Wednesday, November 29, 2023

How Universal Pictures Is Winning Audiences Back With Bonkers Fun Movies

Cocaine Bear.” It’s a ridiculous title, so on the nose that you can’t help being intrigued by it. When I first heard about it, another movie of yore came to mind: “Snakes on a Plane.” It’s spoken about so infrequently now but transport your mind back to the simpler times of 2006. You’ll probably remember some version of the incessant quoting of, “I’ve had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane.” Camp cinema was alive and well. 

But back to 2023. Before “Cocaine Bear,” Universal Pictures was in the throes of success with a totally different title: “M3GAN.” Boasting a relatively small budget of $12 million, it was clear that “M3GAN” would be a hit before it even opened in theaters. The trailer became something of a viral sensation, with its bizarre dance scene trending on TikTok as people flooded the app with reenactments of the now iconic moves. And the videos of those dances? They amassed over 1.8 billion views. 

Interestingly enough, Universal is the studio behind both “M3GAN” and “Cocaine Bear” – and it appears they may be onto something. As of March 2nd, “M3GAN” has made over $95 million domestically, with a $30 million opening weekend almost double the $17 million projection. And while it remains to be seen whether “Cocaine Bear” will have the same legs as “M3GAN“, its $23 million opening weekend haul is a promising sign for the Elizabeth Banks-directed film. Even Universal’s “Violent Night” – a Christmas action-comedy featuring a killer Santa – fit in nicely with their new focus (while making a hefty holiday profit). Universal’s twisted trio is lightyears away from the likes of “The Fabelmans,” a film that struggled in the marketing department despite its conventional Oscar-bait sheen and Spielberg’s name attached. 

And it’s not just those three Universal titles that point towards a fierce resurgence of over-the-top, campy cinema: last year’s horror hit “Barbarian” made $40.9 million against a $4.5 million production budget and landed at a 93% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes. The success of “Barbarian” made debut director Zach Cregger a hot ticket name, with a frenzy of an auction for his follow-up film “Weapons” reported by Deadline. 

It seems the path to box office success was always in front of us, with the marketing angle being the harder nut to crack. Take the aforementioned “Snakes on a Plane,” which was a viral powerhouse but a box office flop. Universal seems to have figured out what New Line couldn’t: being an internet darling alone won’t save you. But once you hook the TikTokers, play the marketing machine like it’s your personal toy. Between the sheer amount of ads, the M3GAN dance trends, and insane guerilla marketing that saw life-sized dolls (or rather, humans decked out in full M3GAN attire) everywhere, from the Today Show to Jimmy Fallon, to football fields, you couldn’t escape that killer doll if you wanted to. The creativity paid off in more than just box office numbers: “M3GAN 2.0” is already in the works and aiming for a 2025 release.

One thing is clear: moviegoers right now have an overwhelming appetite for genre pictures – but genre with a side of bonkers fun, with a knowing wink, over-the-top kills, and a premise so stupid that you just can’t say no. Universal is staying the path, with Nicolas Cage playing Dracula in the upcoming “Renfield,” coming out April 14th. But in a monster fight for the ages, will Dracula be able to beat out M3GAN and the cocaine bear? Only time will tell.

Have you seen “Barbarian,” “Violent Night,” “M3GAN,” and/or “Cocaine Bear” yet? Which one has been your favorite? Are you planning on seeing Renfield?” Please let us know in the comments below or on our Twitter account.

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Lauren Cohen
Lauren Cohen
Director of Programming at the Miami Film Festival. Lover of all things movies, books, Broadway and awards season.

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