The Conjuring: how a $20m horror changed summer blockbuster cinema

James Wan’s 2013 hit saw off tough competition and launched a sprawling horror universe...

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring
Photo: Warner Bros.

On July 19th 2013, unbeknownst at the time to those involved, blockbuster cinema underwent a little bit of a change.

This was a day, after all, when three major studio films opened in cinemas at the US box office. One, a big budget sequel, starring Bruce Willis. The other, a summer comic book movie starring Ryan Reynolds. The third, a taut, intense horror film that’d cost $20m to make: a tenth of the budget of the other two films combined.

Thankfully, there’s a massive headline at the top of this article to steer you as to where all this is going, and break up the suspense a little. But suspense is what helped spring The Conjuring – see how we did that? Seamless! – to a staggering worldwide gross of $319m. 

The Conjuring, though, was a phenomenon, the breakout hit of the summer, and a film that traditional odds were stacked a little against.

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Sure, director James Wan had previously steered Saw and Insidious to success, profit and the need for its audience to do a bit more laundry afterwards, but still: The Conjuring didn’t have a big name movie star, it’s not laden with heavy special effects, and it had an R-rating (15 in the UK).

Furthermore, Wan didn’t want blood, gore and violence overpowering the movie. He reckoned that atmospheric chills might be the wiser way forward. And he was right.

Here, then, are some juicy nerdy facts you might not know about the film…

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Right then. It’s worth contextualising that the general rule of thumb to this point with horror movies was release them in the summer at your peril, and expect the second week drop-off at the box office – once genre fans had soaked it in – to be dramatic. The Conjuring kept going for weeks, though, and opened studio eyes to an audience thirst for having the bejesus scared out of them in high summer that they’d be blind to before.

Sequel talk inevitably started quickly, but again, The Conjuring showed there was another way to go, whilst retaining and engaging its audience. So much so, in fact, that a horror cinematic universe was organically born (as opposed to dictated from the boardroom), as Wan set about recruiting interesting filmmakers (director David F Sandberg for one, who’s now working on 2019 comic book blockbuster, Shazam!), and exploring the murky corners of the Conjuring world (that in itself was grounded in a real-life story).

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Interestingly – and again, against hit movie convention – one thing Wan resisted was the immediate urge to make a sequel. Instead, work began on a prequel story, Annabelle. In fact, a direct sequel to The Conjuring wouldn’t follow until 2016, and we’re being kept waiting for The Conjuring 3.

In the meantime, the Annabelle films have taken the baton of terrorising audiences, joined this year by another smash hit, The Nun. A further splinter of the Conjuring universe, The Crooked Man, is also in development, based on the character first introduced in The Conjuring 2. Fan response has suggested that the willingness to divert from a straight line of sequels has been wildly successful.

As for the two films that The Conjuring opened against, the ones for whom box office expectations were originally much higher? Those respective franchises have been quietly retired…