How Universal Made Moviegoers Addicted To ‘Cocaine Bear’: Elizabeth Banks Horror Comedy Opens To $23M
“‘Nobody likes to watch people getting eaten by lions.”
Apparently this was the response by the late Sumner Redstone during his National Amusement exhibition days after he saw a screening of the 1981 Tom Skerritt lion movie, Savage Harvest, relayed to me by an exhibition source who overheard him.
As funny as Redstone’s reaction was, it’s an axiom that has rung true: Certain animal-eat-people movies just don’t work. Moviegoers chomp on sharks movies like Jaws and Meg, but other treacherous animal movies aren’t prime to high openings, i.e. Paramount’s alligator movie Crawl ($12M, $39M final domestic) and more recently Universal with its Idris Elba title Beast ($11.5M opening, final US $31.8M) — which was a lion move.
However, this weekend Universal proved that everybody likes to watch people get eaten by bears, as their R-rated Elizabeth Banks-directed Cocaine Bear opened to $23M.
How did Universal beat the odds and make this work? Multi-genre movies, and this one being a horror comedy, are typically feathered fish, meaning that they’re marketing nightmares for the studio.
But for Universal, it didn’t get better than having a sticky title like Cocaine Bear. The title was a gift –never mind the pitch– one which moviegoers couldn’t shake off.
Cocaine Bear is another low budget win (production cost in the $30M range) for Universal after Atomic Monster/Blumhouse’s M3GAN ($30.4M opening, $94.5M domestic) back in January and the studio’s teamup with 87North on Violent Night ($13.4M opening, $49.8M) in the early December corridor.
Cocaine Bear also repped a grand shiny win for low budget original theatrical releases at the box office this weekend, in addition to Lionsgate’s overperforming faith-based title Jesus Revolution ($15.5M opening) in the face of the second weekend of Disney/Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania which saw the worst drop for an MCU title -70% with $32.2M. Typically, a studio is crazy to go before or after a Marvel movie, given how they take all the air out the marketplace. Gosh, that doesn’t appear to still be true.
So how does a ferocious bear movie work at the box office? What made audiences line up for Cocaine Bear stemmed from the pic not being a straight-up horror or bloody gravitas like Beast, rather a very campy comedy. Laughs also worked in favor of M3GAN and Violent Night’s success. Accentuating the pic’s sell in trailers and digital bits was Banks casting the popular social-media (3.1M followers across TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter), sassy stand-up comedian Scott Seiss, who gets his comeuppance in the film.
The pic touted an ensemble cast that included The Americans cast members Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, and Margot Martindale, as well as the late Ray Liotta and even Solo: A Star Wars Story‘s Alden Ehrenreich. But Uni didn’t sell the pic on them. Rather, it believed that it became very clear that the only star of this film was Cokey the Cocaine Bear. She became the poster girl in Sin City-style one sheets and billboards.
While Uni stoked its young female fan base with its spooky dancing robot doll from MEGAN on TikTok, and late night show and in-public dance troupe stunts, the studio couldn’t just copy and paste from a genre marketing playbook, as Cocaine Bear repped another original movie. While dancing dolls on TikTok were prime for M3GAN‘s teen crowd, Cocaine Bear was geared toward older guys, hence a pregame Super Bowl spot was prime to reach that demo. RelishMix reported that the 24-hour post-game traffic on social for that trailer was close to 15M across all platforms in a social media universe that neared 150M for the Banks-directed title.
Cocaine Bear is inspired by a 1985 true story when cocaine went missing in a Georgia forest after a drug runner’s plane crash, with a black bear gobbling the goods. In the movie, the beast goes on a rampage, taking out cops, criminals, and hikers. Social media, natch, is essential to any marketing campaign, and what Uni did was give Cokey a voice.
It was reported on Twitter and TikTok that 3.5 tons of cocaine was discovered in the Pacific Ocean off of New Zealand, and “Cocaine Shark” became a hot trending topic over the course of the day. Cokey wasted no time jumping into the conversation, including a reply by AMC Theaters for a Bear/Shark showdown. That exchange received more than 50,000 views and 1,000 likes. On digital and social, there was also a retro 1980s-style PSA, This Is A Bear On Drugs, along with a helpful online video, Tips for Encountering A Bear, hosted by Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Margo Martindale.
Then there was the trailer, which hit like a nuclear blast on Nov. 30, 2022 with more than 90M global views. The trick for Uni going forward was maintaining that awareness and interest. The trailer ran in front of other Uni genre pics Violent Night and M3GAN.
On the way to Super Bowl, @cocainebear continued commenting on popular culture, first by welcoming the Big Game with an image of her snorting up the white lines on the field that was picked up widely, amassing 67K likes, 5000 retweets, and more than 2.5 million views across social media.
TV spots also aired across AFC & NFC Championship Games, NBA, WWE Raw, NCAAB, Premier League, UFC 284 Sponsorship, NHL, Liga MX, UEFA Champions League and shows such as The Bachelor, American Auto, Celebrity Special Forces, Bob’s Burgers, 9-1-1 Lonestar, and the Snowfall premiere.
A Rise of Pablo Escobear 8Bit game also launched, whereby users become Cocaine Bear chasing victims around in a Pac-man inspired video game.
To date, M3GAN, which is PG-13 and on Peacock, has legged out to over a 3x multiple ($94.5M) off of a B Cinemascore, 78% Rotten Tomatoes score, and 3 1/2 stars on Comscore/Screen Engine’s PostTrak. Cocaine Bear is in the same vicinity, with a B- CinemaScore, 75% RT audience meter, and 4 stars on PostTrak.
Similar to M3GAN, the prediction is that Cocaine Bear‘s long-term box office prospects are beating its audience exits. One projection for Cocaine Bear stateside is north of $60M.