With Universal mulling making Nobody 2, how whatever the new normal is has seen a low budget action film find its place in the world.

Somewhat inevitably, looking at a global box office chart for cinemas over the past few months has been a pretty fruitless, deflating exercise. Yet with the opening up of the big screen of late, so stories of films making money again have begun to spike. Over the last couple of weeks, both A Quiet Place Part II and Godzilla Vs Kong have become the first films in some 14 months to cross $100m at the US box office. There’s life in the old box office yet.

Movie studios though remain cautious. Paramount didn’t trust cinemas with the $200m, Chris Pratt-headlined blockbuster The Tomorrow War, and sold it to Amazon instead. The same studio has also joined Disney in launching its own streaming service too, and expect more movies to go directly to it.

Still, the two $100m-grossing films in question – each franchise movies, costing $60m $160-ish respectively – have been given big screen outings in most countries, and cash is duly being counted. For those worried about the future of cinema, it’s offered some genuine relief.

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It’s little secret though that movie studios are being cautious when it comes to investing heavily in big screen blockbusters. Outside of the horror genre (where A Quiet Place Part II was the latest to prove that a modest price tag was no deterrent to big box office returns), to invest nine figures and change into a movie that comes without a roman numeral or built-in brand appeal from somewhere is seen as increasing folly. What that means is it’s harder and harder for a more modestly-costed production to break though.

It’s why the majority of major studios are placing a smaller number of more expensive chips on the metaphorical table. It’s a trend that’s been continuing in fairness for some 20 years (since Warner Bros became the first to adopt it as a strategy in earnest), and Disney has of course made an art of it, enjoying a line of huge success that now most are trying to mirror (its 2019 box office haul of $11.1bn worldwide is unlikely to be beaten for a very, very long time).

Yet in the midst of it all, Universal for one is still rolling the dice. What’s more, its willingness to do so might just have landed itself a brand-new franchise: the current grail of major film companies.

The setup of Universal is interesting , and gives it avenues to explore. It comes with by far the biggest slate of cinema films of all the traditional major studios, but then it has divisions and formal partnerships that keep its pipeline fed. Here in the UK, films from Working Title go primarily through Universal, whilst in the US the same goes for Focus Features and Blumhouse Productions. Add in the fact that Universal is now also the parent of both Illumination and DreamWorks Animation, and its slate isn’t likely to drop below 15 theatrical movies a year anytime soon. No other studio can say that.

In the case of Nobody, starring Bob Odenkirk, this was a movie that actually started life at another studio, but its path to the screen is indicative of Universal’s current modus operandi. It began at STX Entertainment, itself a home for low- to mid-budget range features (it’s currently backing new films from Gerard Butler and Guy Ritchie), with Universal acquiring the project in April 2019.

The acquisition came as part of a development deal that goes to the way the studio has been working. The deal it inked was with production company 87North, a-then new venture from director David Leitch and producer Kelly McCormick. At the time, Universal was on the cusp of releasing Hobbs & Shaw, the Fast & Furious spin-off movie that Leitch had directed for it. He’d previously helmed John Wick, Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2.

As Variety reported at the time, “even though the production was the biggest of Leitch’s career, sources say the smooth shoot helped convince Universal to approach Leitch and McCormick about a deal that would keep them and the newly formed company in the Universal family for the foreseeable future”. Which is just what happened.

The acquisition of Nobody was mentioned in that article, but it warrants barely half a paragraph. It basically snuck through. In truth, when the first promotional material landed for an action movie headlined by Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk, few had high expectations for the movie anyway. Costing $16m to make, it was scheduled for release in the US in March, with a video on demand release just weeks after. Just another film fallen foul of savaged cinema release schedules, destined to be overlooked.

Then people saw it.

Reviews were better than expected, but then so was the box office. And whilst numbers were depressed given just when in time the movie launched (and even then, getting to $100m would have been a long shot), it’s currently gone past $60m worldwide, and is getting people reaching for their credit cards on demand too. Nobody is the surprise little hit of the year.

To Universal’s surprise and delight, it also looks like Nobody is also going to be the start of a franchise as well, and it’s worth remembering the lesson of John Wick here. The first Wick movie cost just north of $20m and again, nobody expected that much from it. It went down well though, and grossed $80m. For the studio behind it – Lionsgate – this was the acorn that it’d nurture and grow though, to the point where the third movie in the series, 2019’s Parabellum, grossed over $300m in cinemas alone. Would a major studio have taken the plunge on a low budget Keanu Reeves movie in the early 2010s? Well, simply, they didn’t. Now Lionsgate has its biggest franchise since The Hunger Games movies.

That’s not to say that Nobody sequels will come with similar expectations to John Wick 2 and 3, but conversely, how is anybody supposed to know how these things will do if they don’t try? What Universal has been savvy about is making space in its development slate for a bunch of more modest productions, that may or may not break out. It still has its Jurassic Worlds, its Minions movies and its Fast & Furiouses, but it also has the bandwidth to develop and release something like the excellent horror Freaky, the musical hit Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, or a documentary like The Sparks Brothers.

What the small success of Nobody is demonstrating that – contrary to big movie studio mantra at the moment – it’s worth paying attention to the smaller projects, supporting them, and giving them a fair crack. Particularly now. To its credit, Universal has also backed up the release of Nobody with a solid marketing spend, and it’s been rewarded for its efforts. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad is now said to be penning a sequel script for the movie, and it’s up to Universal to give it a nay or yay. Expect the latter. It’s about the only major studio left who would have even got this far.

Universal isn’t perfect, and whether Nobody would have got this far if it didn’t have John Wick pedigree behind it is open to debate. But what’s clear is cinema has been shaken up dramatically, more than in any time in its history, over the past two years. Right now, who knows what the normal is? At the very least, that’s giving a shot to movies that otherwise may just have been squeezed out to make their mark. And it’s this jagged path that’s help lead to Bob Odenkirk becoming cinema’s latest hit action hero.

Who, in truth, saw that coming?

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