In the midst of a summer plagued with expensive flops headlined by stars like Johnny Depp and Mark Wahlberg, a film with a production budget of less than $20 million and no major stars to speak of opened to over $35 million. How did this happen?
Summer box-office receipts are down 12 percent this year. This movie season has already been labeled the “bummer summer” by The Hollywood Reporter.
Major financial disappointments — nearly all of which have been remakes, sequels, or reboots — include “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” “Alien: Covenant,” “Transformers: The Last Knight,” “Baywatch,” “The Mummy,” and many more. And the rest of the year has been bogged down by attempted franchise starters, too, such as “CHiPs” and “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” — pushing domestic box office revenue down 4 percent overall.
“Annabelle: Creation,” about a possessed doll that terrorizes an orphanage, has ended up being one of the few financial bright spots of the year — so what’s the difference between it and everything else?
It’s part of “The Conjuring” film series, yet “Annabelle: Creation” — which is rated R for its gore and violence — was a standalone movie that seemed to benefit from more originality than virtually everything else around it. Audiences crave originality, as evidenced by the success of innovative and new shows on television, such as “Game of Thrones” and “Ray Donovan.”
Too many films this year, including the recent flop “The Dark Tower,” seemed to be made by committee. Behind-the-scenes tales from “Tower” and other 2017 films suggest that the expense that goes into making them, plus foreign investment, means there’s no singular artistic voice at work but rather a great many cooks putting their touches on the dish until it’s essentially tasteless.
“Annabelle: Creation” cost only $15 million to make; typically, that means producers and studio bureaucrats stayed out of the way and allowed the artists and producers to try new things.
Even more importantly than all of this, however, is that “Annabelle: Creation” belongs to a franchise people truly love right now — which should tell Hollywood a lot.
Thus far, “The Conjuring,” “The Conjuring 2,” and “Annabelle” have all been major earners for Warner Brothers without costing an arm and a leg. Each has followed, in some way, the supposed cases of the very real Ed and Lorraine Warren (Ed passed away in 2006 and Lorraine is now 90), a Roman Catholic couple who claimed to be paranormal investigators.
While the real Warrens have inspired skepticism over their claims of dealing with the supernatural, that actually doesn’t matter it comes to the fictional film. All that matters is whether the characters work and people connect to the story.
That’s been proven on both counts. Ed and Lorraine Warren, as characters, work as the heart of the franchise. They are a faithful, altruistic couple whose open religion is surprisingly never mocked by the films, but embraced. Average Americans connect to their personalities and relationships.
The stories also boil down to what few horror movies are about today: good versus evil, which has always been an obsession of the American moviegoer. Horror movies like “The Exorcist” dove into that theme. Later franchises such as “Friday the 13th” and “Saw” made the genre much more cynical and complicated — but “Conjuring” brings the simple struggle between the good and back of this world back to its roots.
“Annabelle: Creation” may not be as good as its staggering opening suggests — but it benefits greatly from the competition around it. Its success is a message from Americans to Hollywood. By telling an original tale, giving an artistic voice room to breathe, and being part of a franchise with some relatable themes, “Annabelle” has done the kind of business that movies with five times its budget should have been doing this summer.