Smile vs Halloween Ends: Original Horror Movies Are Beating Franchises at the Box Office

The box office trajectories of Halloween Ends and Smile (and even Terrifier 2!) tell a story about the state of horror movies… and possibly the movie industry as a whole.

Smile and Halloween Ends at Horror Box office
Photo: Paramount / Universal

Halloween ended not with a bang or a whimper, but rather a long wail as it made its way down a precipitous dropoff at the box office. The allegedly final chapter in the Michael Myers and Laurie Strode saga opened well enough for a horror movie greeted by tepid reviews and a day-and-date release strategy on Peacock (more on that later), debuting at $40 million in its first three days. But then came the second weekend and the eyeball-gouging 80 percent drop that accompanied it.

Over a weekend dominated by Dwayne Johnson’s Black Adam, the severe stumble of Halloween Ends was somewhat overshadowed in the press. Yet there are lessons in the movie’s startling fall to just $8 million over its second weekend. After all, we’re closer than ever to  Halloween, and rather than Michael Myers’ ostensible swan song, it is Paramount Pictures’ Smile that’s the hottest horror title in town. That original chiller earned $8.4 million in its fourth weekend of release, down only 33.5 percent from last week (when it was second to Halloween Ends). And as of press time, Smile has grossed $84.3 million and stands a good shot at crossing $100 million domestic before its run (and the Halloween season) are finished. Halloween Ends stands no such chance.

The contrasting narratives of Smile’s success and the waning popularity of Blumhouse’s three-film revival of the Halloween franchise paint an interesting portrait for the horror genre, and perhaps the wider moviemaking landscape as a whole.

What’s intriguing about Smile is that like Disney/20th Century Studios’ own horror sleeper hit, Barbarian (which opened way back on Sept. 9), its studio toyed with the idea of never releasing the picture into theaters to begin with. Adapted by writer-director Parker Finn from his own short film “Laura Hasn’t Slept,” Smile was greenlit during the COVID-19 pandemic and there was a lot of discussion about whether Smile should be sent straight to Paramount+ to help bolster the revamped streaming service. This is nearly identical to Barbarian’s journey.

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Disney inherited the project from 20th Century Fox and intended to put it straight to Hulu (a la August’s Prey) until the movie apparently tested through the roof with test audiences. And, indeed, Barbarian is one of the few movies that expanded after being in wide release for a month, adding theaters at the beginning of October to get one last bump from its enthusiastic word-of-mouth before the IP sure-thing, Halloween Ends, came to dominate horror real estate at multiplexes for the rest of the month. (And even then, Halloween Ends seems unable to fully stave off indie splatterfests, with Bloody Disgusting’s grindhouse slasher Terrifier 2 poised to possibly outperform Michael Myers during the upcoming weekend of Halloween.)

Hence why now, with all three Hollywood studio horror movies in release, do their journeys suddenly appear interconnected. Halloween Ends by far opened the biggest of the three, netting Universal Pictures a juicy $40 million haul in just three days. However, this cume is notably down from last year’s Halloween Kills, which ended on a cliffhanger setting up Ends as it debuted to $49.9 million. And both tallies are way down from director David Gordon Green’s first and best reviewed entry in his Michael Myers trilogy, 2018’s Halloween, which opened at $76.2 million.

The cause in the new Halloween movies’ steady box office decline is likely due to several reasons. First of all, the 2018 movie opened before the COVID-19 pandemic changed moviegoers’ viewing habits potentially forever, so there was a simply larger audience to pull into cinemas four years ago. Additionally, both Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends were released simultaneously on Peacock and in theaters in a day-and-date strategy that seemed as intended to bolster NBC-Universal’s struggling streaming service as it was to give viewers a choice befitting their comfort levels.

Even so, anxiety about moviegoing was demonstrably higher in October 2021, as the box office’s resurrection came in fits and starts last autumn, particularly after anxiety over the Delta variant of COVID-19 scared some studios from releasing any movies for the rest of that year. Yet Halloween Kills opened higher than Ends, and for that matter Dune (which also was a victim of a day-and-date release strategy last October). And while Halloween Kills also had a steep drop in its second week, a 70.8 fall is still better than 80 percent.

What these numbers seem to suggest is that audiences are generally unhappy with the direction of the new Halloween trilogy. While critics and audiences embraced the 2018 movie, its sequels received a plethora of rotten tomatoes from the press and what appears to be a deeply divided fanbase.

This is ironic since Halloween Kills and Ends are a tale of the two extremes that come with expectations from fans: Halloween Kills gave audiences what they expected (more of the same) to what felt like an intentionally excessive degree. By the end, no one is smiling as Michael Myers slaughters everyone in the movie except Jamie Lee Curtis, killing even the new fan favorite Judy Greer in the movie’s closing moments.

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Then Halloween Ends took the polar opposite approach and, by design, gave fans something drastically different. So startlingly different, in fact, that Michael Myers is barely in the movie while a new surprise protagonist takes centerstage. Both approaches—the same and different— seem to have left audiences and critics alike unsatisfied, and perhaps hint at the limit of recycling intellectual property (IP).

Conversely, Smile is a wholly original horror movie where folks had no preconceived notions about beyond wanting to be creeped out, and considering the steady box office grosses and small drops in Smile’s box office run, it would seem the movie delivered. Which is not to say Smile reinvents the wheel. As our critic Don Kaye noted, Smile borrows quite directly from several influences, including horror classics like The Ring (2002) and It Follows (2014). But the movie makes those elements feel fresh while delivering them in a stylish and evocative story that is pretty damn scary.

Smile’s success, and to a lesser extent Barbarian’s, which grossed $42 million on $4 million budget, reminds us yet again that when it comes to horror movies, audiences crave new (or at least new enough) ideas that are not based purely on the same familiar handful of IPs and brands. In fact, along with Blumhouse’s own The Black Phone over the summer and Nope—which if it had cost less than $68 million would be sitting pretty with its $170 million total—these movies show a familiar trend. Horror remains one of the few genres audiences demonstrably show up for to experience new stories.

Even so, one cannot help but wonder whether a major factor of that is because horror is also one of the few genres left that Hollywood studios will spend a “medium-sized” budget on, if indeed you can count Smile’s $17 million price tag as “medium.” But considering studios are mostly spending on “micro-budgets” ($5 million or less) or tentpole-sized movies like Black Adam and Thor: Love and Thunder, $17 million on a creepy smile-curse movie seems like a lot. As did when Universal had far more success with Peele by spending $20 million on Us, a movie that grossed $255 million worldwide.

But if horror can make money in this sweet spot for studios, could it not also be true of comedies, be they raunchy or romantic? Might it also be true of original science fiction stories? What of a dozen or so other genres that studios have more or less abandoned in search of the ever safer IP bets? At the present, science fiction and comedies (and horror as well, for that matter) have increasingly become the purview of indie labels and studios’ specialty house offshoots. Rom-coms, meanwhile, feel largely abandoned to streaming services like Netflix where many will be greenlit but few will be given the budget or advertising rollout big enough to find a larger audience that lasts.

Unlike when the Western died out in the 1970s, or the musical in the same decade, there is not one major flop or a string of them in any of these genres that studios could point to and say “A-HA! Here is proof that audiences don’t want to watch these anymore!” Game Night made money in 2018; The Martian made money in 2015; Crazy Rich Asians was a small pop culture phenomenon in 2018.

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And yet, conventional wisdom is to horde money away for the blockbusters and count on those for the big paydays. Well, if you ask Paramount about Smile, there’s a lot to grin at in a calculated risk as well.