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How Long Can a Horror Cinematic Universe Last?

How the ‘Conjuring’ franchise is brilliantly branching out for optimal success.
By  · Published on August 14th, 2017

How the ‘Conjuring’ franchise is brilliantly branching out for optimal success.

Horror movie franchises never seem to end. Most of them are cheap enough to keep going even after they’ve peaked. Few of them are ever ruined by unlimited sequels or remakes, so long as the first one or two installments are revered classics. Still, we would prefer our favorite horror properties weren’t milked dry, run into the ground, or turned into self-parody.

One franchise that could go the distance with more success than most — that’d be success with critics, fans, and box office — is the Conjuring expanded universe, which just had another hit with the estimated $35M domestic opening of Annabelle: Creation. The prequel to the spin-off has the lowest debut of the franchise, but the figure is still double its budget. It’s doing great globally, too.

If we count the whole franchise, which so far includes The ConjuringThe Conjuring 2Annabelle, and now Creation, the latest is the fourth installment. Historically, that’s about as far as horror series can go before they take a deep dive in quality and box office gross. Some of them peak at one sequel, others at two, but none ever make an incline beyond three.

At least not until some sort of crossover or soft reboot. Both Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street had their best initial-run openings with part four, but they topped everything with Freddy vs. Jason (and then had second-best debuts, if not best total grosses, with their respective remakes). Alien Vs. Predator was similarly strong after the Alien and Predator series experienced declines.

The Conjuring franchise is doing its own thing, though. Rather than bringing series together, it’s branching out from one. While the base property will continue with The Conjuring 3, other installments in the universe include spin-offs The Nun and The Crooked Man. Unlike Paranormal Activity‘s attempt at spin-offs, these exclude a titular link to the original property but are marketed with acknowledgement of the connection.

So, even though there are now four — soon to be seven — Conjuring movies, it looks more like there are just two and then two Annabelle movies. And even within the Annabelle set, as a prequel, Creation is very different from its predecessor. Franchise producers James Wan and Peter Safran are showing no interest in repeating themselves for an easy buck. Even their plan for The Crooked Man is to change sub-genre a bit.

It helps that there’s no central horror icon for the franchise. The Nun and The Crooked Man will involve characters with potential to be that kind of lasting villainous figure, but hopefully not. If the Annabelle movies are barely even going to animate the doll, it’ll be more consistent for the other two not to become bigger than their own movies, let alone the franchise as a whole.

These films are going to work by being slightly linked parts of an anthology franchise. And each branch should only be so long. One sequel to each spun-off entity, or two at the most. That’s how it can continue without getting tired, and if it ever does start to wane, then you fold things in for some sort of crossover. A tasteful and logical one, not “Annabelle vs. The Crooked Man.”

There has already been talk of The Nun 2 taking the franchise “full circle,” which would be fine if that’s how they want to close up that thread. There’s also been chatter from outside the franchise for “Annabelle vs. Chucky,” and that would be the wrong way to go, and not just because Annabelle isn’t active in the same way the Child’s Play doll is.

And there’s been implication that the Conjuring series can go on and on as long as centerpiece characters Lorraine and Ed Warren have cases to mine from. No need to deliver these as The Conjuring 4 and The Conjuring 5, though. There are two nods to The Nun in Creation, one of them casual, the other a post-credits teaser. There was no need to also have the title nun appear in The Conjuring 2, then. The spin-offs can themselves spin off, and so on.

At the present point, what Wan and Safran are doing is working, at least financially. Creation‘s $35M is not too far off from the first movie’s $37M (or $39M adjusted for inflation) or the two Conjuring installment’s $42M and $40M ($47M and $41M, adjusted). The international box office for each is pretty consistent, as well. Creation has made about the same overseas as here so far: $37M.

Critically is another story, but not terribly so. The first two movies have Rotten Tomatoes scores in the 80s, then the first Annabelle failed with the pros, garnering a RT percentage of only 29%. Fortunately, it bounced back with positive Creation reviews to the tune of a decent 69%. As for the fans, they gave the Conjuring movies each an ‘A-‘ grade via CinemaScore while the two Annabelle movies both received a more moderate ‘B.’

However, the first Annabelle hasn’t fared so well over time with user ratings at such places as RT and IMDb. Therefore, there’s need to change the strategy in terms of what they’re doing just maybe keep it more regular in how they’re doing it. And they’ve shown with Creation that they’re able to make improvements going forward if any of the installments dip in quality. With such procedure and care, the Conjuring movies, by whatever names they expand to, could grow for a long time.

Here’s the weekend’s top 10 domestic box office figures (estimated):

1. Annabelle: Creation — $35M
2. Dunkirk — $11.4M
3. The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature — $8.9M
4. The Dark Tower — $7.9M
5. The Emoji Movie — $6.6M
6. Girls Trip — $6.5M
7. Spider-Man: Homecoming — $6.1M
8. Kidnap — $5.2M
9. The Glass Castle — $4.9M
10. Atomic Blonde — $4.6M

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.