Why was Upgrade’s opening weekend so unimpressive? Why did I never see an Upgrade trailer or commercial on TV? And why isn’t the movie playing anywhere close to me?
These are some of the questions readers posed in response to my review of Upgrade, writer-director Leigh Whannell’s kick ass action sci-fi flick about a dude, the A.I. controlling his body, and their revenge campaign. It’s like Robocop meets Her meets Taken, and it’s awesome.
And this is probably the end of it. Before Upgrade even came out, Whannell had already accepted there probably won’t be a sequel, not with what the box office tracking was suggesting. Sadly, in this case the tracking was fairly accurate. Upgrade was predicted to gross around $4m, and that’s just what it did, albeit a tad higher with $4.6m. Considering Upgrade only cost $4m to make, this isn’t exactly a Solo-level financial disaster. It’s perfectly fine, really, which is not the kind of language a studio likes to see when considering franchise opportunities.
Wait. What studio are we talking about here? Who actually put out Upgrade?
Technically, the official distributors are listed as BH Tilt and OTL Releasing, but ignore that – this is a Blumhouse/Universal movie. BH Tilt and OTL are the labels they jointly use for their most micro-budget efforts, but Upgrade is coming to us from the same people behind Get Out, Split, and Happy Death Day.
Famously, as part of Jason Blum’s deal with Universal, he gets to produce whatever genre movie he wants as long as the budgets stay below $5m. Upon completion of production, the filmmakers, Blum, and Universal studio suits watch a rough cut of the movie to decide if it warrants a theatrical release. If they all say no, then the film is jettisoned to Netflix or VOD or somewhere like that. However, if it they decide to put it into theaters Universal is on the hook for a full marketing commitment, which today means a minimum spend in the $30m territory.
That created a problem. Blum turned out to be too prolific for his own good, creating a glut of product Universal didn’t know what to do with. It’s not that it was all bad – it’s more there are only so many release slots on the calendar, and to market and distribute a movie isn’t cheap. As THR revealed in 2014, this led Universal to simply sit on a lot of Blumhouse movies, unwilling to spend the $30m to put them in theaters but also unwilling to wave the white flag and dump them on straight-to-video. Considering the number of Blumhouse people who work for scale in exchange for profit participation, this meant a lot of people were getting screwed since there’s obviously no profit for something that doesn’t get released.
Not coincidentally, later that year Blum created BH Tilt as the distribution arm of Blumhouse, telling Deadline:
“Our company is built on the idea of betting on yourself. As a result of our micro-budgets, we encourage our filmmakers to take risks and make the movies they have always dreamed of making. The purpose of BH Tilt is to be part of the continuing evolution of distribution, whether it be through changing marketing strategies, changing revenue sources or changing windows. We are excited to launch BH Tilt and can’t wait to share these films with genre fans through every means available.”
Translation: We need a new label for the micro budget movies we’re going to start sending to VOD or to theaters with very little marketing.
Starting with Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno in 2015, 9 total BH Tilt titles have opened in theaters, including Upgrade. Not a single one of them has played in more than 1,800 theaters or grossed $11m domestic. Upgrade did have the label’s second-biggest opening weekend behind The Darkness.
That’s ok. BH Tilt is Blum’s outlet for making sure certain movies earn a theatrical release to at least elevate their profile prior to an inevitable second life on home video. Going forward, BH Tilt will be co-managed by Blumhouse and Neon, the I, Tonya distributor co-founded by Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League. Meanwhile, if Upgrade is playing near you and you dig midnight madness B-movies then please give it a shot.