EXCLUSIVE: James Wan has been labeled by fans for being responsible for killer doll movies, specifically his Conjuring franchise spinoff, Annabelle.
“It’s funny, I really hadn’t done that yet,” says the horror auteur. And that was his prime reason to create M3GAN with screenwriter Akela Cooper.
“In my previous doll movies — they don’t kill anyone. Annabelle never gets up and walks around. Everyone says I’m the killer doll guy. So I said, I’m going to make a killer doll movie for a brand new generation. Today’s kids didn’t grow up with Chucky like we did,” continues Wan who produced the PG-13 film and wrote the story with Cooper on script.
And so M3GAN was born. And born big. The Universal, Blumhouse and Atomic Monster title blew away its $17M-$20M projections this past weekend with a $30.2M start taking the second spot in a U.S./Canada marketplace still dominated four weekends later by James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way Water which did $45M and crossed the half billion mark. M3GAN reps a fantastic start to the box office year, especially with an original piece of IP, and the pic’s success is launching New Zealand filmmaker Gerard Johnstone’s talents out of a canon before Hollywood. Not to mention, it’s a great beginning for the ultimate team-up between Blumhouse and Wan’s Atomic Monster which are in final talks to merge. We heard on Friday, per sources, that a sequel is already in early development.
While the movie was made in Johnstone’s New Zealand in June 2021 (one of the few safe havens to shoot then during the pandemic), it’s our understanding that Universal always believed in the big screen version of M3GAN. Even though such Blumhouse titles like Firestarter, Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends went theatrical day-and-date with the studio’s sister streamer Peacock, M3GAN always had an exclusive theatrical release date, we understand. At its opening gross level, the pic is on an exclusive 17-day theatrical window.
“I wanted to make a movie that really connects and is emotional,” Wan tells Deadline. He was drawn to Cooper for her old-school horror sensibility as well as her predilection for dark humor. The two went on to work on Malignant for Warner Bros. following M3GAN, on which she had a story and screenplay-by credits.
“M3GAN plays on a lot of different levels: It’s scary, creepy, touching and emotional at the same time,” Wan says, “We wanted to lean into something more technology-driven as opposed to supernatural.”
Who to direct M3GAN? Both Wan and Blumhouse EVP of Development and Production Ryan Turek were big fans of New Zealand comedy and horror director Gerard Johnstone having caught his 2014 film Housebound which premiered at SXSW. Johnstone, who cut his teeth directing TV comedy, made Housebound through the New Zealand Film Commission for $400K. When it comes to a filmmaker making their first film in New Zealand through the commission which finances, the most feasible ones to get greenlit are horror pics given their bankability.
Housebound follows a young woman who is forced to return to her childhood home after being placed under house arrest. It’s there that she suspects that something evil may be lurking. The pic eventually made its way to Netflix.
“It was weirdly a practical decision,” Johnstone tells us about making Housebound his directorial debut, he having initially conceived it as a funny idea that lent itself to horror. The first cut didn’t work well and needed to be scarier. So Johnstone schooled himself in the genre through a stack of Wan and Blumhouse DVDs. Peter Jackson caught wind of Housebound and helped catapult Johnstone’s career. Johnstone is repped by CAA and manager Ken Kamins, the latter of whom is also Jackson’s manager.
“I was a big fan of Gerard’s movie Housebound and I kept telling everyone about it,” says Wan.
“It’s very similar to M3GAN in that it’s horror, but a strong shade of comedy. He has that sensibility and it’s what M3GAN needed: Someone who understood how to walk that fine line in the tone where it’s scary one moment, but not afraid to be dark in its humor the next,” continues the M3GAN producer and scribe.
For the role of M3GAN’s owner, Cady, Johnstone, Wan and Blumhouse settled on Violet McGraw, whose sister Madeleine McGraw starred in the latter’s summer hit, The Black Phone.
“She did this dramatic thing in the audition where she was crying the whole way through. She was so fragile and vulnerable, my heart was breaking. Then when I met her via Zoom, she was really fun. She was an unbelievable machine and was completely off book,” says Johnstone about working with McGraw.
