The Quorum

M3GAN is a meme sensation. Will it be the next SMILE?

Halloween is officially behind us, which means the recent rush of horror films has run its course. Between July 8th, when THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER came out, and the last weekend in October, there were eight studio horror films. 

While NOPE was an obvious choice to top the list, which it did by grossing $123M at the box office, the smart money would have been on HALLOWEEN ENDS to at least challenge for the #1 spot. But soft reviews and a hybrid day-and-date release on Peacock meaningfully cut into its grosses. Those two factors led to a stunning 80% drop in week two at the box office. ENDS opened to $40M and made only $8M the following week. 

What few people expected, except for some savvy executives at Paramount, was that SMILE would be the lone breakthrough horror hit this fall. While ENDS fell 80% in its second weekend, SMILE dipped a mere 18% after a $23M debut, on its way to a current haul of nearly $100M.

Other than TERRIFIER 2, which has emerged as a soon-to-be cult classic, none of the other horror films showed much strength at the box office. Most topped out below $30M. Over saturation? Maybe. 

With the year’s horror films behind us – there are no such releases scheduled through the rest of the year – we now turn to 2023 and what looks to be a banner year for the genre. Three titles are already tracking well, including SCREAM 6 and EVIL DEAD RISE. But if you’re looking for the one film that will be the surprise horror breakout in the vein of SMILE, the smart money is on M3GAN. 

Why do we say that? First, M3GAN has the plum January 6th release date. On January 6th, 2012, the micro-budgeted horror film THE DEVIL INSIDE debuted to $34M. From there, the first week in January became prime real estate for the genre. 

It turns out that by the time January arrives, audiences have grown tired of the high-brow award season indies that dominate the fourth quarter. And they’ve likely seen all the holiday offerings from the studios. A January horror film is a welcome palette-cleanser from the end-of-year offerings. By scheduling M3GAN on that opening January frame, Universal is signaling that this is a film with strong box office potential. 

Aside from the plum release date, M3GAN has become a meme sensation. The impact of memes as part of a marketing strategy can’t be underestimated. Paramount struck gold with its inspired campaign for SMILE, and now we’re seeing the same thing with M3GAN. These viral moments are rare but potent when they work. 

Daily Beast pointed out that ‘Megan’ has become a queer icon. And as Queerty put it, “there she was, M3GAN: Those sandy-blonde tresses, that statement pussy bow, the outfit that’s giving ‘Christian Girl Autumn’ but somehow even more frightening.” And in a stroke of genius marketing, ‘Megan’ is now in a social media “beef” with ‘Chucky.’ Consider this the coronation of a new horror doll legend from the OG master himself. 

Perhaps to the surprise of no one, being an internet sensation is reflected in the tracking. 

When the trailer that catapulted ‘Megan’ to icon status was released last month, awareness for the film was at 20% (dark yellow). Today, it’s up 13 points to 33%. It is now outpacing awareness for SMILE (light yellow) at the same distance from release. SMILE was at 23%. 

The impact of the trailer is even more profound on the interest side. The trailer lifted the interest score for M3GAN (dark blue) from 5.2 to 5.8. It is well ahead of the 5.2 score for SMILE (light blue) at the same distance from release. In fact, M3GAN has almost reached the same heights as SMILE at the end of its tracking run. 

These moments don’t happen often. And it’s unusual to see it happening to two horror films in succession. 

Before THE CONJURING in 2013, studios gave horror films 11th-hour marketing campaigns that started just a couple of weeks before release; the theory being that the genre has a finite audience that’s not difficult to reach. That has since changed thanks to Warner Bros., which launched the campaign for THE CONJURING more than six months before its release. That film has since launched a cinematic universe that includes ANNABELLE, THE NUN, and THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA. 

M3GAN proves once again that long lead campaigns can be hugely impactful for horror films. Based on the viral response to the first trailer, Universal may be sitting on the next horror franchise.

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