Still from “Scream.”
The latest installment in the “Scream” franchise opens this weekend to a movie theater industry threatened by a rapid rise in coronavirus cases fueled by the more transmissible omicron variant.
December’s release of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” was able to defy Covid concerns to become the highest grossing movie during the pandemic, making more than $1 billion and counting. But the debut of “Scream” presents a chance to break Spider-Man’s grip on the top spot at the weekend box office, which it’s held for four weeks.
“Scream” does have some challenges. It’s facing not only a potentially smaller moviegoing audience, but it’s been more than a decade since the franchise’s last theatrical release.
“Consumers are being increasingly selective of what they believe justifies that theatrical visit,” said Rich Greenfield, general partner at LightShed Ventures.
The film is the fifth installment since the original opened in theaters 26 years ago. Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and David Arquette reprise their roles in the franchise, and bring along newcomers Melissa Barrera (“In The Heights”), Jenna Ortega (“You”) and Jack Quaid (“The Boys”). Cox described the movie as a “brand new launch” of the slasher franchise in an interview on “The Drew Barrymore Show” in May.
The film is projected to tally between $25 million and $30 million in ticket sales during its opening weekend, according to Comscore. The figure includes the holiday on Monday. Along with its legacy factor, the film has the advantage of being in a genre that appeals to younger audiences, who are more willing to head to a movie theater in the midst of the pandemic.
During the health crisis, horror films like “Candyman,” “A Quiet Place: Part II,” and “Halloween: Kills,” all grossed more than $20 million in their opening weekends, according to Comscore.
“The horror genre was one of the saviors of the movie theater during the pandemic,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.
A survey from Gallup found that Americans between 18 and 29 years old were seeing movies in theaters at more than twice the rate of other demographics. This age group has always had more active moviegoers, but the gap has widened during the pandemic.
“You’ve got more mature audiences still staying home to a greater degree and you have a genre that has that youth appeal,” said Dergarabedian. “Then you have younger viewers who want to go out to the movie theater. And the pandemic has really heightened that disparity.”
Younger audiences continue to dominate horror movie attendance, making it a safe bet for studios to release in theaters during the pandemic. “Halloween Kills,” a sequel to Blumhouse Productions’ Halloween revamp, opened in October 2021 to almost $50 million. Thirty-five percent of its audience was made up of 18- to 24-year-olds, making it the largest demographic group for the film, according to data from Comscore/Screen Engine API.
“There are certain types of movies targeting different age groups and demographics that certainly are performing,” said LightShed Ventures’ Greenfield. “So, if you’re going after the younger teenager, young adult demographic, like ‘Spider-Man’ or like ‘Scream’ does this weekend, you’re going to do relatively well.”
Studios also benefit from making horror movies with a lower budget. These films usually come with smaller price tags and don’t have to earn as much to turn a profit at the box office. Last year, “Candyman” had an estimated production budget of $25 million and took home more than $27 million in sales during its first weekend. According to Variety, “Scream” had an estimated product budget of $24 million.
“You don’t have to break the bank to make a convincing and scary horror movie,” said Dergarabedian. “The accountant’s dream, the bean counter’s dream is the horror movie.”
Paramount Pictures’ release of “Scream” this weekend may be able to overcome audience hesitation from the omicron variant. However, the original Scream feature did not have the same built-in audience on its opening weekend.
An Opening Bust
The Scream horror franchise has spanned more than two decades and includes five theatrical releases and one television series on MTV.
The original “Scream” movie was directed by horror-pioneer Wes Craven and was released in 1996 to a disappointing opening weekend. It debuted just before Christmas and rang up about $6 million at the domestic box office. It was not the opening studio executives were expecting and they almost declared the film a failure.
“I do remember going, ‘Oh, that’s a bummer, this isn’t going to work. It’s so good,’” said Cox, in an interview with The Ringer last month.
However, it proved to have legs. By word of mouth, moviegoers learned the film offered a new style of horror. Those watching the film who had a good awareness of previous slasher tropes, were given a fresh take on the genre.
Over the next few weeks, “Scream” made more than $100 million at the domestic box office — ultimately taking in 16 times its opening gross and receiving critical praise.
“It’s rare that you see a 16 times multiple,” said Dergarabedian. “That’s a direct reflection of long term playability, great buzz and cultural impact.”
After that moment, the franchise expanded and a sequel was released less than a year later. However, the momentum wouldn’t last forever.
When “Scream 4” was released in April 2011, moviegoers didn’t show up at the same rate. The film opened at $18.6 million at the domestic box office, the franchise’s second-lowest opening weekend, after the original’s lackluster release. Dergarabedian attributed its poor performance to the decade that had lapsed between the third and fourth installment.
This time around reboots are a growing trend. With the success of “Halloween,” which came out 40 years after its original installment, “Scream” hopes to draw a similar audience.
“For younger viewers, something like ‘Scream,’ to see that in the theater is a blast, and what a great way to escape your everyday troubles and then to have the crap scared out of you in a movie theater with other people,” Dergarabedian said.
–CNBC’s Nate Rattner contributed to this report.