While most studios in Hollywood are betting on superheroes to save the box office, Universal Pictures is doubling down on creature features.
This month, the studio acquired rights to Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Chronicles” book series. In July, it announced plans to create a Marvel-like cinematic universe around the studio’s classic monsters the Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Invisible Man and the Creature From the Black Lagoon.
At the same time, the studio inked an eyebrow-raising 10-year, first-look deal with microbudget horror producer Jason Blum, whose Blumhouse Films is behind the profitable “Paranormal Activity,” “Sinister,” “Insidious” and “The Purge” franchises. Last summer, the studio lured Legendary Entertainment into the fold, and now the production firm is co-financing U’s “Jurassic World” and “Dracula Untold,” and has its own upcoming thrillers, including “As Above, So Below” and King Kong tentpole “Skull Island,” which Universal will release.
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As Disney, Fox, Sony and Warner Bros. plant flags on comicbook movies that will unspool in theaters through 2020, Universal honcho Jeff Shell and movie chief Donna Langley find themselves with few options other than to cull their studio’s library and secure outside properties that are established brands, and thus easily marketable. Its only comicbook-based superhero property is Marvel’s “Namor: The Sub-Mariner,” to which it has retained rights since 2006.
“The trend (in Hollywood) is franchise movies, and building movies around a character people want to come back and see over and over again,” says Erica Huggins, president of Imagine Entertainment, who was instrumental in acquiring the Anne Rice books.
The studio will position its classic monsters as the next action stars, the way it did with “The Mummy” franchise and attempted with “Van Helsing.” “Universal’s legacy is built on our iconic monster mythology,” says co-president of production Jeffrey Kirschenbaum. “We are committed to revitalizing these films to make them part of a powerhouse action-thriller franchise, and develop worlds for these characters to thrive in.”
“What Donna and Jeff are envisioning about the Universal monster legacy is the most strategic, and ambitious undertaking since Carl Laemmle created these historic characters for the screen,” says Sean Daniel, who produced Universal’s more recent “Mummy” movies and will return for the reboot, as well as the upcoming remake of “Ben-Hur.”
With Rice’s novels, the studio sees a way to create its own vampire series for audiences, largely young women, who were bitten, er smitten, by “Twilight.” On the horror front,
Blumhouse’s films attract teens, younger males and Hispanic audiences.
But with the exception of “The Purge: Anarchy” and “Oculus,” horror has gotten a bad rap recently, with pictures like “Deliver Us From Evil,” “The Quiet Ones,” “Vampire Academy” and even “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” having received a chilly reception at the box office this year. Nothing has come close to last year’s surprise hit “The Conjuring.”
By turning to “Transformers” and “Fast & Furious” screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan to create a world in which its classic monsters are all connected in action and suspense storylines, Universal believes it can breathe new life into the characters and mint considerable coin from theme park attractions and licensing, while adding value to its library.
Those new films, starting with “The Mummy,” out June 24, 2016; and a remake of “The Sentinel” won’t be cheap, but Blum’s banner will provide a range of films that each cost less than $5 million — and offer up an opportunity for big profits.