Long Range Box Office Forecast: Is Universal’s Freaky the Next Goal Post on the Road to Recovery?

Photo Credits: Universal Pictures / Blumhouse ("Freaky")

This column has traditionally focused on wide releases eight weeks out from play, but of course, the calendar isn’t exactly set in stone right now. Instead, we’re turning attention to what now looks like the next major studio release: November 13’s Freaky.

Several films remain slated before then, but Universal and Blumhouse’s comedy-horror-thriller hybrid may arguably be the next “important” marker for the early days of exhibition’s recovery as the domestic and international markets continue waiting on New York to allow theatrical re-openings.

That being said, while our official pinpoint forecast below is leaning toward the cautious end for now (it’s 2020, after all), our overall forecast range absolutely includes the potential for this to be the first film since Tenet to debut north of $10 million in North America.

Here’s why…

Social Strength

From Christopher Landon, director of the successful Happy Death Day franchise, Freaky stars Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton in a body-switch genre film that has been trending very well across social media since its trailer release.

Carved from a similar cloth as the first Death Day film, which leveraged its premise and appeal to horror fans, young women, and date night patrons (opening weekend was comprised of 54 percent women and 63 percent under the age of 25), Freaky is built to achieve similar success.

The film has earned over 29 million trailer views from its official YouTube page, far outpacing the combined 18.5 million views of The Invisible Man and its two official trailers. Invisible Man, of course, was one of the last high profile box office hits to hit cinemas before the pandemic forced theaters to shut down. That title bowed to $28.2 million during opening weekend back in late February.

Similarly, Freaky is trending well above the pre-release social metrics of Happy Death Day itself — which opened to $26 million in October 2017 — with solid results and very positive sentiment on Twitter lately.

A Proven Partnership

The common thread here is Universal and Blumhouse, which have formed a winning duo within the horror and thriller genres through films and franchises like Insidious, The Purge, Split, Get Out, Us, Ouija, and the 2018 Halloween revival — to name a few. They know how to create appealing content and lasso their target audiences with finely tuned skills.

Of course, the world is different right now. The pandemic is keeping major markets closed and/or limited in operations, while some moviegoers are cautious to return until a vaccine is within sight.

Managing Expectations

Still, buried beneath the doomsday prognostications about the movie industry are tangible signs of long-term recovery at the box office — especially from overseas markets that have trended ahead of the United States when it comes to combating the virus, avoiding the politicization of mask-wearing and theatrical closures, and in some cases (China, particularly), seen box office trends progress closer to pre-pandemic levels when new content is available.

With that context in mind, it’s difficult to expect Freaky will achieve the same results as those three aforementioned comparisons. After all, only two films (Tenet and The New Mutants) have been able to open higher than $7 million since the domestic restart began at the tail-end of summer, and it doesn’t look like a lot will change in favor of theaters during the next four weeks.

The AMC Effect

Further muddying the water is Universal’s agreement with AMC over a 17-day theatrical window, a shot-heard-round-the-world deal struck over the summer that allows the studio to premiere its films on PVOD within three weeks of a theatrical release.

Additionally, the exhibitor gets to share in that revenue stream. It’s a deal that, while important, somehow also seemed somewhat insignificant back in July because Universal had a very slim list of titles on the schedule until F9 in early-to-mid 2021. Other studios, like Disney and Warner Bros., were planning to release more than a handful of tentpoles by the end of 2020. (That, of course, has since changed.)

Now, the agreement provides more immediate intrigue as the vast majority of major studio titles have left 2020 for 2021 release dates. During that time, Universal has kept films such as Freaky, The Croods: A New Age, and News of the World on the 2020 calendar.

In fact, aside from Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman 1984, Disney / 20th Century’s Free Guy and Death on the Nile, and Sony’s Monster Hunter, Universal now claims a big share of the few truly mainstream 2020 movies that could help attract moviegoers back to cinemas in the middle of the pandemic.

The New York Variable

From there, however, we come back to the ambiguity surrounding the status of New York and Los Angeles theaters, and the virus itself, as the country enters an expected fall surge in reported virus cases.

Provided those markets have not reopened under similar allowances as the rest of the country by the time of Freaky‘s planned opening, we can safely expect the film will not receive anything resembling the traditional marketing push of a theatrical release — something that has already proven to be one of several detriments to Tenet‘s domestic lifespan, irrespective of that title’s small week-to-week drops at the box office.

Why Freaky Makes Sound Business Sense

Fortunately, Freaky is a low-budget film (estimated production costs were around $5 million) and it doesn’t need the marketing muscle required for a typical tentpole to meet financial standards of profitability. This movie’s genre, and Blumhouse as a brand especially, are renowned for their ability to generate high profit ratios because of how inexpensive their films are and how wide their footprint is with mainstream audiences.

That may not be as much comfort to exhibitors, who need foot traffic and the concession sales those customers produce, but it is still a potentially positive storyline for the industry. A financially successful theatrical release would be a headline that can reverberate in positive ways, especially if cinemas continue their proven trend of adaptation by providing safe and healthy environments to see movies.

