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Universal tops faltering US box office with Freaky

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Kathryn Newton in Freaky. This darkly funny story may provide a small shot in the arm to struggling exhibitors.

Los Angeles

COMCAST Corp's Universal Pictures is betting a movie about a serial killer who hunts down teens is the antidote to real-life dread at the US box office.

The horror film, a collaboration with Blumhouse Productions that came out last Friday, made US$3.7 million in North America over the weekend, making Freaky the No 1 movie for the US box office, according to researcher Comscore.

Overseas, it grossed US$1.9 million across 20 markets, it added.

It is one of the few movies that has hit cinemas since the start of the pandemic. It is also one of the first movies Universal is releasing as part of a new distribution strategy, in which it plays its new movies in the cinemas for about three weeks before selling them online.

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The box office will take all the help it can get. Practically every big blockbuster this year has been pushed back until 2021 or later, with studios refusing to release major new features before audiences can once again gather en masse.

That has led to unusual arrangements between studios and theatres, which are normally sticklers about their right to show new movies exclusively for two or three months. Running out of cash, racking up debt, and keen to promote any film to draw in more customers, exhibitors have become increasingly flexible throughout the pandemic. Universal now can put its films online 17 days after they debut in the largest US theatre chain, AMC Entertainment Holdings.

A cut of online movie sales

In exchange for shortening the so-called exclusive window, AMC gets a cut of Universal's online movie sales.

AT&T's Warner Bros is also said to be discussing a hybrid release strategy with theatre chains in which it would move the film Wonder Woman 1984 onto its HBO Max streaming platform shortly after it comes out in cinemas on Christmas.

AMC chief executive Adam Aron has said that the new model with Universal helped keep his theatres open.

In September, Universal released a crime comedy, Kajillionaire, in theatres before quickly moving it online - and cut AMC in on some of the sales. Mr Aron said that netted the company more cash than a normal release would have. AMC's largest competitor, Cineworld Group's Regal Theatres, has closed all of its US locations, saying a lack of new movies makes it too expensive to stay open.

The third largest chain, Cinemark Holdings, is mostly open and plans to show Freaky, although it does not have a special arrangement with Universal that gives it a cut of sales. The company is relatively better-capitalised than its peers, and says it has enough cash to outlast the pandemic, even without many new releases.

Freaky, a darkly funny story is about a teenage girl, played by Kathryn Newton, who swaps bodies with a crazed middle-aged killer, played by Vince Vaughn, may provide a small shot in the arm to struggling exhibitors.

It will be the only new film over the weekend from a major studio and may generate as much as US$6.5 million in domestic ticket sales, according to data from Box Office Media.

Over the same weekend last year, with pictures out from studios across Hollywood, US moviegoers bought more than US$100 million in movie tickets. BLOOMBERG

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