Can Universal revive its Monsters franchise for a new generation?

January 28, 2019, 7:42 PM · Universal Studios really, really wants to revive its Classic Monsters franchise for a new generation of entertainment fans. It tried to relaunch those characters within a "Dark Universe" franchise, but its kick-off film bombed with audiences and critics. So Universal is trying again, this time turning to one of the hottest names in horror.

Jason Blum will co-produce a reboot of The Invisible Man with Upgrade and Insidious: Chapter 3 director Leigh Whannell, Variety reported today. Blumhouse has become a leader in the horror genre and a staple at Universal's annual Halloween Horror Nights on both coasts.

Universal planned to unite its Classic Monsters in a Marvel-like cinematic universe, but the studio abandoned that course after the 2017 film The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise, lost millions and failed to generate adequate fan enthusiasm for the project. This time, Variety said, Universal is trying a more open approach toward reviving its original franchises.

"We are excited to take a more individualized approach for their return to screen, shepherded by creators who have stories they are passionate to tell with them," Variety quoted Universal's president of production, Peter Cramer. Individual movies no longer will have to tie into a common story arc that unites all the monsters.

Here's the lesson: Great entertainment franchises cannot be reduced to industrial products. Yes, big businesses spend millions of dollars to develop and promote them, but all that industrial planning cannot save a franchise that does not resonate with audiences. At their heart, an entertainment franchise must offer some spark of art that makes people want to care about it.

...And spend their money on movie tickets, merchandise, and theme park visits, of course.

The Mummy had the weight and power of Universal Studios behind it, but it didn't offer that creative spark that touched audiences. Universal needs to find the notes that resonate with the audiences... before even thinking about orchestrating the chords that bring those notes together. If that means turning directors loose to explore these characters and their stories in fresh ways, so be it.

But let's take a moment to appreciate Marvel's Kevin Feige. Universal and Warner Bros. jumped to order the Dark Universe and the DC Extended Universe because Feige made what Marvel accomplished look so easy. Turns out, this stuff is hard. Feige's work to guide a coherent meta-story for Marvel while allowing directors enough freedom to engage audiences with their stories represents one of the great creative accomplishments in cinema history.

Truth is, though, that Marvel didn't create the Marvel Cinematic Universe right away. It took years and multiple projects at several studios before Feige and Marvel could bring the MCU to life. DC endured several turkeys before it found directors who could connect with audiences, and Universal may end up needing several go's at it before it can revive its Classic Monsters successfully, as well.

A revived Classic Monsters franchise could provide fertile creative ground for new theme park attractions, especially as Universal looks to add at gate at the Universal Orlando Resort. Universal Studios Hollywood devoted one of its Halloween Horror Nights mazes to the Monsters last year, providing a taste of what Universal might be some day do with these characters, given a bigger budget, a permanent installation... and a beloved new movie franchise to make fans want to visit them in the parks.

Replies (13)

January 28, 2019 at 8:37 PM

Even without a successful modern movie franchise, I believe the Universal Monsters would prove to be very popular with their own land at the new Fantastic Worlds. Virtually every one already knows these characters and they lend themselves to great immersive worlds. Imagines Dracula's Castle surrounded by forest. The Fantastic Worlds park needs a great haunted house ride and Universal has the best IP to deliver that.

January 28, 2019 at 9:03 PM

What is Universal without the Universal Monsters? Hopefully this new rebranding works.

January 29, 2019 at 4:44 AM

I don't know. It's just like Star Trek, the original series was slow paced, had a philosophic undertone. The new ones are all flashy Star Wars crap missing a lot of the hart and soul.
The original monster movies where tragic stories, the first Brandon Fraser mummy movie made it a fun popcorn movie and that worked but lost quite a bit of what the original was. I'm not sure the ip is ready for today's audiences who rather see a "hero" hit the crap out of the villain than an intelligent story.

January 29, 2019 at 6:25 AM

Their mistake was bringing in Tom Cruise with the Mummy and throwing tons on money at it. Whether you like him or not, he took over that movie and made it a huge, bloated action fiasco, which is not what that needed. This approach with the Invisible Man is perfect. A low budget atmospheric take on a classic story. If it is actually scary, it can make 30-50 million. Then they can use that formula with the other ones. The Blumhouse approach could usher in a modern Hammer like revival (obscure pun intended). They should have done this to begin with Guillermo del Toro, but they chose to go big budget, and it bit them big time.

Look at things like Hereditary and the Witch being successful. Make a truly great gothic horror Invisible Man and you can move on to some other ones. Sorry that del Toro has already won best picture for the Black Lagoon one...

January 29, 2019 at 8:04 AM

I think the Blumhouse model will result in financially successful films, but will not bring Universal any closer to developing a viable "franchise". The Blumhouse model forces films into low budgets that will kill any sort of crossover between parallel projects. Jason Blum has built his reputation on the model, but very few of his projects have had lasting cultural impact aside from being footnotes to miscellaneous box office records. Blumhouse films (aside from M. Night Shaymalan's last 2 films with the studio that were individually negotiated with more lucrative budgets) prioritize profitability over all else, which simply cannot be the driving force when the goal is to develop a culturally significant brand. Another thing I will note is that a lot of SAG/AFTRA members are concerned about the success of Blumhouse, because the company relies on talent that works for scale, including established stars. Union members dislike the strongarm tactics of the studio that uses take-it-or-leave-it contracts that minimizes the value of talent over the financial solvency of the project. Even Shaymalan had to give up "points" (a term referring to the percentage of the revenue generated by a film paid directly to talent) in exchange for the larger budgets he was granted for the 2 Blumhouse films (Split and Glass) after he was successful with The Visit (made on a standard Blumhouse $5 million budget).