Furthermore, younger audiences in their teens, 20s, and even early-to-mid 30s, have statistically polled as more willing to return to cinemas in the short term than older viewers may be.

Excluding The New Mutants, which alongside its X-Men fan base also had years’ worth of negative publicity baggage attached to it, there hasn’t been a mainstream movie to target the ever-important millennial and Gen-Z demographics — especially one friendly to both men and women in more than just big cities and suburban areas of the country. (Tenet, for all intents and purposes, was an urban- and male-driven film.)

And, although Freaky misses out on the timely Halloween corridor, it can still capture a similar spooky synergy with its “Friday the 13th” release date.

Will Windows Play a Role?

Going back to the AMC-Universal deal, let us remember the agreement stipulates that they *can* push a film to PVOD after 17 days, not necessarily that they always *will* (though, mid-pandemic, the odds favor such a move).

Even if Universal were to pull that trigger on this movie, though, the film and the genre are designed to earn the bulk of their theatrical business during the early days of play.

Granted, sometimes slow-burners come out of nowhere as exceptions to the rule, but Happy Death Day itself recorded 87 percent ($48.4 million) of its $55.7 million final domestic gross by the end of its 17th day of release — the earliest Universal could hypothetically release it on PVOD.

That kind of ratio may not end up quite as high for Freaky, but there are giant variables in these models. The studio would (speculatively) keep the movie available to theaters after its 17th day of theatrical play, but of course, we do not have full confirmation of that or as to what other chains plan to do when it comes to Universal’s strategy.

Will cinema owners play the movie for 17 days only and then drop it as a solidarity move to support longer windows? Will they refuse to screen it at all? Will they play ball in a time of great need and kick the negotiation cans down the road until it makes sense to have those conversations in a balanced, if not recovered, market?

This remains a hot topic without any concrete answers, especially with Regal itself temporarily closed again. The climate and the circumstances are vastly different from what would have been traditional comparison metrics for this movie, and such considerations must be baked into box office expectations right now.

Ultimately, though, what was and continues to be viewed as a controversial precedent for exhibition (one that still warrants patience in the long term) now may prove to be something of a temporary patch for cinemas struggling to maintain foot traffic in a pandemic market bereft of movies offering popcorn escapism to a variety of demographics — something this Blumhouse pic is showing signs of being able to do.

The movie is inexpensive, ideally targeted to a diverse moviegoer base, built to draw most of its business upfront before the holidays, and born from a combination of genres known for their communal moviegoing attraction.

Things may still play out more abnormally than we’re used to, but those elements, arguably, are what make Freaky such a no-brainer to put in theaters next month — and why it could become a much-needed success story.

Notable Release Changes This Week

  • (none to report)

8-Week Film Forecast

Release Date Title 3-Day (FSS) Opening Range 3-Day (FSS) Opening Forecast % Chg from Last Week Domestic Total Range Domestic Total Forecast % Chg from Last Week Estimated Location Count Distributor
10/23/2020 The Empty Man $1,000,000 – $6,000,000 $2,000,000 -20% $3,000,000 – $18,000,000 $6,000,000 -8% 1,500 20th Century Studios
10/23/2020 Synchronic   n/a     n/a     Well Go USA Entertainment
10/30/2020 Alita: Battle Angel (2020 Re-Issue)   n/a     n/a     20th Century Studios
10/30/2020 Come Play $1,000,000 – $6,000,000 $2,500,000 NEW $3,000,000 – $18,000,000 $7,000,000 NEW   Focus Features
11/6/2020 Let Him Go $2,000,000 – $6,000,000 $3,000,000   $10,000,000 – $25,000,000 $15,000,000     Lionsgate
11/6/2020 Stillwater   n/a     n/a     Focus Features
11/13/2020 Freaky $7,000,000 – $12,000,000 $8,000,000 23% $15,000,000 – $35,000,000 $24,000,000 25%   Universal
11/20/2020 Untitled Tom McCarthy Projection (Wide Expansion)   n/a     n/a     Focus Features
11/25/2020 The Croods: A New Age $8,000,000 – $13,000,000 $12,500,000   $30,000,000 – $65,000,000 $44,000,000     Universal
11/25/2020 Happiest Season $1,000,000 – $6,000,000 $4,000,000   $5,000,000 – $15,000,000 $14,000,000     Sony / TriStar
12/4/2020 Half Brothers   n/a     n/a     Focus Features
12/11/2020 Free Guy $10,000,000 – $30,000,000 n/a   $40,000,000 – $110,000,000 n/a     20th Century Studios

As always, the news cycle is constantly evolving. Market projections are subject to breaking announcements at any moment.

This column will continue to track the impact of release date changes in the weeks ahead.

For press inquiries, please contact Shawn Robbins

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Photo Credits: Universal Pictures / Blumhouse ("Freaky")