Can Universal’s Dracula and Mummy Reboots Achieve ‘Avengers’-Type Success?

Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA  ) Universal Studios has a bold answer to the comic book film universes that Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) , Time Warner (NYSE: TWX  ) , Fox (NASDAQ: FOX  ) , and Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) have been building. Instead of assembling teams of Marvel or DC comic book characters, Universal intends to reboot classic movie monsters and assemble them in an Avengers-like film.

The goal is to reboot the classic "Universal Monsters" characters -- Dracula, the Mummy, Bride of Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man, and Creature from the Black Lagoon, among others -- into modern-day protagonists through individual films, then bring them together into a cohesive cinematic universe.

The sweeping effort will be overseen by Alex Kurtzman, the co-writer of Star Trek: Into Darkness and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Chris Morgan, who wrote the last three Fast and Furious films. The universe will launch with two new films -- Dracula Untold, which hits theaters on Oct. 17, and a reboot of The Mummy, which will arrive on April 22, 2016. A Van Helsing reboot, which will star and be produced by Tom Cruise, is expected to follow.

Dracula Untold. Source: Universal.

This ambitious plan could generate more predictable revenues for Universal, but it could also be very hard to pull off. Classic Universal monsters lack the guaranteed box office appeal of Spider-Man, Batman, or the Avengers. The films will also require pitch perfect writing and direction to prevent a team-up of Dracula, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man from devolving into an unintentionally hilarious monster mash.

Why Universal Monsters could succeed
Universal's previous attempts to launch "modern" versions of their classic horror characters have been fairly profitable (with the exception of The Wolfman), but critical reception has ranged from poor to mediocre.

Film

Production budget

Global box office

Rotten Tomatoes

The Mummy (1999)

$80 million

$416 million

55%

The Mummy Returns (2001)

$98 million

$433 million

47%

Van Helsing (2004)

$160 million

$300 million

23%

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)

$145 million

$401 million

13%

The Wolfman (2010)

$150 million

$140 million

34%

Source: Box Office Mojo, Rotten Tomatoes

There is clearly a market for these reboots, and better writing, clearer direction, and multi-picture contracts for the stars could help these new films last longer than these earlier attempts.

The concept of classic literary and film characters teaming up has also proven successful in the past. Fox's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen -- based on a graphic novel that assembled Mr. Hyde, Dorian Gray, Tom Sawyer, Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, and Allan Quatermain into an "Avengers"-like team -- was commercially successful, grossing $179 million worldwide on a budget of $79 million in 2003.

More recently, CBS (NYSE: CBS  ) /Showtime's Penny Dreadful, which was recently renewed for a second season, pulls together vampires, Van Helsing, Dr. Frankenstein, and Dorian Gray in Victorian England.

Dr. Frankenstein and his "creation" in Penny Dreadful. Source: Showtime.

Meanwhile, Disney's Maleficent, which grossed $697 million worldwide on a budget of $180 million, proves that there is a strong market for films starring fantastic villains. On top of that, Lions Gate's (NYSE: LGF  ) Twilight series, which grossed $3.3 billion over the course of five films, proves that there is still a fiercely loyal market for vampires and werewolves played by handsome leading men.

Why Universal Monsters could fall apart
The biggest flaw with Universal's plan is that classic movie monsters simply aren't as marketable as Marvel's heroes. Ask any kid who he would rather see -- Dracula or Iron Man -- and the problem becomes painfully obvious. Among adults, portrayals of comic book heroes in films still stoke passionate debates. The same can't be said about Frankenstein or Wolfman.

The second problem is that it can be tough to strike a balance between family-friendly fare and gothic darkness with classic movie monsters.

For example, Universal's Mummy reboot has already swapped directors twice. Andres Muschetti recently left the film after his "darker" vision for Mummy clashed with Universal's idea of a more family-friendly blockbuster, according to The Wrap. Muschetti succeeded Len Wiseman, the director of Underworld and Total Recall, after he stepped down last year.

In addition, Lions Gate's I, Frankenstein -- a recent attempt to turn the classic monster into a superhero -- completely bombed, grossing only $71 million on a budget of $65 million (a loss after marketing costs) and earning an abysmal 4% at Rotten Tomatoes.

I, Frankenstein completely missed the mark. Source: Lions Gate.

Those problems highlight how tough it is to strike the right balance between being a "horror" film and a family-oriented one that ties into a larger comic book-like universe.

The Foolish takeaway
In conclusion, Universal's idea to reboot and rebrand its classic horror characters is interesting, and it could become a profitable addition to its top ongoing and upcoming franchises, which include Fast and Furious, Despicable Me, and Jurassic World.

But it could also be tough to get audiences excited about these dusty old characters again, and it's going take a very talented creative team to unite these characters in the same film without it feeling like a goofy parody akin to Sony/Columbia's Hotel Transylvania.

If Dracula Untold, the Mummy, and Van Helsing do well at the box office, Universal could release a schedule of "theatrical phases," just like Marvel and Disney. That would give Comcast investors a much clearer picture of the projected growth of Universal (NBCUniversal Filmed Entertainment), which accounted for 9% of the company's top line last year.

So what you think, fellow film fans? Is Universal's "Monsters" idea the best or worst idea ever? Let me know in the comments section below!

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  • Report this Comment On July 22, 2014, at 11:33 PM, msorrentino wrote:

    Marvel in the comics and animated shows also has adaptions of Dracula, Wolfman and Frankenstein. If/when Marvel decides to reboot Blade the film rights having reverted back to them, Dracula would probably be involved. In fact, in the comics Blade made his first appearance in Marvel's The Tomb of Dracula #10 in July 1973. Either way seeing as the monsters are all technically in the public domain there's enough room for various interpretations of all of them.

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