Project X Principals On Taking ‘Scream’ Franchise To New Highs, Neve Campbell’s Exit From Sixth Installment, First TV Series ‘The Night Agent’ & More
With Scream VI‘s Friday release via Paramount, Project X Entertainment principals James Vanderbilt, William Sherak and Paul Neinstein kick off a pivotal month for their indie production and financing company launched in 2019.
The latest (and possibly goriest) installment in the iconic horror franchise, which Project X is currently steering alongside Spyglass Media Group and the filmmaking collective known as Radio Silence, scored $5.7M in Thursday night previews and is expected to set an opening weekend record for Scream, netting somewhere between $35M-$40M domestic.
‘Scream VI’ Slays $5.7M In Previews – Box Office
Veteran writer, director and producer Vanderbilt teamed with Ready or Not‘s Guy Busick to write both last year’s Scream “requel,” which grossed over $137M globally, and this year’s follow-up, once again centered on Ghostface killing survivors Sam (Melissa Barrera), Tara (Jenna Ortega), Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding), which watches as our “Core Four” set out for a fresh start in New York City. It’s not long, of course, before trouble finds them once again, with the quartet being forced to fend off new attempts on their lives.
Launched in 2019 with a mission to produce creative-driven content for all mediums, Project X will also soon unveil its first TV series The Night Agent, based on the same-name spy novel by Matthew Quirk, seeing the Shawn Levy show starring Gabriel Basso debut on Netflix on March 23. Hot on the heels of that show’s debut is the March 31st Netflix release of Murder Mystery 2 — the streamer’s sequel to its 2019 comedic mystery pic starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, which for a time held an opening-weekend record, with 30.9 million households viewing the film in its first 72 hours on the platform.
Penning both Murder Mystery films was Project X’s Chief Creative Officer Vanderbilt, who joined Co-CEOs Sherak and Neinstein ahead of Scream VI‘s release to speak with Deadline about their action-packed month. The collaborators below address the thinking behind Scream VI‘s story and taking the franchise forward without its longtime star Neve Campbell, who exited after a pay dispute. They also discuss a strong start at the box office in 2023, horror’s theatrical future, the notion of further expanding the Scream universe in film and TV, their thoughts on the possible upcoming writer’s strike and more.
DEADLINE: We’re off to a strong start at the box office this year, with a wide array of both original and franchise titles seeing success. What do you make of the returns so far in 2023?
SHERAK: I think that our business always has been a snowball and…all the cliches, right? “A rising tide raises all ships.” I just think there’s been a handful of one, good movies; two, movies that have excitement around them; and three, people wanting to go experience it together. And you put all of those things in a group and you end up with momentum.
I also think that studio marketing departments have been idle for the last few years, and these people are really good at what they do, and you give them a good movie…And the last few movies have been fun, right? Like, Creed. I have not had a chance to see it, but I hear it’s really good. And then John Wick looks awesome.
So, you feel it, right? These machines that have been idle get their hands on something and they go, “Oh, cool.” It’s all the stuff that they’ve wanted to do, and you put that with good movies and people wanting to go to theaters, and I think you end up with this snowball effect, and hopefully all of us will benefit from that because it’s fun to watch our business come back, especially in the theatrical space.
We talk about it all the time. It is such a thing we all love. All of us got into this business for different reasons, but I think the idea of going to a movie as a kid was 90% of it. We’re all kids of the ’80s, which was the ultimate bucket-of-popcorn world, so for me at least, I think it’s the combination of [a] snowball, marketing machines just doing what they do really well, and then people enjoying the movies they’re going to see.
VANDERBILT: I think William hit the nail on the head, and I think people are remembering how much fun it is to go see a movie again, post-pandemic. [Like], “Oh, this is sort of a wonderful exercise that is not necessarily something I do twice a year. It can actually be, ‘What are we doing Friday night? Let’s check out what’s playing.’” I feel like that is coming back in such a wonderful way.
NEINSTEIN: It’s been fun to watch because as William said, these marketing groups are really good at what they do. The marketing meeting that we had when they laid out their plan going into this was reminiscent of the biggest marketing meetings I’ve gone to [for] some of the biggest movies, and it was just so fun for each of those groups worldwide to get so excited about reaching the audience in a different way, which they’ve just been sort of sidelined for the last couple years from doing.
DEADLINE: I’ve certainly seen an all-out promotional campaign for Scream VI, though I’d thought there’d been a bit of a general pullback of late in terms of studio advertising spends.
NEINSTEIN: I think “pullback” is a different way of looking at it. I think they’re getting more creative in being efficient in their spend, in ways that are probably maximizing eyeballs. They’re not doing the traditional… I mean, they’re doing a lot of that, right? We did have a pre-Super Bowl spot. But it looks like what they’ve gotten really good at is going to different places that don’t cost the kind of money that they used to, and being really smart around engagement.
DEADLINE: Getting Ghostface out on the town across the U.S. has certainly been one effective marketing tool. But tell us a bit, James, about the genesis of this film’s story.
