Box office preview: Universal horror film ‘M3GAN’ challenges ‘Avatar 2’ in first full weekend of 2023

It’s 2023, and though we’re starting the year with only one new wide release, it’s a movie in a genre that has done particularly well kicking off previous years. That movie is the high-concept horror film “M3GAN,” produced by James Wan and Blumhouse for Universal, who is giving the movie a very wide release into almost 3,500 theaters this weekend. Can it take a bite out of “Avatar 2”? Read on for Gold Derby’s box office preview.

The central premise of “M3GAN” involves a life-like android doll that can talk and act like a real tween girl, and it shows what happens when she connects with the orphaned niece of one of her developers, and gets a mite over-protective.

SEE January 2023 box office preview

Although horror flicks don’t generally need big stars to sell them — normally, the general concept and promise of scares is enough — this one stars Allison Williams, who made her name on Lena Dunham’s HBO show “Girls,” but also starred in Jordan Peele’s directorial debut “Get Out,” which was also produced by Blumhouse and released by Universal. That opened with $33.4 million in late February 2017 and went on to get four Oscar nominations, winning one for Peele’s screenplay.

A few examples of horror movies doing well by kicking off the year and the month of January include 2012’s “The Devil Inside,” which opened with $33.7 million, though it was not received well and ended up with less than $54 million domestic, despite that opening. Another horror release from Universal that kicked off January was the horror film “White Noise” (not to be confused with the recent Noah Baumbach movie of the same name), starring Michael Keaton, which opened with $24.1 million in 2005. More recently, “Escape Room” opened with $18.2 million in 2009, and ended up making more than “The Devil Inside,” leading to a 2021 sequel. Other January kick-off horror films include “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” in 2014 and “Texas Chainsaw” in 2013.

All the above opened with more than $18 million, which is a great precedent for “M3GAN.” The last time we had such a high-concept horror film was probably Paramount’s “Smile” back in September, and that ended up being the first movie in months to make (let alone open) with more than $20 million, and it went on to make over $100 million domestically. “M3GAN” is rated PG-13 for strong language/violent content.

SEE 2022 box office hits: Every movie that made more than $100 million

Early reactions and reviews for “M3GAN’ have been surprisingly good, with it currently sporting an amazing 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. Horror tends to bring in fans of the genre regardless of reviews, but getting the proverbial thumbs up from critics never hurts either.

Trying to take on even the fourth weekend of James Cameron’s juggernaut “Avatar: The Way of Water” may not be ideal for “M3GAN,”  but since that is likely to make $30 million or more this coming weekend, Universal’s horror film may have to settle for second place with somewhere in the low-to-mid $20 millions. 

U.A. Releasing gave Sarah Polley’s ensemble drama “Women Talking” a platform release before Christmas, and it’s done fine in just eight theaters in select cities, but it’s unclear how much wider the studio might expand the movie before SAG Award nominations are announced on January 11 or even waiting until Oscar nominations on January 24. (Going wider on the weekend of January 13 would only make sense since that’s when the academy is nominating, but as you’ll see in next week’s preview, there are a LOT of movies opening next weekend.)

Check back on Sunday for the weekend recap of how the above fared, and don’t forget to play Gold Derby’s box office prediction game.

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