When Spyglass Entertainment acquired “Scream” rights from the Weinstein Company library in 2019, the 27-year-old IP had seen better days. Wes Craven’s 1996 film grossed $103 million worldwide on a $14 million budget and revived the horror genre with a winking self awareness in Kevin Williamson’s script that somehow didn’t dilute the fear. By “Scream 4” in 2011, the franchise still made money but a lot less of it, $97 million against a $40 million budget. Reviews were terrible and the concept seemed tired: What was once fresh was now a trope.
That’s no longer the case. The 2022 “Scream” grossed $140 million worldwide and the same team of Paramount Pictures, Spyglass, directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, and production company Project X will release “Scream VI” on Friday. It’s a bold move to unleash a sequel barely more than a year later, (the new film has a 77 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes and is projected for a $35 million opening weekend, a franchise best), but Project X recognized that the genius of Ghostface is you don’t need to keep finding ways to resurrect the same bad guy. As long as audiences still want it, you can keep reinventing the wheel.
That may well be the rallying cry for Project X, which Spyglass principal Gary Barber entrusted to revive the property when he signed the then-new production company to a multi-year first look and co-development deal in 2019. That wasn’t as risky as it sounds. The company is led by a triumvirate of veterans: screenwriter James Vanderbilt (“Zodiac,” “The Amazing Spider-Man”), producer William Sherak (“Suspira”), who was raised in the business as the son of former Fox distribution chief and AMPAS president Tom Sherak; and financing executive Paul Neinstein, who worked with RatPac Entertainment and was a former member of Paramount’s greenlighting committee.
For Project X, the 2022 “Scream” served as a strategic test balloon. Vanderbilt saw a chance to go meta-meta with sly commentary on the trend of “re-quels” or “lega-sequels.” Sherak pitched the film as a way to kickstart a franchise with young stars to carry the torch, and Neinstein set it up as a 50-50 co-production between Spyglass and Paramount on a modest $24 million budget, minimizing the risk.
“If history shows, we should get a chance to live again,” Sherak told IndieWire. “Launching a new franchise from scratch as Project X would be awesome because it’s rarefied air. But I also think executing our goal of turning Project X into a business where we can bring more friends of the court in to make their stuff is the dream.”
That said, they’re for now doing it without the longtime star of the “Scream” franchise, Neve Campbell. She announced last June that she wouldn’t return to “Scream VI,” saying her offer “didn’t equate” to her value and speculated that she would’ve been offered much more if she were a man who made five franchise movies over 25 years. The team declined to comment on any specifics of Campbell’s negotiations, but stressed they’d love for Sidney Prescott to return.
“She’s such an important part of the franchise, and a cornerstone of the franchise,” Neinstein said. “The door is always open. I think we’ve shown at least in the two that we’ve done [that] characters always have an opportunity to come back. We think her involvement is so important to the franchise and we wouldn’t shut the door on that in the future.”
Vanderbilt believes there isn’t another company today with the collective skills of Project X. “There are plenty of writer-directors who want to be producers, and they have a producing partner, and most of it is stuff that the writer writes, and there are plenty of very business-minded people with a producer on the ground who try to work with different creatives,” Vanderbilt said. “But this triangle, to me, doesn’t exist somewhere else.”
Companies like Project X have existed, of course. In their heydays, old-school names like Castle Rock, United Artists, and Orion produced inventive, commercially successful movies that were entrenched in the studio system while maintaining their creative independence, and they’re the ones Project X hopes to most resemble.
Justin W Ungaro/Courtesy of Project X
“You can be creative in every aspect of our business,” said Sherak. “A creative way of, how do you get it made, which is different than developing it and making sure the creative figures get what they want. It’s not just a playground for creative people to talk and do things. And then what do you do with it? All of that is really important, but you still have to get it made.”
Their second project was Michael Bay’s 2022 “Ambulance.” Financially, it wasn’t successful with $52.3 million worldwide against a $40 million budget. However, Project X sees it as a win for the creative thinking behind its production.
“We’re willing to change the structure of whatever we’re working on to fit whatever problem they currently have,” said Neinstein. “‘Ambulance’ and Michael Bay was a good example of that. Everybody wanted to make the movie; they wanted to make it for a price.”
Universal was understandably concerned about making a movie during COVID with someone like Bay, a director known for massively expensive blockbusters. Project X turned the film into a negative pickup: Endeavor Content financed the film, Project X produced it, and the studio has the worldwide rights and paid for and marketed the finished product.
“Ultimately, they weren’t on the hook until the film was delivered,” Neinstein said. “Those are things that we can play with because we have the skill set to do that. How do you build it differently for whatever problem we believe exists at the time?”
With about 20 projects in various stages of development, upcoming for Project X are Netflix series “The Night Agent” (March 23), developing an animated series based on the comic strip “Bloom County” for Fox, and a TV adaptation of the children’s book series “The Amazing Adventures of Aya & Pete.” Their next studio project is “Fountain of Youth,” a Vanderbilt script that will be directed by Dexter Fletcher at Skydance.
More than credits, Sherak said, Project X seeks sustainability. “We want to build a business separate of an amazing lifestyle,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t have backend and create some wealth, but you’re not creating enterprise value that is underneath it. We don’t want to be involved in something unless it’s a value-add. We don’t want to grab onto something just to grab on. If we can add massive value to a bigger conglomerate, great, but it has to work both ways.”
Project X is aggressively pursuing a film and TV library, a timeline accelerated by the success of “Scream.” A library could provide a baseline of licensing revenue to beef up production, and perhaps kickstart another dormant franchise.
“That’s the goal right now,” said Neinstein. “You’re not going to have a ‘Scream’ in every library, but there’s going to be a couple titles in there worth some mental gymnastics to figure out if you can relaunch.”
Vanderbilt said he’s ready to take on whatever the opportunities provide. He’s agnostic to genre — but not about the people he works with.
“We think there’s a way to do this,” he said. “A company that we can build where we work with people we respect and care about, we treat them with that respect and care. And we apply working as a family, all working towards a goal and working with good people, and not assholes.”