VANDERBILT: The way we build these things is, we kind of do them one at a time. We’re sort of anti, “Hey, we’re going to set this up here.” We really want to give you a full meal each time, so as we finished 5, we hadn’t figured out what 6 was. And then once we realized we were going to maybe have the opportunity, Guy Busick and I…we just kind of sat in a room and went, “If we had the opportunity to do this again, what would we do? What would we do different? What have we learned? What do we love?” Now, we’re writing for certain actors, as opposed to with 5, that whole new cast. So, a lot of it came from that. Then, we pitch it to William and Paul, and then we take it to Spyglass and pitch it to them, and then we sort of build the story.
It was a little bit like getting shot out out of a cannon, even though we started beforehand. Going 14 months between movies is probably the fastest I’ve ever done something like this. And it was funny because I was talking to [franchise architect] Kevin Williamson, who basically had to do the same thing on Scream 2 that we had to do with this, in terms of the timeline. So, there was an interesting parallel there.
DEADLINE: How did you arrive at the decision to take Scream to New York?
VANDERBILT: New York was something we latched onto very early. We thought it was very exciting. We thought “Let’s do the opposite of Woodsboro.” And the series has moved before, but we felt like a big city would give us the opportunity to do completely different kinds of scares and sequences. The rule in these movies up till now, in a lot of these movies, [is] you’re caught alone with the killer, and if you can run and get to safety, you’ll be okay. And we wanted to do the opposite with this. In the bodega sequences, they get to a place where you think they will be completely safe, and it doesn’t help them in the slightest.
We loved that idea, and we loved the idea…I grew up 45 minutes outside of the city, so I think we said the words “New York,” and then 10 seconds later, Guy and I looked at each other and went, “subway.” So it was, how do we build a sequence on the subway that reflects all of the possible fears you could have? I’m claustrophobic, so being on a subway car with 150 people anyways is intense for me. And the idea that anybody on that car could want to kill you was something that we thought was really interesting.
So, a lot of it was just, it’s the sixth installment. How do we keep this interesting and fresh? How do we keep it scary in a different way? How does this Ghostface feel different than all the Ghostfaces that came before? All of that was top of mind as we were building the movie.
DEADLINE: Obviously, franchise lead Neve Campbell walked away from the film when negotiations fell through. Scream VI respectfully nods to her longtime character Sidney Prescott, and it’s been said that the door is open for Campbell to return original as the Ghostface survivor in future installments. But how nervous were you about the prospect of taking Scream forward without her?
SHERAK: Look, she is an amazing person. We had an amazing time with her on 5, [so] we look at that and say, she is a spectacular part of this franchise. We want her to make decisions that are right for her, and she will always be welcome and part of this franchise. I think the fun of what Jamie and Guy did in 5 and 6 proves that anybody can exist in this franchise at any moment. So, we look at it and go, “It’s a door, it’s open, and at any time you can walk through the door, whoever it is, as a legacy character.” We continue to just widen how many legacy characters we have, and they’re all amazing people that we can bring back at any time. This story is amazing in the way it lived, and everybody in it is spectacular. And as we look to the future, should we be allowed to continue making them, any and everybody that has been in them before can come be part of them again. Our legacy cast is part of our family and we look at them that way, and we just want to keep having a good time making them, so at any moment, that can be part of the franchise.
DEADLINE: Horror films have long been a boon for the box office, and there continues to be a lot of heat on the genre with a number of major bidding wars of late. Obviously, the quality of the creative is key. But do you think there’s a ceiling to horror films’ success in the theatrical space? How do you see the genre’s future?
VANDERBILT: I think it’s incredibly exciting because horror, first of all, is such a broad term. There’s so many different types, whatever you want to call them, from slashers to “elevated.” I use air quotes because it’s not my favorite term. But you see tiny movies like Deadstream, which is just incredible. You have bigger movies like ours; you’ve got stuff in the middle. You’ve got The Black Phone performing the way it did, just based on a Joe Hill short story.
I never want to say there’s no ceiling for anything because that always sounds like Homer Simpson saying, “I will never get my comeuppance.” That said, there’s so many wonderful filmmakers working in the genre right now and doing great work, and there’s so many different ways to tell scary stories, and there’s something just so wonderful about, [going] back to the theatrical thing, taking your date or your partner to a scary movie and holding hands, and getting that exhilaration for 90 minutes. It’s just a wonderful thing to go do, as a human being.
So, I feel like we’re in a really amazing time, in terms of horror, and I have to pay all compliments back to Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven, because that first Scream was really the movie that mainstreamed horror, that took stuff that were B programmers for studios…and went, “No, this is an A-level genre that can play and make hundreds of millions of dollars.” It’s the thing that opened the door for, I think, the horror of today.
DEADLINE: Scream got the TV treatment for a few years at MTV and VH1, but it seems like the franchise is ripe for another, more premium adaptation. What do you think about that?
SHERAK: In success, I think what Kevin and Wes created in Ghostface, because anybody can wear the mask, it kind of gives you the ability to have unlimited stories, right? You’re not trying to figure out how to keep one specific character alive. It’s always somebody new, so you have the ability to keep going. I will tell you, if they let us, we would love to. I think that’s kind of the answer. The benefit that Paul and I [have] that a lot of people don’t have is…a genius partner who happens to be a writer.
