Even During the Pandemic, Horror Movies Remain One of the Most Profitable Genres at the Box Office

Universal Pictures
  • The horror genre has remained a consistent money-maker for studios throughout the pandemic.
  • With smaller budgets compared with other genres, horror films don't have to make as much at the box office in order to turn a profit.
  • Over the weekend, Universal Pictures' "Candyman" debuted with $22 million in domestic sales, surpassing industry expectations despite ongoing fears that the delta variant would keep people away from cinemas.

Movie after movie, Hollywood's recent blockbusters have struggled to bounce back to 2019-level ticket sales. But "Candyman" once again proved what a profit driver the horror genre is.

Over the weekend, the Universal Pictures film's debut tallied $22 million in ticket sales domestically, and another $5.2 million in international markets. The R-rated slasher film was written by Jordan Peele ("Get Out") and directed by Nia DaCosta ("The Marvels").

The box office results surpassed industry expectations even though Covid-19 cases are rising across much of the U.S. due to the highly contagious delta variant. There are fears the trend could keep people away from cinemas.

Movie theaters have struggled to sustain momentum since reopening last year. The problem has been exacerbated by many high-profile franchise films that have been made available in theaters and on streaming services at the same time.

This hasn't been the case for Hollywood's 2021 horror films. The slate has been exclusively available in theaters, which has coaxed audiences out to experience frights and jump scares in the dark.

Industry analysts had expected "Candyman" to perform well at the box office, said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.

"The movie theater experience is tailor-made for horror movie viewing and thus the relationship between theatrical exhibition and this most consistent, and indeed profitable, of genres will continue for as long as audiences are excited about being scared in a darkened room with a bunch of strangers," Dergarabedian said.

With smaller budgets compared with other genres, horror films don't have to make as much at the box office in order to turn a profit.

"Candyman," which is a sequel to the 1992 horror classic of the same name, had an estimated budget of $25 million. In its first weekend, it garnered more than $27 million in sales. Of course, the film had a marketing budget, which is usually calculated to be about half of its production budget. And the studio splits theatrical profits with cinemas, so it hasn't recouped its investment just yet, but it's on its way.

"Horror movies are an accountant's, and studio executive's, dream with a huge upside of profit potential due to their inherent cost effectiveness; you don't need to break the bank to make a killer scary movie and the box-office results for the genre — particularly during the pandemic — have been most impressive," Dergarabedian said.

Paramount's "A Quiet Place Part II," which was delayed due to the pandemic, has tallied nearly $300 million globally since its release in late May. It had an estimated budget of around $22 million.

The latest installment in the Conjuring film franchise, "The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It," had a reported budget of around $40 million and has secured $200 million in worldwide sales since it debuted in early June.

For comparison, Disney's "Black Widow" had a production budget of $200 million and a marketing budget estimated to be around $100 million. With a global box office haul of $370 million since its early July release, which the studio splits with cinemas, the Marvel movie likely won't breakeven. Disney has reported some of its streaming grosses for the title, which include a $60 million opening weekend in digital sales, but has not updated these figures publicly.

Similarly, Warner Bros.' "The Suicide Squad," which hit theaters earlier this month, had a budget of $185 million and has currently collected around $154.5 million in box office receipts. This film was also made available for free on HBO Max to the platform's subscribers.

Horror movies have helped fuel the box office even when movie theaters were shuttered last year. Most notably, IFC's "The Wretched," which was released in May 2020, drew large crowds to drive-in theaters.

While the film's global sum was only around $4.59 million, its production budget was just $66,000.

"This was at a time during the pandemic when most theatrical revenue was coming from drive-ins, so this was a stunning 'back to the future' reminder that horror will always find a way to survive," said Adam Lowenstein, professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of "Shocking Representation."

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal released "Candyman."

Copyright CNBC
Contact Us