I don't think Universal will be complaining about the financial results from this pairing, but it will not bring them any closer to developing a foil to the MCU. Also, let's not look just at The Mummy as the prime failure of Universal's re-imagining of their Monsters franchise. The Wolfman made in 2010 with top notch talent (Joe Johnston directing starring Anthony Hopkins, Benicio del Toro, and Emily Blunt) was an even more spectacular failure ($140 million worldwide gross - $61 million in the US, on a $150 million budget) than The Mummy ($410 million worldwide gross - $80 million in the US, on a $125 million budget). There's also all of the money that Universal sunk into pre-production for other Monsters projects including the millions already dumped into the Invisible Man project that was supposed to star Johnny Depp. Making $100 million from a $5 million project will soften the blow of those past losses, but it would still be an order of magnitude below the most successful franchises in terms of overall impact and reach.

@JC - You mentioned GdT. He has his own production company (Mirada Studios) that has been trying to gain traction similar to Blumhouse by funding tight-budget projects with young directors only more in the Sci-fi realm instead of straight horror. He's only seen limited success so far with his venture, and hasn't come close to the precision and financial reliability that Blumhouse has achieved.

I personally think the Universal Monsters deserve the big budget treatment, and the Blumhouse approach will lessen the significance of this franchise. I have little doubt that Universal will make money using this model - Blumhouse has been able to make money with even the most ridiculous, poorly made films like Happy Death Day and the Ouija series. However, using this model will not bring any sort of resurgence to the Monsters franchise unless Universal is also willing to chip in. Blumhouse has developed franchises only because it made financial sense, and quickly abandons them the second they fail to pull a satisfactory multiplier (if Blumhouse were in charge of Star Wars, they would have dumped the entire series after the relative "failure" of Solo). Universal cannot take a hands-off approach with the projects if they run into trouble while still letting Blumhouse take the lead on guiding young directors and production teams into creating a finished product. I'm very skeptical that this setup will work if Universal's goal is to fully resurrect their Monsters. It's certainly not going to earn the franchise enough legitimacy to warrant further theme park applications outside of HHN.

January 29, 2019 at 11:04 AM

RN: "A revived Classic Monsters franchise could provide fertile creative ground for new theme park attractions ..."

I Respond: Judging from the rather graphic image accompanying the original post, those new attractions would (once again) do little or nothing to bring in the family demographic.


January 29, 2019 at 12:03 PM

I agree TH, though Universal has attempted to bring the target demographic down with their recent attempts to resurrect the Monsters. It's a fine line that they have to walk with this IP, because if they skew too young, they will upset the established fans, while if they skew too old, they narrow their target audience. I think the recent success of R-rated superhero movies (like Deadpool, Logan, and the rumored R-rating proposed for Black Widow) along with the proliferation of stream platforms that are not governed by broadcast/cable decency rules that edit and censor movies/shows, has galvanized studios into tailoring IPs for specific audiences.

Who says Universal has to draw the family demographic? Virgin is launching a cruise ship designed specifically for adults in mind. What's stopping Universal from developing a theme park and attractions designed exclusively for teenagers and adults, allowing visitors to keep the kids at home?

January 29, 2019 at 12:14 PM

A couple of points: the Monsters films will never be a franchise akin to the MCU. They need to give that up. It will never happen. The best they can do is shoot for a new Hammer-like approach, and I think a scarier, smaller scale film is the way to achieve financial success. As to a family oriented attraction- give that up as well. They had the House of Horrors for goodness sakes and they still show clips from John Carpenter's The Thing at the Horror Movie Makeup Show. Every theme park attraction does not have to be a Small World. UO and WDW can do their own things with different markets, and I think that is a valid buisiness model. This is why Disney can't have the Alien ExtraTERRORestrial Encounter at MK due to Parents but UO can have a Mummy coaster with a Mummy with their guts hanging out and you burning to death in a fire trap.

January 29, 2019 at 12:21 PM

A major mantra of horror fans is "we don't care about huge stars or giants budgets, just how good and scary the movie is." Given the scores of horror films in the last few years made for about $10 million with no-names that became $150 million or more hits, that seems proven true. Universal made the mistake of going for instant mega-film franchise with "Dark Universe" and that flopped hard.

Again, fans don't care about a Tom Cruise becoming Mummy story, they'll gladly take a good turn on the idea of ancient evil reborn and stalking people. The potential is right there, Universal needs to use it better.

January 29, 2019 at 12:55 PM

I agree with JC, A Monsters Cinematic Universe will work for Universal Studios as long as you don't let an eccentric A-List Star hijack the script and direction of the movie and be patient with building up the Cinematic Universe like Marvel did and not WB.

January 29, 2019 at 1:22 PM

Throwing this out there, for the family demo:

"Universal Monsters, Jr."

Just imagine. (I don't know if I am kidding about this or not, BTW.)

January 29, 2019 at 4:34 PM

Universal Monsters doesn’t need to bring in the family demographic, that’s what Dreamworks and Nintendo are for. Well rounded theme parks can bring in many demographics and be very successful. Magic Kingdom is more than just Princesses and Fantasyland. Universal Creative needs to counterbalance Dreamworks and Nintendo in UFW with other IPs that appeal to the other demographics, and they need Universal Monsters and LotR/The Hobbit to do it. Otherwise, Universal will have a rather one-sided park with UFW and Universal needs the new park to be a huge hit that appeals to most if not all demographics.

January 29, 2019 at 5:52 PM

Love him or loathe him Jasom Blum is very, very successful. Universal's attempt at resurrecting The Mummy fell flat so give the Monster series to Blumhouse and see what they can do. I disagree with the sceptics. Blumhouse are the most successful horror makers out there, bar none. If anybody can resurrect it, they can.

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