Why the Conjuring Universe succeeded where the Dark Universe failed

In September The Nun pushed the Conjuring universe up to be the biggest R-rated horror series of all time (not factoring in inflation). With a take of over $1.3 billion, it seems fair to say that New Line and Warner Bros have hit it pretty big with the series.

What’s really interesting about that success is that The Conjuring is one of the few times a cinematic universe has met with unquestionable success. Since Marvel showed just how lucrative the concept can be, many have tried – but most have failed. Most notably, Universal’s ‘Dark Universe’, a mooted series linking their classic monsters (Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Invisible Man etc) that foundered after The Mummy.

While the two aren’t like for like in every way, there are many similarities, which begs the question: why did one work and the other not?

Why has The Conjuring Universe found success?

Horror is a perfect fit for a themed universe – the genre has been full of meta, over-arching narratives for years, and spin-offs and prequels are nothing new. Just look at the Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street or Hellraiser franchises.

Even though the Conjuring universe is almost the polar opposite of the family-friendly MCU, it’s still a natural fit: multiple characters with backstories to explore, and an ill-defined supernatural realm with endless possibilities.

The success of a horror franchise often rests on the popularity of its antagonists. When you hear Nightmare on Elm Street you think of Freddy, when you hear Friday the 13th you think of Jason. The idea of an interconnected universe simply allows for the creation of more – in this case, Annabelle, Valak and the Crooked Man. (So far.)

A good monster is instantly likeable, despite their dark nature (or maybe because of it), so giving them room to roam in their own movies makes perfect sense.

Finally, there’s a reason that many filmmakers get their start with horror movies, and that’s because they’re cheap. The Conjuring franchise is low-risk compared to virtually every other cinematic universe a studio could greenlight. So far, over the course of five films, the franchise’s production budget has totalled $81.5m, a figure dwarfed by The Mummy‘s estimated $125m budget alone.

So, about the Dark Universe…

There are similarities between the Dark Universe and the Conjuring universe. They both depend on their antagonists as the pull for the series – The Nun isn’t called Sister Irene, just like The Mummy isn’t called Nick Morton, thankfully.

And they both share origins in horror. The Dark Universe skews more family-friendly, but in essence, it was intended to be a reimagining of the Universal Monsters – in other words, some of the original horror movies and in many ways the original cinematic universe.

So why has it failed where the Conjuring universe has succeeded?

One major reason is that it doesn’t play to the strengths of its origins nearly enough.

As mentioned earlier, The Conjuring films are cheap to make. Universal has instead chosen to pursue a more action-heavy direction, judging from the output so far (Dracula Untold and The Mummy). Naturally, this blockbuster ambition has led to inflated budgets. New Line could consider The Conjuring 2‘s worldwide box office of $311m a massive success due to its small $40m production budget (the largest budget in the series by some distance).

But by comparison the approximately $410m The Mummy gained at the box office was far from good news for Universal. They need a lot more than that to justify the greater expenditure. Simply making money is not enough for a huge undertaking like the Dark Universe – it needs to make enough to defray the development costs of the other planned instalments. Making a small profit doesn’t cut it.

Undoubtedly, this wasn’t helped by Tom Cruise’s price. The days of big-name actors like Cruise or Depp selling the movie on name alone are, by all accounts, gone – or at least on the decline. That being so, the Conjuring universe’s rejection of big names to plaster on their movie posters was a far more sensible move.

Another fatal flaw for the Dark Universe: first impressions matter. Not every entry in the Conjuring universe is stellar, and even The Nun was far from being a top-tier horror flick. But the original film in the franchise was acclaimed by both fans and critics alike, and although Annabelle came in between the two, The Conjuring 2 was likewise a critical darling.

The Dark Universe has nothing to compare. It’s damning that their first attempt to launch the universe, Dracula Untold, was so critically panned that they played down its link to the universe following release. The second attempt at launching the universe with The Mummy failed again. It’s hard to imagine that there is much faith left in future instalments based on their record so far.

There’s still time for Universal to turn around their entry into the world of cinematic universes, but the odds are against them at this point. Expecting a direction change towards something in line with the Conjuring Universe would be unrealistic, but Universal should still be taking notes.

Officially, Bride of Frankenstein and The Wolfman are still in development. The Dark Universe could still rise from the dead to right the wrongs of its previous titles.

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