VANDERBILT: Where? Who is it?
SHERAK: He’s joining the Zoom in a little bit.
VANDERBILT: Oh good, okay. Thank god.
SHERAK: But not everybody has the luxury of the office next door being held by somebody who actually sits with a whiteboard and creates ideas out of nowhere. So, we have that going for us that a lot of companies don’t. We don’t have to go outside to find that, and we are fortunate that Jamie, with Guy Busick — who we’ve done a ton of stuff with, and will continue — picked up that mantle when Gary Barber let us run with Scream for Spyglass…So, we have the benefit [that] in success, which we will continue to knock on wood and hope it happens, we don’t have to go keep finding people to tell these stories. It’s an in-house thing we get to build with Spyglass that I think gives us a leg up. I think [that] allows you to have a singular vision of how we want to control the world, so when you talk about TV and all that other stuff, any of that’s possible because we don’t have to go outside and find it. It’s all sitting here, should the opportunities arise.
DEADLINE: Are you looking to keep producing any future Scream films as long as they’re doing well, and Spyglass is on board?
SHERAK: That’s the idea. You don’t always have those opportunities in our town, and when you do, not only are they fun, but it’s the best version of it. They’re theatrical, they come out, they feel big, they feel special. We get to put new casts of people together…which is also a ton of fun, finding really great new talent to work on them.
DEADLINE: We’ve talked about the upside of what’s happening in the industry. But obviously, we’re also less than two months out from a potential writers’ strike. Any thoughts to share about that prospect?
SHERAK: Not at this point. We’re going to keep our heads down and keep making content until they tell us we’re not allowed to.
NEINSTEIN: We have, as William said, this amazing partner who is a big part of that world, but we’re also in the business of making movies and TV. And it goes back to the same thing, which is everybody should be paid fairly. And if they think that there is a mismatch in bargaining, that’s what the studios and the the guilds will figure out. We’re just going to keep trying as hard as we can to make as much as we can, and [if] there’s a pause, there’s a pause. We’ll figure it out.
VANDERBILT: I’m a proud member of the Writers Guild…
DEADLINE: Do you have a sense of the perspective among feature writers when it comes to the upcoming bargaining? From what I’ve heard, some are a bit more ambivalent than those on the TV side, given that it’s the issues of TV writers that are more prevalent this time around. Some sense, from what I hear, that they have everything to lose and nothing to gain from a strike…
VANDERBILT: I think the writers are very united this time around. I feel a lot of unity from the film writers.
DEADLINE: In addition to Murder Mystery 2, you’ve got your first series, The Night Agent, coming to Netflix soon. Talk a bit about breaking into that space and why you wanted this series to serve as your introduction.
VANDERBILT: It’s been a great experience. I’ve known Shawn Ryan for years, and about every year or two, we would have lunch and just sort of go, “Is there something we can do together? Is there something we can figure out?” We have mutual friends, we’ve always really enjoyed each other’s work, and so it almost became a yearly thing.
And it was the last in-person lunch I had before the pandemic. We went to lunch and were talking, and we had optioned this great book by Matthew Quirk, which is just a fun spy story, which I love, the kind of story you would see your dad reading on the beach.
I pitched it to Shawn and Shawn said, “That’s so interesting because I have half an idea about something else that I can never quite fit, but if there’s a way to take the chocolate of this book and put some peanut butter in it from my thing”…I don’t think he actually said that, because it sounds like a weird quote. But, “if I can mix the two, there might be a story there. Do you mind if I take a look at it?” He took the book and went away and read it, and he called us up and said, “Do you mind if I write this on spec?” And we said, “We do not mind if you write this on spec.” And that’s sort of where The Night Agent came from. He just took it and ran with it.
I think Shawn is one of the best writers of his generation and knows the form of television so well, so just being able to watch him work on that level, you’re literally watching the guy who created The Shield run with an idea and make it his own. And he’s just done such a wonderful job of building that show, and building it for Netflix, in a way. I think it’s his first streaming show — I don’t want to be wrong about that. But he’s been in network for a while. So, seeing him get to flourish in that space and use that has just been incredible, and we couldn’t be prouder of the show.
DEADLINE: What’s next for you? What can you tell us about the direction you’re taking your slate in?
NEINSTEIN: We actually have a number of [projects] that we haven’t announced yet. We’re also a company that doesn’t like to announce just to announce, so we build them and then when they’re ready, announce. And I think in the next couple of weeks, we’ll have some pretty big things that we’ll be able to share.
VANDERBILT: In terms of building the slate, I think the company we talk a lot about is Castle Rock, where they were able to work in multiple genres. And we’re not just a place that makes horror stuff. We’re not just the place that makes action stuff. The fact that they were doing A Few Good Men and Seinfeld and Misery, we love that mixture, and that hopefully the thing that unites them is a level of quality and a great user experience for the filmmakers that we’re lucky enough to work with, and that they want to keep coming back and doing it again.
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