How Strong Reviews and a Murder Dance Turned ‘M3GAN’ Into 2023’s First Box Office Surprise

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It’s rare that a box office hit arrives in theaters on the first weekend of the new year, but Universal delivered it with the horror film “M3GAN,” a co-production between James Wan’s Atomic Monster Productions and Blumhouse that beat expectations with a $30 million opening.

Horror films are common this time of year as studios see early January as a prime spot to release a low-risk, low-budget title that can draw in younger audiences. But “M3GAN” has beaten all expectations by becoming the first January horror film since 2012 to earn an opening of $30 million or more, buoyed by a wave of strong reviews from critics who praised the film’s mix of horror, dark comedy and self-aware tone.

Insiders at Universal told TheWrap that as reviews came in earlier this week and the film’s Rotten Tomatoes score reached 94%, advance ticket sales dramatically increased. Walk-up traffic on Friday and Saturday also beat industry estimates, which were revised from a $26 million opening at noon on Friday to $30.2 million on Sunday morning.

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Those rising numbers were a gratifying sight for James Wan and Blumhouse founder/CEO Jason Blum, who hope that “M3GAN” is the first of several hit horror titles that they produce together. The two began development on “M3GAN” back in 2018 with shooting taking place in summer 2021, but that partnership reached a new level this past November when talks began for a potential merger of Atomic Monster and Blumhouse. Those talks are still ongoing.

“I believe ‘M3GAN’ worked because it’s not just scary. It’s a fun movie and it has some emotional moments, and I give a lot of credit to Gerard [Johnstone, the film’s director] for really balancing all those different tones and the Universal marketing team for helping us show audiences that this is more than just another killer doll movie,” Wan said in an interview Sunday with TheWrap.

Blum said he was particularly pleased to see strong turnout for “M3GAN” from Gen Z, with Universal reporting that 44% of the PG-13 film’s opening weekend audience was between the ages of 13-24.

“We’ve really nipped the idea that the under-25 crowd doesn’t go to movies anymore. With the right movie, that audience is there and ready to see it,” Blum told TheWrap. “I was once unsure of that, but I’m glad I was wrong and I think there is still terrific business for original horror that can captivate all sorts of people.”

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While strong reviews and word-of-mouth were likely the main driving factor behind “M3GAN’s” over-performance, the film also benefitted from a strong digital-first marketing campaign that showed the film’s darkly humorous tone, mining laughs from the absurdity of its killer doll premise while bringing plenty of creepy moments.

Much of that marketing was centered around the film’s most viral moment: the Murder Dance. In a scene during the film’s climax that was talked about among horror buffs ever since the film’s first trailer debuted last October, M3GAN performs an ‘80s pop-inspired dance before grabbing the blade from an office paper cutter to kill the CEO of the company that created her.

It’s a scene that encapsulates “M3GAN” as a whole, simultaneously unnerving and hilariously absurd, and it instantly became a TikTok meme. Universal played off it with a marketing campaign in which M3GAN, true to her AI nature, talked directly with fans of the viral dance and got in an online feud with Universal’s other famous killer doll, Chucky. Universal also sent dancers dressed as the doll to perform the routine at tourist stops in New York and Los Angeles as well as during halftime of an L.A. Chargers game on New Year’s Day.

But as eye-catching as the dance was, Alex Sanger, Universal’s EVP of digital marketing, knew that they couldn’t go overboard with it. Much like the film itself, the marketing for “M3GAN” needed to strike a tonal balance between horror and comedy, lest the meme render it and its robot antagonist toothless.

“We saw the dance go viral when the trailer debuted, which we loved, but we didn’t want the movie to just be a meme, to define what the movie was, or who M3GAN is as a character,” Sanger said. “We used our social channels to control the conversation and reinforce her voice with a sinister, unnerving, sassy tone, showing that, while she may be trending, she’s not your bestie. Her prime directive is to protect Cady and she will do terrible things achieve that directive.”

That balance worked, and now M3GAN is on her way to joining the likes of Chucky, Talky Tina and Annabelle — the latter also coming from a James Wan-produced film — in the pantheon of evil dolls. Wan and Blum have discussed a potential sequel to the film with director Gerard Johnstone, though it hasn’t been officially greenlit.

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But whether Wan and Blum’s next film together sees this doll being brought back online or turns to a brand new horror story, “M3GAN” is a demonstration of just what is possible when these two titans of the genre join forces. Since arriving in Hollywood with “Paranormal Activity” in 2009, Blumhouse has released films that have combined to gross $5.2 billion worldwide, according to The-Numbers. While inflation, COVID-19 protection policies and other factors have increased production costs across the industry, Blumhouse was able to keep its low-budget strategy going with “M3GAN,” which was produced with a $12 million budget and is already turning a theatrical profit.

Wan, meanwhile, has spent the last eight years building Atomic Monster Productions at Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema. While he had his biggest box office hit at Warner with the $1.1 billion DC hit “Aquaman,” his biggest legacy is probably as director of the New Line horror film “The Conjuring” and series producer of the cinematic universe that it spawned.

The eight films in the “Conjuring” universe have grossed $2.1 billion worldwide against a combined $179.5 million production budget. A ninth film in the franchise, “The Nun 2,” will be released by Warner and New Line this September with a script co-written by “M3GAN” screenwriter Akela Cooper.

If the Atomic/Blumhouse merger goes through, Universal will add another proven filmmaker to its list of production partners, one who has helped introduce horror to younger generations and will make the studio’s stable of horror titles even stronger. There’s even a chance that the merger may lead to a new horror universe similar to “The Conjuring,” though Wan and Blum say that if it does, it will come organically.

For now, they have new visions of fear to bring to the big screen.

“I think that in the past, if you say that you’re going to make a cinematic universe, that universe never gets created,” Blum said. “I think if we get lucky enough where we make a great film that can lead to sequels and cousins of those sequels, I think James and I would love to do that. But that’s not directly in our business plan.”

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