Hollywood has a new scream queen.
“M3gan,” a campy PG-13 horror movie starring a mean-girl robot (insert snotty hair flip here), sold an estimated $30.2 million in tickets in the United States and Canada over the weekend, or about 30 percent more than box office analysts had predicted. Universal Pictures, which released the $12 million horror comedy, has already fast-tracked a sequel.
Reviews were 94 percent positive, according to Rotten Tomatoes. That level of critical response alone made “M3gan” something of a triumph: When it comes to well-worn movie concepts, the killer doll is right up there with “mediocre guy attracts supermodel.” Coming up with a fresh take is almost impossible. (Chucky is 35 years old and has been the focus of eight movies and a TV series. The demonic Annabelle has headlined three films since 2014.)
Horror movies continue to do well in theaters — in contrast to sophisticated dramas, which have struggled — because they are fun to experience in the dark with strangers. “Young moviegoers want to see them with their friends, on the big screen, for the maximum thrill,” said David A. Gross, a film consultant who publishes a newsletter on box office numbers. About 44 percent of the audience for “M3gan” was under 24, according to Universal.
“M3gan” is also notable because it reflects the manner in which comedy has evolved as a theatrical offering. Traditional comedies have struggled to sell tickets. But comedy has become a bigger part of other types of movies, with Marvel superhero spectacles as the obvious example. In some ways, “M3gan” is a comedy disguised as a horror film; the four-foot robot doll humorously breaks into song, exhibits weird dance moves and wryly throws shade — when she’s not murdering.
The director-writer-producer James Wan, known for “The Conjuring,” “Aquaman” and “Saw” franchises, came up with the idea for “M3gan,” which stands for Model 3 Generative Android. (It is pronounced Megan.) Warner Bros. passed, in part because it already has Annabelle, prompting Wan to take the idea to the megaproducer Jason Blum, whose Blumhouse Productions is affiliated with Universal. Gerard Johnstone, a relative newcomer, directed “M3gan” from a screenplay by Akela Cooper (known for “Luke Cage” and “Malignant”).
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The director James Cameron takes us back to the world of Pandora for the sequel “Avatar: The Way of Water.”
Universal backed “M3gan” with an inventive marketing campaign. TikTok figured prominently into the studio’s efforts, as did Twitter, where an account ostensibly controlled by M3gan began sparring with one run by Chucky.
Hollywood is hoping that 2023 will mark a return to box office form after three pandemic-battered years. Cinemas in North America sold roughly $7.5 billion in tickets last year, a 34 percent decrease from 2019, according to EntTelligence, a research firm. That total equated to about 626 million tickets. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Hollywood was selling about 1.2 billion tickets annually in the United States and Canada.
Worldwide ticket sales for 2022 totaled roughly $26 billion, according to Gower Street Analytics, down about 35 percent from 2019.
Boding well for a box office recovery, “Avatar: The Way of Water” (Disney), directed by James Cameron, has overcome a slower-than-expected start and a series of severe winter storms in the United States and Canada to collect an estimated $1.7 billion worldwide. The ultraexpensive “Way of Water” should cross the $2 billion mark, analysts say, making it one of the five best-selling movies of all time and justifying Disney’s plans for three more “Avatar” installments.
Over the weekend, “The Way of Water” took in about $45 million at domestic theaters, easily enough for first place. “M3gan” was second, followed by the animated “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” (Universal), which had $13.1 million in ticket sales, for a three-week domestic total of $88 million ($130.8 worldwide).
Dramas continue to struggle, however.
Damien Chazelle’s star-studded “Babylon” (Paramount), an extreme take on the hedonism of early Hollywood, failed to gain traction in its third weekend in theaters, selling just $1.5 million in tickets, for a new total of $13.5 million. It cost nearly $80 million to make, not including marketing.