old days? 'Jurassic' may get a nostalgia lift

Moviegoers head back to Jurassic Park
Moviegoers head back to Jurassic Park

In an early scene during the new film "Jurassic World," a control room operator at the titular theme park gets a dressing down from Bryce Dallas Howard's prickly protagonist for wearing a vintage Jurassic Park T-shirt.

The control room employee concedes his fashion choice is in bad taste. However, he can't help but wax poetic about the original Jurassic Park, and bemoan the revenue-focused corporate behemoth that its successor theme park, Jurassic World, has become. The scene feels like a wink to 30-something viewers—many of whom are sure to turn out to see the fourth installment of the "Jurassic Park" series as it hits theaters this weekend.

"Jurassic World" is just one of a handful of cinematic touchstones returning to theaters after a prolonged absence. These movies stand to reap a nostalgia bonus at the box office, as millennials and Generation X members indulge in a bit of wistful movie-going—some with their own kids in tow.

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Nostalgia including familiar characters can be a big draw for some classic franchises, said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. But unlike casting and budgets, studios obviously can't control the passing of time.

"How long do you need for something to become nostalgic?" Dergarabedian said. "It's not five years. It might take 20 years. I think you're talking maybe a minimum of 15 years."

It has been more than two decades since Steven Spielberg brought dinosaurs to life in the original "Jurassic Park," and the film still holds a spot among the top 20 U.S. box office earners. (It is one of three movies released before 2003 that remain on that list, along with "Titanic" and "Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace.")

Childhood favorites

It takes a lot more to impress younger audiences today who have grown up with very sophisticated uses of CGI technology. The technology is great, but only if you have a great story.
Paul Dergarabedian
Rentrak senior media analyst

Jeremiah Smith was 11 when Universal Pictures released "Jurassic Park" in 1993, and like many millennials, he was smitten with the franchise. At 32, he is not only eager to relive a part of his childhood, but to share it with his 13-year-old daughter.

"It seems as though all of my childhood favorites have come back into my life at the perfect time to share with my daughter, who is now around the same age that I was when I experienced these movies," he said.

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Indeed, Universal Studios is hardly alone in its bid to capitalize on this kind of nostalgia.

Next year, Sony will introduce a new, all-female team of "Ghostbusters"—32 years after the Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd donned jumpsuits and proton packs. Last year, Paramount successfully reintroduced the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," which was 24 years after their first big-screen role.

Next month, Warner Bros. will introduce a new generation of bumbling Griswolds, 22 years after Chevy Chase starred in "National Lampoon's Vacation."

To be sure, some industry watchers argue the return to familiar film franchises is a sign that big studios are struggling to generate original stories, instead relying on past winners to generate new revenue.

The numbers don't lie. Seven of the top 10 movies in 2014 were sequels, data from box office research firm OpusData shows.

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Recent reboots of much-loved franchises suggest a return to theaters after a lengthy absence can be lucrative.

In 1990, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" drummed up $135 million, but returns fell off in sequels that followed soon afterward, Rentrak data shows. When Michael Bay rebooted the franchise last year, it earned $191 million domestically (nearly as much as the original in inflation-adjusted dollars, and significantly more than the second two installments).

The same holds true for "Star Trek." Returns tapered off in most of the sequels released in the 1980s and '90s. But 2009's reboot, and its 2013 sequel, earned $257 million and $228 million, respectively—roughly what the 1979 original earned, adjusted for inflation.

Memories alone won't work

Of course films need to stir more than just fond memories to be successful, said Rentrak's Dergarabedian.

"You can't just market your movie based on nostalgia alone," he said. "You want to definitely draw upon the legacy of the movie and the history of the franchise, while at the same time, try to appeal to a whole new audience."

Nostalgia can also backfire. Jay Godios, 32, said his family "hated" Michael Bay's take on the Ninja Turtles, in part because it was out of sync with his childhood experience of the property.

"The turtles looked terrifying, as opposed to the kid-friendly versions you see with the toys, cartoons, and older movies," he said.

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In the end, final numbers will show whether sequels and remakes can capture the imagination of new audiences. Spielberg's dinosaur romp arrived at a breakthrough period in CGI effects, when movies like "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" and "Toy Story" left audiences spellbound.

Pixar and Disney Studios released "Toy Story 3"—a full 15 years after the franchise pioneered feature-length computer animation. While the animation created buzz the first time around, the sequel is widely seen to have succeeded based on the strength of its story.

"It takes a lot more to impress younger audiences today who have grown up with very sophisticated uses of CGI technology," said Dergarabedian. "The technology is great, but only if you have a great story."

CNBC's Nicholas Wells contributed reporting to this story.

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