Universal's "Monsterverse" in Peril as Top Producers Exit (Exclusive)

monsterverse_Illo - THR - H 2017
Illustration by: BloodBros
Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan depart after the failure of 'The Mummy,' leaving the planned franchise rudderless (with empty offices).

Universal's cinematic Dark Universe is in danger of being mummified.

Just five months after Universal released a much-discussed cast photo promising a slew of movies starring the likes of Johnny Depp, Russell Crowe and Javier Bardem — all drawn on characters like the Invisible Man, Wolf Man and Frankenstein in its stable of classic horror films — none of the projects appears to have a pulse.

Writer-producers Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan, who were hired as the monster universe architects, have departed the franchise, sources tell The Hollywood Reporter. Kurtzman, whose deal with Universal lapsed in September, is focusing on television (he's an executive producer on CBS All Access' Star Trek: Discovery, and his overall deal with CBS involves more than a half-dozen shows), while Morgan has returned to the Fast and Furious franchise and is writing a spinoff for Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham.

In early October, Universal pulled the plug on preproduction that had started in London for Bride of Frankenstein — which was to have followed The Mummy as the second entry in the series — partly because execs felt the script by David Koepp and overseen by director Bill Condon wasn't ready. Angelina Jolie had been courted for the lead but is now not attached. Insiders insist Condon (Beauty and the Beast) remains attached, but no date has been set to resume work, and a Feb. 14, 2019, release has been shelved.

All this comes in the wake of Mummy's poor performance. Released in June, the Tom Cruise picture grossed a relatively paltry $409 million worldwide on a budget of $125 million-plus (some insiders place it considerably higher). That doesn't include marketing costs of at least $100 million.

Emblematic of Dark Universe's problems is the tony office building on the Universal lot that was revamped at considerable expense for the new venture. After being decked out in monster regalia, it now sits mostly empty.

Universal is exploring its options. One road involves offering the IP to high-profile filmmakers or producers (Jason Blum has been mentioned) with ideas for one-off movies not connected to a larger universe. And the studio could find a new architect who could overhaul the concept.

"We've learned many lessons throughout the creative process on Dark Universe so far, and we are viewing these titles as filmmaker-driven vehicles, each with their own distinct vision," says Universal president of production Peter Cramer. "We are not rushing to meet a release date and will move forward with these films when we feel they are the best versions of themselves."

The Mummy aside, the studio has had big wins in 2017. It boasts two $1 billion grossers (April's Fate of the Furious and July's Despicable Me 3), while sleeper hits like M. Night Shyamalan's Split ($278 million on a $9 million budget) and Jordan Peele's Get Out ($253 million on a $4.5 million budget) earned critical and commercial praise.

For Morgan and Kurtzman, it makes sense to move away from Dark Universe and back to Fast and Star Trek, note observers.

"This affords Alex Kurtzman more time for a project that is really working well: Star Trek Discovery," says New York-based freelance critic Jordan Hoffman, host of the official Star Trek podcast, who was in attendance of a Mummy screening that elicited unintended laughter from the crowd. 

Is there hope for the Dark Universe? Yes, says comScore box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian, pointing to Marvel and Sony's Spider-Man: Homecoming success after the franchise had lost its footing with 2014's Amazing Spider-Man 2 or Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok, which had an opening weekend that outperformed the two previous Chris Hemsworth-led solo outings. "It's never too late to course-correct," he says, "because with each movie, you get another shot."

"There's no way to give up on this. This is Universal's legacy," he adds.

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.