M3GAN Is Already the New Boss of Scary-Doll Movies. Can She Deliver Audiences?

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M3GAN Is Already the New Boss of Scary-Doll Movies. Can She Deliver Audiences?

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Late one night in New Zealand, while director Gerard Johnstone was typing up plans for a horror movie about a toy android that turns evil, a menacing funk tune came on and triggered a thought: What if the doll could dance? 

“I wasn’t sure if it was one of those ideas that would seem terrible when I woke up the next morning,” he said. His whim would help make the movie “M3GAN” a viral marketing hit long before its Jan. 6 release. 

When the movie’s trailer appeared in October, social media lit up with reactions to M3GAN, outfitted in a khaki romper, white tights and a pussybow, snaking her arms and hips, then flipping, spinning and chasing her prey with a paper cutter. Across TikTok, Instagram and Twitter, people re-created her moves, and crafted video edits set to songs by Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Megan Thee Stallion (who tweeted her own emoji-studded praise for the trailer). As overnight fans declared M3GAN the new boss of scary-doll movies, the character taunted an old star of the subgenre, Chucky, via their official Twitter accounts.

But this all started before Halloween. Can the PG-13 movie keep up the momentum needed to drive people to theaters after New Year’s Day?

The movie’s titular doll is an AI-enabled creation that becomes murderous.



Photo:

Alamy Stock Photo

The Universal release is attempting to win over ticket buyers in a theatrical movie business tilting between two poles. On one end: behemoths of the “Black Panther” and “Avatar” variety that need to be global blockbusters just to break even. On the other end: small-budget horror movies with sharp marketing hooks that promise viewers a different kind of communal experience at the cineplex. The most effective horror promotions in 2022 included demented grins (“Smile,” domestic gross $106 million) and a horned fright mask (“The Black Phone,” $90 million). 

“M3GAN” is a dystopian warning about our reliance on technology that delivers some laughs along the way. Allison Williams plays Gemma, a roboticist under pressure from her boss (Ronny Chieng) to deliver a new AI-enabled toy. It’s an inconvenient time to become the sole guardian of her 8-year-old niece Cady (Violet McGraw), recently traumatized in a car crash that killed her parents. Gemma, lacking any nurturing skills, pairs Cady up with a prototype android friend, M3GAN (short for Model 3 Generative Android). A mandate to protect the child, plus autonomous learning gone wild, results in a 4-foot-tall bot with murderous disdain for humans who aren’t Cady. 

This is a monster essentially created in a Hollywood lab. Producer James Wan, whose horror oeuvre includes the “Saw,” “Insidious” and “Conjuring” franchises, recalled a Friday night “hanging out, drinking, geeking out about movies” with colleagues at his Atomic Monster production company that spawned the germ of an idea: The Terminator meets Annabelle, a haunted doll from “The Conjuring” with three movies of her own.

Akela Cooper wrote the “M3GAN” screenplay. Horror impresario

Jason Blum

also signed on to help shepherd the movie, and recruited Ms. Williams (whom he worked with on “Get Out”) to star and be an executive producer. 

To bring M3GAN to life on camera, filmmakers relied on a combination of animatronics, puppetry and computer-generated visual effects, along with the physical versatility of a young performer named Amie Donald. Ms. Williams described M3GAN as “my most complicated co-star, by far, when I think about the number of people required to make her do anything. Basically every department.”

Design decisions helped filmmakers zero in on the doll’s vibe, ranging from chipper to condescending, with blank stares that had to be weaponized. An early iteration of M3GAN’s animatronic face was sent back to the shop because her mouth didn’t fully close. 

The director of ’M3GAN’ got the idea for the doll’s now-infamous dance scene from hearing a strange funk song.



Photo:

Universal Pictures/Alamy

“How’s she going to have a ‘resting bitch face’ if she can’t close her mouth?” said Mr. Johnstone, the director.

He recalled having to push for a scene that would become key to the doll’s internet presence: M3GAN whipping off a pair of sunglasses as she enters Gemma’s house. The sequence was technically demanding to shoot, he recalled, and raised a question: Why? “Barbie has to come with her outfits,” Mr. Johnstone reasoned, “so M3GAN has to come with her jacket and Gucci glasses.”

Despite the effort put into M3GAN’s various moves, Mr. Wan gave advice based on his experiences with Annabelle: “You don’t actually need to do a lot for M3GAN to be considered creepy. All she needs to do is sit there and stare at you.”

“M3GAN” is expected to gross about $20 million during its opening weekend, and up to $74 million during its total theatrical run, according to tracking forecasts by industry publication Boxoffice Pro.   

Though the first volley of viral social media occurred months ago, Mr. Blum said that when it comes to marketing a movie, word-of-mouth is not a finite resource.

“Buzz begets buzz. It entirely depends on if the movie delivers the promise that the trailer makes. That doesn’t always happen. Obviously I’m biased, but in the case of ‘M3GAN’ I think it totally does,” he said. 

The lanky producer tried adding to the buzz by dressing up as M3GAN for the film’s L.A. premiere in early December, where eight M3GAN look-alikes danced for the cameras. Universal plans to trot out the dancers again in New York City this week to promote the release.

Ms. Williams, who knows what it’s like to be a meme thanks to her role as a surprise villain in “Get Out,” said no one involved in the new film predicted that the dancing doll would become one: “Maybe there was a M3GAN-sized hole in the culture that she just sauntered into.”

Write to John Jurgensen at [email protected]

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