The biggest deal that occurred during the Sundance Film Festival wasn’t one that went down at the event itself. New Line Cinema emerged triumphant amid an intense bidding war to grab “Weapons” which will be the next film from “Barbarian” director Zach Cregger. Days later, New Line signed a first-look deal with the whole BoulderLight studio itself.
It was a strong statement, following some high-profile departures, that Warner Bros. Discovery is still in the scary movie business and that New Line remains “the house that Freddy built.”
Whether or not BoulderLight Pictures, run by J.D. Lifshitz and Raphael Margules, becomes the next Blumhouse or Atomic Monster, two entities that may just merge into a single 1600-lb gorilla of horror movie might, the deal is a sign that losing Walter Hamada – who, to be fair, had been running DC Films since 2018 – to Paramount and watching James Wan potentially make his way to Universal does not mean that WBD plans to stay silent in the horror movie ecosystem.
Not that they could, since high-concept horror has been and remains one of the few reliable butts-in-seats theatrical genres. That was the case from the start of the COVID-era theatrical recovery, with “A Quiet Place Part II,” “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” and “Candyman” pulling folks back to theaters alongside not-so-scary monster movies like “Godzilla Vs. Kong” and “Venom: Let There Be Carnage.”
As recently as this past October, horror movies like “Smile,” “Barbarian,” “Terrifier 2” and “Halloween Ends” held up the fort amid a frustratingly light post-“Bullet Train” and pre-“Wakanda Forever” slate. Just weeks ago, “M3gan” opened with $30 million and this weekend “Avatar: The Way of Water” is about to get dethroned at the weekend box office by M. Night Shyamalan’s “A Knock at the Cabin.”
New Line was defined partially, but not entirely, as a place for grindhouse horror going back to Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street” in 1984. New Line in the 1990s had their finger on the pulse of American kids, churning out of-the-moment hits like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Rush Hour,” “The Mask” and “Blade” before committing to Peter Jackson’s $300 million attempt to make a “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
That Oscar-winning, $3 billion-grossing game-changing success wasn’t enough to keep them from being absorbed into Warner Bros. just months before what might have been a face-saving hit with “Sex and the City: The Movie” in 2008. New Line has spent the last 15 years operating as a “just a movie” film studio as the broader industry pivoted toward mega-franchises and big-budget IP cash-ins.
In 2016, while the media was handwringing about what Warner Bros. would do or not do about “Batman v Superman” and “Suicide Squad” getting their DC Films plans off to a rocky start, New Line’s “The Conjuring 2,” “Central Intelligence,” and “Me Before You” grossed $750 million worldwide on a combined $110 million budget.
“The Conjuring Universe” would become the only thriving, no-hiccups post-“Avengers” cinematic universe. With $2.1 billion worldwide on a combined $180 million budget, it is the biggest-grossing horror franchise ever give-or-take “Jurassic Park” and “Jurassic World.”
More than just what it means to New Line, it is another aspirational scenario of a filmmaker coming off a low-budget indie or genre success and getting not the keys and responsibilities of a big-budget tentpole franchise, but a reasonably-budgeted mid-level studio programmer.
“Weapons” will not need to justify a cinematic universe or a multi-platform franchise. It just needs to be good and make its money back. Imagine what Josh Trank’s career might have looked like had he followed up “Chronicle” with almost anything other than “Fantastic Four.”
Just as Tim Burton and Chris Nolan benefited from making “Beetlejuice” and “Insomnia” before being handed the keys to a “Batman” movie, Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” was that much better because he got to make a $35 million studio movie, “Creed,” in-between “Fruitvale Station” and the MCU flick. Ditto, we hope, “Rise of the Beasts” with Steven Caple Jr. helming “Creed II” first, and “The Marvels” only after Nia DaCosta directed “Little Woods” and “Candyman.”
The notion of a filmmaker being rewarded for an original theatrical hit by getting a chance to make another new movie, as opposed to a franchise flick or a streaming television show, now feels damn well aspirational. The notion of an indie studio with a decent track record of modestly budgeted genre films like “Wild Indian,” “Gone in the Night,” and the upcoming sequel “The Wrath of Becky” getting snatched up – after a bidding war no less – with a theatrically-inclined outlet with major big-studio backing feels almost miraculous.
It is also a rallying cry that New Line still plans to stand its ground in the realm of very scary theatrical movies.