Universal Takes Aim at Faltering U.S. Box Office with ‘Freaky’

Comcast Corp.’s Universal Pictures is betting a movie about a serial killer who hunts down teens is the antidote to real-life dread at the U.S. box office.

The horror film, a collaboration with Blumhouse Productions that came out Friday, is one of the few movies that’s hit cinemas since the start of the pandemic. It’s also one of the first movies Universal is releasing as part of a new distribution strategy, in which it plays its new movies in the cinemas for about three weeks before selling them online.

The box office will take all the help it can get. Practically every big blockbuster this year has been pushed back until 2021 or later, with studios refusing to release major new features before audiences can once again gather en masse. That’s led to unusual arrangements between studios and theaters, which are normally sticklers about their right to show new movies exclusively for two or three months.

Running out of cash, racking up debt, and keen to promote any film to draw in more customers, exhibitors have become increasingly flexible throughout the pandemic. Universal now can put its films online 17 days after they debut in the largest U.S. theater chain, AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. In exchange for shortening the so-called exclusive window, AMC gets a cut of Universal’s online movie sales.

AT&T Inc.’s Warner Bros. is also said to bediscussing a hybrid release strategy with theater chains in which it would move the film “Wonder Woman 1984” onto its HBO Max streaming platform shortly after it comes out in cinemas on Christmas.

AMC Chief Executive Officer Adam Aron has said that the new model with Universal helped keep his theaters open. In September, Universal released a crime comedy, “Kajillionaire,” in theaters before quickly moving it online — and cut AMC in on some of the sales. Aron said that netted the company more cash than a normal release would have.

AMC’s largest competitor, Cineworld Group Plc’s Regal Theatres, has closed all of its U.S. locations, saying a lack of new movies makes it too expensive to stay open. No. 3 chainCinemark Holdings Inc. is mostly open and plans to show “Freaky,” though doesn’t have a special arrangement with Universal that gives it a cut of sales. The company is relatively better-capitalized than its peers, and says it has enough cash to outlast the pandemic, even without many new releases.

“Freaky,” a darkly funny story is about a teenage girl, played by Kathryn Newton, who swaps bodies with a crazed middle-aged killer, played by Vince Vaughn, may provide a small shot in the arm to struggling exhibitors. It will be the only new film out this weekend from a major studio and maygenerate as much as $6.5 million in domestic ticket sales, according to data from Box Office Media LLC. This weekend last year, with pictures out from studios across Hollywood, U.S. moviegoersbought more than $100 million in movie tickets.

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