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Gen X T-Rex: How 'Jurassic' May Get a Boost from Nostalgia

by Tom DiChristopher, CNBC /  / Updated 

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In an early scene during '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 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, Jurassic World, has become. The scene feels like a wink to thirty-something viewers—many of whom are sure to turn out to see the fourth installment of "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 Gen Xers indulge in a bit of wistful movie-going, some with their own kids in tow.

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

Read More from CNBC: The $1 Billion Question Surrounding 'Jurassic World'

"How long do you need for something to become nostalgic?" Dergarabeidan 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 'Jurassic Park,' and the film still holds a spot among the top 20 box U.S. 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.')

Jeremiah Smith was 11 years old 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.

Indeed, Universal Studios is hardly alone in its bid to capitalize on this kind of nostalgia. (Universal Studios is owned by NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC and CNBC.com.)

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, 24 years after their first big-screen role.

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

Given a little time, these films can pack a box office bang.

In 1990, 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' drummed up $135 million, but returns fell off for sequels that soon followed. When Michael Bay rebooted the franchise last year, it earned $191 million domestically (less than the original, but more in inflation-adjusted dollars than the second two installments).

The same holds true for 'Star Trek.' Returns mostly tapered off in later sequels, but 2009's reboot, and its 2013 sequel, earned $257 million and $228 million, respectively—roughly what the 1979 original earned, adjusted for inflation.

However, these films need to stir more than just fond memories, Dergarabedian said.

"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.

More from CNBC: Moviegoers Head Back to Jurassic Park

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

It also remains to be seen whether or not sequels and remakes will capture the imagination of today's young 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."

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