When it came to actually finding M3GAN, the filmmakers had originally settled on a Canadian actress as they were planning to shoot in Montreal before the pandemic. But when production shifted to New Zealand, they landed on Amie Donald. What was key was that the actress needed to be a stunt performer and Donald over-delivered in that she was a national dance champion, a brown belt in Karate, and a contortionist.
“She was able to run on all fours, rise up from the ground without using her hands like a cobra — the stunt guys and movement coaches were gobsmacked,” says Johnstone.
But what took M3GAN to another level was Universal’s push under Chief Marketing Officer Michael Moses. They immediately spotted a meme that would catch on fire, particularly on TikTok, in Megan’s droopy sway dance, a hashtag sensation that spurred 1.3 billion views from #M3GAN, #M3GANMovie, and #M3GANDance. All of this traffic was organic sans a M3GAN dance challenge on social as Uni was keen that the dance would catch on. Uni assembled a troupe of M3GAN dancers who strutted their stuff at the global premiere last month before the screening of the trailer’s Taylor Swift song “It’s Nice to Have a Friend,” but that’s not all. They literally went on tour making stops at the Empire State Building, subways, The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel Live! and even the front of The American Girl doll store, as well as last Sunday’s Rams game at halftime.
The M3GANs at the Chinese Theater:
Uni cut a trailer capturing M3GAN‘s deadpan, sassy, posh tone which stoked the under-25 female audience, clocking over 250M views worldwide. Megan Thee Stallion gave the creepy doll a shoutout on social soon after the first trailer drop writing, “Not being biased, but I think they made this movie for me! I will be the THEE FIRST in line to M3GAN!!” 1980s monster doll Chucky began feuding with M3GAN on social media. The trailer generated multiple trending topics on Twitter, YouTube and GIPHY.
M3GAN ranked on all of the key year-end trends like Spotify Wrapped and Lensa AI. Additionally, an AI “M3gan Bot” was launched across Messenger and Twitter giving fans the chance to talk with M3gan and play simple games. In return, M3GAN would send fans a photo of her holding a framed picture of her new BFF: them.
Further hitting the Gen Z demo, Universal had M3GAN as the primary sponsor of Bad Bunny’s new music video where she greeted viewers of his blockbuster new video debut with a custom video. TV spots for the trailer ran during Christmas Day NBA games, with five spots in College Football Bowl games and during holiday specials. There was also a Mitu Snapchat Takeover, Snap Grenade, a YouTube Female Movie Lovers Awareness Accelerator and a Reddit Horror Category Takeover.
According to RelishMix, YouTube views were blazing from fan-posted M3GAN review spots and other mashup trailer reposts. Four studio videos fueled a huge viral rate of 86:1 for M3GAN. Ahead of the opening, RelishMix spotted all the heat on M3GAN with its 1.5 billion social media universe across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, annihilating previous horror SMU comps Scream (126.2M SMU/$30M opening) and Insidious: The Last Key at 114M SMU/$29.6M).
“We worked with Michael on 35 movies. When you see that team get excited about a movie, they pull out all the stops. When you feel that enthusiasm from marketing as a producer it gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling,” Blum tells Deadline.
In the wake of Blumhouse’s fingerprints with Purge and Paranormal Activity and Wan’s with Saw and Conjuring, M3GAN is another example of the power of horror films at the box office. They’re low risk, but when they hit, it’s like winning the lottery. We’ve bemoaned as moviegoing returns from the pandemic about the high risk with original IP theatrically, particularly those movies geared at women. However, M3GAN trampled on such statistical cynicism pulling in an audience that was 53% female and 44% under 25.
“Everyone has been saying that we’ve lost the under-25 crowd,” says Jason Blum, “M3GAN is a clear indication that we have not.”
“If you make the right movie, and make it the right way, the audience is there,” says the 3x Oscar-nominated producer, “The audience is starved for fun, entertaining movie. There’s not enough.”