Tue. Apr 16th, 2024

For three decades, Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios has been offering live terror experiences in Southern California and Florida — primarily via a series of mazes where the undead chase crowds with chain saws and scary movies come to life. Over decades, licensed characters like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees have haunted the studio backlot. 

But on a recent Wednesday in October, the annual attraction was hosed down not with fake blood but a slew of corporate owner NBCUniversal’s intellectual property. 

An entire house was erected to celebrate the catalog of Blum- house, the studio’s low-budget horror partner. A troupe of M3GAN robots busted out creepy dance moves every 10 minutes starting at 8 p.m. on the dot. Chucky dolls and the possessed children of “The Exorcist: Believer” spooked fans — as well as NBCU talent like Al Roker, who braved the attraction for a “Today” segment — on sound- stages rife with custom smells and fog. The streaming service Peacock built a bright orange pop-up bar where visitors could pose for photos with David S. Pumpkins, Tom Hanks’ character from NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” before downing festive cocktails. 

In corporate America, “synergy” can be a dirty word (or worse, a trite one), but perhaps not when it scares up this much free media and revenue potential for the company and its owner Comcast. All in, the upcoming horror adaptation “Five Nights at Freddy’s” will have received more than 2,350 on-air promos across NBCU and Comcast Networks, free of charge. Blumhouse, on the verge of merging with James Wan’s company Atomic Monster, has been given its own festival experience (BlumFest) in New York, London and Tokyo to expand its global footprint. The Comcast-owned Sky will offer a full horror channel and a curated block of Jason Blum’s favorite scary movies. Peacock has been transformed into a “Halloween Horror Hub,” featuring next-day airings of the new season of “Chucky” and a library that includes films based on Universal classic monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein. NBCUniversal wants to “own Halloween,” according to David O’Connor, president of franchise management, and it’s hard to dispute it’s on its way.

“In the summer of ’22, we started thinking about Blum and ‘Halloween Ends,’ which was going day- and-date on Peacock. We wanted to experiment with engaging the broader company,” O’Connor tells Variety. “We lean in heavily into the horror space where some of our competitors can’t. They’re more kids and family, trick-or-treat. Our franchises bring these brands to life and allow you to experience in a way that differentiates us.” 

Blum says NBCU’s synergy has been “robust” in recent years and that “they understand the power and importance of our brands. It’s amazing when you start with two people in a room talking about, say, a little robotic doll — and then it translates into live events, TV, movies and social.” 

The vaunted vertical integration program at NBCU is called Symphony, and has historically been a big lure for event filmmakers like Jordan Peele (“Us,” “Nope”) and, more recently, Christopher Nolan (“Oppenheimer”). In a town besieged by recent strikes, focusing on larger cultural themes leaves a company like NBCU less vulnerable to traditional forms of promotion that rely on talent showing up (impossible at the moment, as the SAG-AFTRA strike rages on). Plus, it’s already looking past Halloween. 

“Thanksgiving is a big holiday where we typically have a big theatrical release, and we’ve got the NBC Thanksgiving Day Parade. It’s big for sports because of NFL, of course, and the Big Ten,” O’Connor says. “I think there’s cultural moments and windows where we can keep thinking about how to connect the dots.” 

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