Late last month, Universal Pictures announced the name of its new stable of interconnected films featuring the classic monsters that made the studio famous in days gone by — “Dark Universe.” It was a bold move, considering the first title in the series, The Mummy, was weeks away from hitting theaters.
Universal got a good scare over the weekend when the Mummy reboot, starring Tom Cruise, opened to just $32.2 million to place No. 2 in North America behind holdover Wonder Woman. It is far from a monstrous start for a summer event film that cost $125 million to produce before a major marketing spend. The studio can certainly take solace in the fact that The Mummy awoke overseas with $141.8 million from 63 markets. It’s Cruise’s top foreign debut to date, but a film’s U.S. performance still sets the tones for headlines.
Alex Kurtzman directed The Mummy, which also stars Sofia Boutella as the Mummy, Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll and Annabelle Wallis.
Executives at Universal insist that the Dark Universe — the studio’s answer to Marvel and DC’s superhero cinematic universes — does not rest on the success or failure of The Mummy, which was decimated by critics for turning an epic and sometimes campy tale into a modern-day action pic. The movie currently has a 17 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the worst of Cruise’s career behind Cocktail (five percent).
“The Dark Universe is a continuation of a love affair the studio has had with its classic monsters. It is a Valentine to the genre that is in our DNA,” says Universal domestic distribution president Nick Carpou.
But the pressure is on. The studio will need to get the creative tone, and economics, right if the plan is to work. Universal insiders stress that each film in the series will have different budgets.
The studio is already heavily touting Bride of Frankenstein, which Bill Condon is directing, for a Feb. 14, 2019 release. Universal and Condon, fresh off the $1 billion-plus success of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, have cast Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s Monster, though his female counterpart has not yet been announced.
There’s also an Invisible Man movie planned with Johnny Depp, and talk of a standalone Dr. Jekyll with Crowe, among others. (Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll is set to provide the glue linking the films together, with his mysterious organization Prodigium charged with tracking the world’s monsters.) And there are rumors that Dwayne Johnson could resurface in the “monsterverse” for a Wolfman reboot (he starred in 2002’s Mummy spinoff The Scorpion King).
“As each of these films is produced, each will have its own story to tell with unique aspirations. Each title will be its own entity,” says Carpou.
Box-office analysts agree The Mummy doesn’t spell an early grave for the fledgling franchise.
“I don’t think Universal’s Dark Universe will collapse because of The Mummy underperforming, but it should make the studio think twice about pumping so much money into their vastly expanding universe,” says Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations. “There will be a lot riding on Bride of Frankenstein. And when I say a lot, I mean everything.”
Paul Dergarabedian of comScore adds that many Hollywood tentpoles unearth most of their treasure overseas, including Depp’s 2017 summer tentpole, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. Pirates 5 has earned an okay $135 million domestically to date, compared to nearly $393 million to date internationally.
“Bad reviews and low aggregate scores combined with negative social media buzz definitely hurt The Mummy in North America, while simultaneously having almost zero impact on international returns. Sound familiar? It should,” says Dergarabeidan. “If every potential universe banked its future on North American returns only, there may arguably be no movies with greater than a ‘2’ after their title given this current climate. Thankfully for the Dark Universe and other big brands, the international component is the lifeline to a continued cinematic future and a creates a valid justification for further creative and monetary investment.”