"Welcome to a new world of gods and monsters," reads the tag line for Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) June 2017 picture The Mummy -- laying out the prospect of big things to come and hinting at the arrival of another would-be series starter. With Disney (NYSE:DIS) and Time Warner (NYSE: TWX) developing sprawling superhero universes and controlling the film rights to the most marketable comic-book properties, Comcast is hoping that the Tom Cruise-led picture can launch its own expanded movie universe built around Universal's classic monster characters.
The first trailer for The Mummy is well put together and promises some intriguing action set pieces and mysteries, but the Universal Monsters characters are probably less suited to springboarding a successful expanded universe than their superhero competitors.
Stars and recognizable characters might not be enough to build a universe
The nearly $11 billion in ticket sales across the 14 films in Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe demonstrates the power of a successful connected film universe, and Comcast is hoping it can replicate that success with its own cast of familiar characters and high-profile movie stars. Johnny Depp signed on to star in a 2018 movie about the Invisible Man, Russell Crowe will feature in the connected universe as Dr. Jekyll, and Angelina Jolie is rumored to be starring in a Bride of Frankenstein picture. Comcast and Universal are also developing pictures around Dracula, vampire hunter Van Helsing, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Wolfman.
Outside of animated hits like Frozen, Zootopia, and The Secret Life of Pets, the biggest films in recent years have overwhelmingly come from established franchises with built-in popular appeal. Special effects and star power are no longer enough to stand out at the box office, and with strong international performance becoming increasingly necessary to recoup high production and marketing costs, film studios are leaning on broad familiarity and nostalgia to minimize risk and drive performance.
The Universal Monsters are certainly well-known, but they lack the fanfare that has historically surrounded DC or Marvel superheroes or Viacom's Transformers property.
Characters like Dracula, the Invisible Man, and Frankenstein are pretty diluted at this point. They're also not broadly subject to copyright, and have been tackled in a variety of different ways by different film studios in recent years with mostly disappointing results. Lionsgate's I, Frankenstein and Fox's Victor Frankenstein both floundered at the box office, and the Invisible Man and Dr. Jekyll languished in Twenty-First Century Fox's 2004 underperformer League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Comcast's 2004 film Van Helsing posted mediocre ticket sales and received scathing reviews, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor did solid but not spectacular numbers in 2008, the company's 2010 pic The Wolfman flopped at the box office, and its 2015 film Dracula Untold was roundly dismissed by critics and did middling ticket sales. Dracula Untold was actually supposed to kick off the new Universal Monsters cinematic universe, but poor reception for the film caused the company to rework its franchise map and reposition this year's upcoming Mummy flick as the new series-starter.
As evidenced by that track record, the characters that Comcast and Universal are working with have not demonstrated much pull with audiences over the last couple of decades, which means that The Mummy's performance, and the broader Universal Monsters film universe by extension, will likely depend heavily on the quality of the upcoming series-starter. Warner's Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad both managed to put up strong ticket sales despite unfavorable audience receptions, and Viacom's Transformers movies have delivered massive box-office hauls despite being routinely savaged by critics, but the Universal Monsters characters probably don't have enough pull to generate strong box office in the face of poor reviews and unfavorable word of mouth.
Unfortunately for Comcast and Universal, even if their new cinematic universe gets off to a great start, the lack of copyright protection for many of the characters involved means that rival studios could bring their own new monster movies to cinemas. Fox's upcoming League of Extraordinary Gentlemen reboot is already likely to feature variations on characters including Jekyll and Hyde, the Invisible Man, and Mina Harker from the Dracula mythology.
How important is the Monsters Universe for Comcast?
With three films dated, at least three more in development, and big talent signed on for key roles, Comcast's film division has staked a significant investment in bringing the Universal Monsters back to life on the big screen. The telecom conglomerate has more monster projects in development than in any of its other franchises, but big franchises like Jurassic World and The Fast and the Furious mean the company is not overly reliant on hitting a home run with the unfolding connected property. Its animated film output also looks strong, thanks to series including The Secret Life of Pets, Despicable Me, and Minions, and the recent acquisition of DreamWorks Animation.
If The Mummy fails to get the upcoming franchise off on the right foot, prospects for future entries would be diminished, and Comcast's push to grow its film-production wing would face a notable setback. But the company also has enough promising projects in the pipeline to continue building its film wing, even if upcoming films in the Monsters Universe underperform.