Why J.J. Abrams Is the Master of the Hollywood Sequel

Premiere Of Walt Disney Pictures And Lucasfilm's "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" - Arrivals
J.J. Abrams poses with 'Star Wars' creator George Lucas at the premiere of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'.
Photograph by Barry King—WireImage

This week’s debut of Star Wars: The Force Awakens may have director J.J. Abrams “terrified” for a variety of reasons, but it’s a road he’s been down a few times already.

Abrams is a big-time Hollywood director and the creator of wildly popular television series Lost and Alias, among others. But his latest, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which officially opens nationwide Friday, is one of the most anticipated films in years.

It has the immense weight of the expectations of millions of fans who take the Star Wars movies very (very!) seriously, as well as his bosses at Walt Disney (DIS), which paid $4 billion to get into the Star Wars business with its 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm. That doesn’t include a reported production and marketing budget as high as $350 million.

In fact, the stakes are so high that The Force Awakens could end up as one of the highest-grossing films of all time and still be regarded as a disappointment. That’s pressure.

At the same time, the 49-year-old director has had a remarkable string of luck in rebooting popular franchises.

Mission: Impossible III

Long before tackling Star Wars, Abrams took on the task of directing a sequel in the Mission: Impossible franchise, for Viacom’s (VIA) Paramount Pictures. He helmed the third film in the series, 2006’s Mission: Impossible III, which is remembered fondly by critics for featuring the now-deceased Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a truly terrifying villain who gave the film a very dark feel for a summer blockbuster.

Critically speaking, Abrams’ movie helped the series rebound from the poorly received 2000 sequel, which is still the only Mission: Impossible film to receive a negative rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That being said, Mission: Impossible III was also the lowest-grossing film of the series’ five movies, though it still pulled in nearly $400 million globally.

Star Trek

Abrams’ Star Trek, in 2009, marked the return of that beloved franchise to the silver screen following various television iterations over almost five decades. Before the film was released, Abrams said he had worked to make the reboot feel “legitimate” to die-hard fans of the franchise despite not being much of a “Trekkie” himself. (Abrams, on the other hand, is a lifelong Star Wars fan.)

Also released by Paramount, Abrams’ Star Trek fared reasonably well at the box office, making $385 million worldwide to easily become the highest-grossing film in the history of a franchise adapted to film roughly a dozen times since 1979. Critics liked the movie too, giving it a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Star Trek: Into the Darkness

The film’s 2013 sequel, received slightly more mixed reviews from critics but was even more successful at the box office. Star Trek: Into Darkness made $467 million in global ticket sales (though it made less money in the U.S. than its predecessor). Abrams’ Star Wars job led to him stepping away from directing the next Star Trek film—Star Trek Beyond, due out next year—though he still serves as a producer on the film.


Looking at Abrams’ recent directing credits, it’s clear that he has built a resume full of high-profile franchise reboots and sequels. His success in that arena likely played a role in Disney’s decision to hand him the keys to the Star Wars galaxy, though there is no question that the expectations facing Abrams on his latest project easily dwarf anything he’s faced in the past.

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