Why Universal Signed First-Look Deal With Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes

The Hollywood Reporter reported that Michael Bay is reviving his and Brad Fuller’s Platinum Dunes and signing a first-look deal with Universal. This comes on the heels of his well-reviewed but commercially disappointing Ambulance, which earned $51 million worldwide on a $40 million budget amid a crowded April. I will assume that this news implies that Universal is happy enough with how well the (damn good) Jake Gyllenhaal/ Yahya Abdul-Mateen II/Eiza González action drama performed in PVOD and on Peacock to stay in the lower-budgeted Bay business. Maybe this is a part of the new normal, where low-to-mid-budget studio programmers from marquee directors and with something resembling a marquee cast (all three of those performers are known without being butts-in-seats draws) can survive theatrically thanks to the knowledge that their theatrical existence will pay off in post-theatrical and (especially) streaming viewership.

I’ve been arguing for two years that theatrical movies play better on streaming platforms compared to (most) streaming-centric films. We’re seeing evidence of that every day, from Encanto nabbing bigger Disney+ viewership than the straight-to-streaming Turning Red (both great movies, and yes that the former is a musical with “play it again” songs probably helped too) to even David Zaslav of Warner Bros. Discovery and Sony’s Tom Rothman admitting that huge grosses for The Batman and Spider-Man: No Way Home didn’t stop those films from posting (respectively) huge HBO Max numbers and record-high electronic sell-through business. I’m not going to argue that PVOD and Peacock means that, say, Robert Eggers’ $70 million Viking actioner The Northman is now a hit, but it certainly played better because it had the marketing, publicity and general awareness associated with a theatrical release.

Go to VOD sites (Vudu, iTunes, etc.) and see how few of the top-selling titles are entirely non-theatrical. Save for weeks where there’s a new DC animated feature or something like Chris Pine’s The Contractor (an intended-for-wide-theatrical release which got a concurrent VOD/limited theatrical release), the lists are dominated by theatrical hits, theatrical flops and everything theatrical in-between. The caveat is whether the cost of marketing that movie for a theatrical release can be justified if it bombs at the box office or loses money in theatrical specifically because of the marketing costs. It’s great lots of folks watched Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile on HBO Max and Hulu, but I can’t imagine it was enough (be it tangible VOD/DVD revenue or abstract value of streaming viewership) to make up for the $90 million film earning $137 million global.

Platinum Dunes came about in the early 2000s as a Bay-anchored production company rooted in giving young and hungry filmmakers a shot at the big time via remakes of iconic horror movies. Varying quality notwithstanding (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Amityville Horror >> Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street), they also teamed with Blumhouse in the 2010s for The Purge and Ouija, the former of which essentially put Blumhouse on the map as more than just “the studio that gave you Paranormal Activity.” They partnered with Paramount for (the very bad) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ($491 million on a $120 million budget) and (the very good) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows ($235 million/$135 million). They gave Paramount a rare franchise win during a 2016-2021 losing streak with A Quiet Place ($341 million in 2018) and its sequel ($297 million in 2021).

Bringing aboard Platinum Dunes will offer a chance that the next A Quiet Place will end up not at a rival studio (Paramount) but at Universal right alongside the various Blumhouse chillers. Beyond that, Universal wants Michael Bay on their bench as another example of the Comcast-owned studio being a safe home for marquee filmmakers like Christopher Nolan (whose Oppenheimer opens next summer), Jon M. Chu (whose Wicked is being split into two films) producer Will Packer’s and the horror-centric likes of M. Night Shyamalan and Jordan Peele. It’s not a zero-sum game, as Sony’s Tom Rothman is playing a similar game and Chu will still direct Warner Bros.’ The Great Chinse Art Heist. WB’s filmmaker-unfriendly reputation is entirely fair. Neither Project Popcorn nor the Snyder/DC issues are likely to be repeated, they still let the Wachowskis spend $190 million on Matrix Resurrections and allowed Matt Reeves’ The Batman to run 175 minutes.

However, it’s still a sign that a movie like Ambulance can lose money in raw theatrical and still qualify as a relative success thanks to post-theatrical performance. I’d love to know the Peacock viewership and PVOD revenue, but in this case what the studio does next is a sign of past-tense success. Or maybe, allow me to cynical for a moment, keeping Bay in the stable is a way to create the perception of success for Ambulance and thus create a perception of success for that 17-day theatrical window. Or maybe the first-look deal between Bay and Universal, first reported three months ago by one of Hollywood’s best scoopers Jeff Sneider, is a matter of Ambulance being a relative all-in success and the notion of Platinum Dunes creating more horror remakes, horror originals and related low-to-mid budget studio programmers works for the long game.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.