Famed horror director/producer James Wan and Blumhouse founder Jason Blum have worked on many films together for more than a decade, but the surprise success of “M3GAN” could mark the start of an even deeper partnership between the two masters of frights.
This past November, talks began between Blumhouse and Wan’s Atomic Monster Productions on a potential merger that could see the creator of Warner Bros./New Line’s “The Conjuring” franchise make a jump to Universal Pictures, which has had a first-look deal with Blumhouse since 2014. As those talks continued, the two producers and their studios put the finishing touches on “M3GAN,” a darkly comedic horror film directed by Gerard Johnstone that has introduced a new entrant into the pantheon of killer dolls.
The film follows M3GAN, a sentient AI doll programmed to protect and care for the daughter of her inventor, who has become too busy with her work to be an attentive mother. Of course, that plan goes wrong as M3GAN begins to murder anyone who brings pain into the young girl’s life.
“M3GAN” has become the first big box office hit of 2023, beating expectations with a $30.4 million opening to score the highest launch in January for a horror film since “The Devil Inside” in 2012. But while “The Devil Inside” got panned as one of the worst horror films ever, “M3GAN” has won over both critics and audiences with its willingness to have some laughs with its absurd premise, an attitude encapsulated by a now viral scene in which M3GAN dances like a pop star as she prepares to spill some blood.
Wan and Blum spoke with TheWrap about how that dance came about and the success of “M3GAN,” as well as their hopes for what they can do together should the merger of Blumhouse and Atomic Monster be completed.
The interview below has been edited for clarity.
There were a lot of reviews and social media comments that were surprised at how “M3GAN” balanced horror with self-aware humor. Do you think that balance was the big reason why it was so successful this weekend?
James Wan: Right, you really hit it on the head. The reason why the movie played so well is that it touches on a whole bunch of different tones, right? It’s not really just, ‘Hey, look at me, I’m just a scary movie.’ It’s not just another throwaway killer doll movie serving only scares. It’s serving a lot of things. It’s serving a big dish of fun, right? It’s well aware of what it is and we lean into the humor of it all, and we wanted to make sure that that came across in its marketing. I think that’s a testament to what Gerard and the filmmakers did in making it and to Universal in recognizing what made this film unique as they marketed it.
Jason, you told us last summer prior to the release of “The Black Phone” that you weren’t sure if original horror still worked theatrically after the pandemic. Has the success of that film and recent hits like “Smile” and “M3GAN” given you more confidence?
Jason Blum: Oh, yes. I think the takeaway out of this weekend is that original horror is absolutely, definitively back. Its back as strong as it was before the pandemic; and the other kind of myth that I feel like was shattered this weekend is that the under 25 audience isn’t going to the movies anymore. With the right movie, the younger audience is there and willing to come see it. Yes, I was unsure about the future going into last summer but thanks to the past few months and now with “M3GAN,” I’m glad I was wrong.
Wan: I was just going to add to that. There will always be appetite for original horror. That’s what makes the horror genre so long-lasting, right? It’s so resilient, because the community always longed for something original, and when you give them something that satisfies that, it really plays. But to Jason’s point, I think another great thing about “M3GAN” is that I think it opened up to a bunch of new fans and especially a new generation of horror fans, showing younger audiences who might not have been into horror how great the genre can be.
Since the first trailer for “M3GAN” launched last October, M3GAN’s murder dance has become a TikTok meme. How did that dance come about?
Wan: One of the things Gerard really wanted to showcase is just how well M3GAN is pairing with her user. She’s become more and more human by hanging out with Cady, who shows her what it’s like to have fun as a kid and all that stuff. And so, M3GAN, in her sort of cheeky way, uses something that she had learned as she’s going into her killing spree. And that’s what made it really fun. It still fits into the movie, even though it seems like it comes out of nowhere.
“M3GAN” is the first film that you two have released together since talks began on a potential merger of Atomic Monster and Blumhouse. What can horror fans and the film industry expect from such a partnership?
Blum: Well, the companies haven’t merged yet, but I’m very lucky to be partnered with James and Atomic Monster on this production, which originated over there. The first collaboration we had with Atomic Monster was over 10 years ago with “Insidious,” which James directed.
We’ve produced a handful with Atomic since then, and I think James is really talented at directing and producing horror films that can both hit a nerve with the audience and be really fun at the same time. But it’s hard to make more than one film like “M3GAN” every year, so I think that if we are able to bring the companies together we will be able to produce way more scary, culturally relevant, zeitgeist-y horror films.
Wan: What I’ll add to that is we work along so well. There’s a great collaboration between us and that we can really help each other create better films. And that is the goal to because filmmaking is getting harder and harder.
Blumhouse has created a lot of successful horror series, most notably “The Purge,” but James, you and Atomic were able to create a horror cinematic universe at New Line Cinema. Is that something you two think you’d actively pursue should the merger happen, or do you prefer to take a more organic approach?
Blum: I think it’s the latter. I think the minute producers or directors or studios say like, “We’re gonna make a universe,” then the universe never gets created. And if “M3GAN” or something else works so well where we could make a series of sequels and cousins to those sequels, I think James and I would love to do it. But it’s not like that’s in our business plan.
Wan: Yeah. And a big part of it is because you know, we’re slightly superstitious, and we don’t want to jinx anything. But what I usually do say to that question is, you know, we think about a bigger story, right? So we have M3GAN’s story, but we think of the bigger world of what we’re writing too, and I do that with all the movies that I write. If we’re fortunate enough to maybe get to make more, we have an idea of the world that we want to play in.
Since theaters reopened nearly two years ago, almost every major studio release that has come out has provided a little more information for Hollywood as a new, post-pandemic normal gets built. What lessons do you think the industry at large should take from “M3GAN”?
Blum: I think Hollywood is guilty of taking itself too seriously. We got really lucky that the critics and audiences agreed about “M3GAN,” but I think a lot of times critics and audiences are out of step. And I think Hollywood is guilty of making movies for critics more than audiences.
I also think that it’s important for all of us in Hollywood to remember that movies need to be fun. “Top Gun: Maverick” was fun, and so is “M3GAN.” That’s my takeaway more than anything else, and I just kept making my way through the fall movies, I haven’t seen a lot of that. I think the audience has a real desire to go have a release for an hour and a half or two. And if it’s just dark and that’s all it is, it’s harder to get people out of their houses to go do that.
Wan: It’s an interesting thing that when the world gets kind of dug in, and things are kind of troubled, horror movies play very well. And it’s interesting how horror films generally become a reflection of the time that we are living in. “M3GAN” was an example of that with commentary on how we react to technology and how we rely on technology to such a great extent that it is taking over our lives.
I think that’s a big part of the reason to why people really related to this film, and I think, at the end of the day, it’s all about making movies that connect, and we’re very grateful that “M3GAN” happens to be that film.