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The Conjuring Universe

Mid-July of 2013 was not an especially good time for cinema. Fruitvale Station was tearing up the arthouses and Pacific Rim had been released to a small yet mighty fanbase; but otherwise, it was the time of Grown-Ups 2, R.I.P.D., Turbo, and… oof, The Lone Ranger. So it was that The Conjuring came out and became an overnight smash, racking up massive critical acclaim and a worldwide $319 million box office take against a reported $20 million budget.

Of course a sequel was inevitable. But the brain trust at Warner Bros. simply couldn’t leave it at that.

No, this happened a year after The Avengers came out, and the “shared universe” model was all the rage. Over the next several years, we saw so many studios try and copy Marvel’s success. DC Comics, Universal Monsters, Jack Ryan, Transformers, Godzilla, Star Wars, and even freaking Hasbro board games were all either rumored or confirmed to have their own cinematic superfranchises in development. Some of them never materialized, some of them spectacularly crashed and burned, and none of them came anywhere near the success of Marvel.

(Side note: Yes, I am still using the word “superfranchise” to describe a franchise comprised of multiple franchises. I will continue to insist on making a thing of this.)

That said, it hasn’t been a complete wash. DC Comics picked up the pieces of their failed Justice League experiment, pushing their shared cinematic universe so far into the background that it’s only barely visible for the occasional inside joke or throwaway reference. The Kaijuverse is still kicking, mostly because they’ve been happy to put all of their efforts into one movie every couple of years instead of Marvel’s head-spinning three-per-annum pace. And of course Star Wars is keeping on just fine, but that’s always been a multimedia host unto itself.

And then there’s The Conjuring Universe.

Every year, we see so many trailers and posters proudly announcing some new chapter in “The Conjuring Universe”. By which the filmmakers mean a set of franchises spun out from The Conjuring, itself loosely based on the supposedly true case files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. Thus the main franchise went out of its way to introduce Annabelle, The Nun, and other plot elements that could potentially grow into their own respective franchises.

So… who cares?

Seriously, where’s the fanbase for this shared universe? Who is obsessively following these movies, carefully tracking all the connections between them? Where are the fans and reporters hounding Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, and James Wan for spoilers? Who can describe a single character, a single iconic scene, or anything remotely memorable about this superfranchise without looking it up online?

The Curse of La Llorona this weekend brings us six movies and six years into this superfranchise, with a seventh installment coming out in a couple of short months. After all this time, all these movies, all the money and effort spent putting the Conjuring Universe into the zeitgeist, it’s resulted in nothing anywhere close to the iconic status of its summer blockbuster franchise peers. So what is it that keeps this superfranchise going? Well, let’s look at the numbers.

  • The Conjuring: $20 million budget, $319 million worldwide gross
  • Annabelle: $6.5 million budget, $257 million worldwide gross
  • The Conjuring 2: $40 million budget, $320 million worldwide gross
  • Annabelle: Creation — $15 million budget, $306 million worldwide gross
  • The Nun: $22 million budget, $365 million gross

For comparison’s sake, Justice League grossed a worldwide total of $657 million and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 took in a $708 million worldwide total. The Conjuring films routinely take in less than half those totals and that superfranchise is still trucking along, while JL and TASM2 are both notorious flops, even after Sony and DC moved Heaven and Earth trying to get their respective superfranchises off the ground. And paradoxically, as you may have guessed, that’s probably part of the problem.

So many times, we’ve seen studios throw hundreds of millions of dollars at superfranchise ideas, inflating the budgets of tentpole franchises while throwing in some half-assed sequel teases and in-jokes between them, making everything as PG-13 and four-quandrant as possible. Compare that to Marvel, which combined the spectacle and fan service with genuine passion and creativity, to say nothing of the ambition and strategic planning necessary to pull off something so inconceivably huge. All this time, there was the perception that everybody failed where Marvel succeeded because all the other studios wanted to skip the hard work and setup, going directly to the part where they make billions of dollars. This whole time, we thought that the secret to a successful superfranchise was trying harder, but The Conjuring Universe took a surprisingly different approach: Trying less.

The Conjuring movies are made for next to nothing (by Hollywood tentpole standards, anyway), they’re quick and easy to make, and it’s clear that virtually no time or effort went into the slapdash mythology. Thus a Conjuring movie could make only $100 million worldwide in its entire run (what most tentpole flicks make in an opening weekend nowadays), and still be a booming box office success. Sure, it won’t be a world-conquering success like the MCU, but if the goal is to make money, it’s hard to beat this particular business model.

So how long can this keep going on? Well, it’s tough to say. On the one hand, low-risk/low-reward is what all of modern horror is built on nowadays, making it absurdly easy for horror movies to justify sequels. For instance, this is how we ended up with four Insidious movies and a fifth in development. And of course we also have the Saw franchise, which may or may not be gearing up for a ninth (!!!) movie as of this typing.

On the other hand, these are the exceptions, rather than the rule. The Paranormal Activity franchise sputtered out after six movies, even after the last entry made back nearly eight times its reported budget. We still don’t have sequels for Don’t Breathe or Oculus. Ouija: Origin of Evil was even more critically and commercially well-received than its improbably successful prequel, and there’s still no third movie on the horizon. Does anyone even remember Deliver Us from Evil? That one made back three times its reported budget, and no word of any sequel. And before you mention that some of these movies are only a few years old, I’ll remind you that we’re talking about small-budget horror films that Hollywood studios routinely fart out in a year or two.

All of this is a far cry from the long-running horror franchises of yesteryear. Do you remember horror franchises like Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Hellraiser, Child’s Play, Halloween, and all those others that would grow to something like a dozen movies apiece? We don’t really have those anymore. Hell, those franchises aren’t even around in their original incarnations anymore, all of them retconned and rebooted. And even some of the reboots (as in Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th) have been abandoned!

I think a huge part of that is in the nature of horror itself. Consider: of the franchises I listed above, which entries are commonly described as the most genuinely scary in their respective series? The first one, sure. Maybe the first two or three. But after that? The longer the franchise goes on, the harder and faster it becomes more about the world-building and the piss-taking, neither of which are particularly scary.

Longer franchises breed familiarity, which is anathema to horror. This is especially true of the Conjuring Universe films, which use the same house style and the same tricks across multiple franchises. It’s getting very old very fast, and the filmmakers have not demonstrated the willpower or the creativity to shake up the established formula. So the horror will stop being effective and then what are we left with? How many filmgoers will sit through so many tedious movies of jump scares just to see Annabelle vs. The Nun or some shit?

The MCU was made by and for die-hard comics fans who meticulously catalogue every detail and follow every news story. The Conjuring Universe was just as clearly made by and for moviegoers who want nothing more complex or enduring from their horror cinema than an occasional jump scare. Say what you will about frothing fanboys, but they’re far more loyal than their whining and complaining might have you think, especially towards media made with a modicum of good-faith effort toward meeting their high standards. Casual moviegoers who don’t demand nearly so much of their movies won’t stick around as long. They’ll eventually find something else.

We’ve seen countless studios try and imitate the MCU, trying to build their own perpetual money-making machine without any of the time or effort that Marvel put into theirs. We’ve already seen so many studios and superfranchises fail because they were only trying to get rich quick, taking the audience’s money and offering little if anything in return. Thus they made movies that would only last as long as opening weekend, not movies that fans would (pay to) revisit and pore over for years to come.

It sank The Amazing Spider-Man. It sank the Justice League. It sank the Dark Universe. And it will sink The Conjuring Universe. It’ll just take a bit longer, that’s all.

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