A venerable jump-scare of the fall film season, “Five Nights at Freddy’s” is poised to become the biggest horror movie of the year. With a box office prediction of $50 million, director Emma Tammi’s animatronic house of horrors stands to outdo “The Exorcist: Believer” and “Saw X,” which earned $26.5 million and $18.3 million during their respective openings.
“I’m taking all of these predictions with a grain of salt, only because you never know,” Tammi told IndieWire in a phone interview.
More from IndieWire
“It’s amazing to be going into this weekend leading with all this excitement and those strong projections. But at the end of the day, I think my biggest nerves are wrapped around whether or not the fan base is going to embrace this film. And I’m staying focused on that. Everything else will be gravy if it comes — just keeping fingers crossed.”
Created by Scott Cawthon, the video game series that inspired “Five Nights at Freddy’s” is hugely popular online, having sold a reported 33.5 million units since the first game hit Windows in 2014. Cawthon, Tammi, and co-writer Seth Cuddeback penned the script for Blumhouse with hopes of not only reeling in its massive pre-made audience, but also capturing the viral terror that made “M3GAN” and “Talk to Me” into genre hits earlier this year.
“I still feel surprised by the fan base every day,” Tammi said. “Their enthusiasm and their positivity towards everything having to do with FNaF* is so unique. There’s also a real engagement and curiosity. They’re so active in terms of theorizing about things and doing deep dives and then watching each other play the game. It’s this amazing community that I feel like I’m still just wrapping my head around.”
(*Tammi and online fans of the franchise pronounce the abbreviation as one word: “fin-aff.”)
The point-and-click adventure games — known first and foremost for their nerve-shattering jump-scares — take players through what’s essentially an abandoned Chuck E. Cheese. You play as a security guard (much like Josh Hutcherson’s Mike in the film) and are tasked with monitoring the haunted pizzeria’s video surveillance from a central office.
With a limited power supply to shed light and shut doors, FNaF players must puzzle their way to safety as a horde of terrifying animatronic characters circle ever closer. Freddy Fazbear, Bonnie the Rabbit, Foxy the Pirate, Chica the Chicken, and Carl the Cupcake appear in the film, but many more creepy critters exist in the games’ universe: a sprawling story world packed with hidden details and clues that suck you in before the monsters rip you out.
“The game does it so masterfully because it has so much time; you are really able to just stew in that quiet and that atmospheric silence because there’s nothing else going on in between the jump scares,” Tammi said. “With the movie, there were a lot more story elements and of course scenes with dialogue and characters. So it was different for the adaptation, but absolutely a similar formula in some respects.”
Despite evoking a family restaurant chain best known to children of the ‘80s and ‘90s, FNaF has proven hugely popular among the tween-aged. That demographic is directly reflected in the film’s PG-13 rating and its buzz across Twitch and other gamer-friendly social platforms.
“There were a lot of visual references and other movie references throughout making this that felt very adult to me, and I never felt like we were wanting to pander to a younger audience,” Tammi said. “Moreso what I felt was this amazing opportunity to evoke child’s wonderment. That was mainly through our 10-year-old character Abby (Piper Rubio), through her eyes.”
The film — which, yes, includes a break in the action for the main characters and their animatronic antagonists to dance, sing, and build a fort — has been received poorly among adult critics. Many cite the lacking scares as a source of disappointment; IndieWire’s Wilson Chapman graded the movie a “D” and wrote, “Even non-gamer filmgoers would be better served staying at home and looking up two-hour ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’ reaction videos. There’s infinitely more scares to be had that way.”
Poor word of mouth may impact Universal’s box office haul. But whether the film hits with the games audience will likely depend on how they feel about Tammi’s balance of horror and lore.
“The pacing of jump scares is so important because if they don’t land at the right moments, they can feel cheap and you can become desensitized,” Tammi said. “For us, we were really just trying to get the balance right of how much tension and atmospheric creepiness we were creating in advance of those jump scares and in between those jump scares, as well as when we wanted those jump scares to land a laugh or release, and when we wanted those jump scares to really just hit you in your gut and feel completely terrifying.”
It’s also got a bunch of cameo casting with gamer influencers working in its favor. But FNaF’s opening is also battling simultaneous streaming on Peacock. It’s an oddly fitting hybrid marketing strategy that Tammi, who was best known for her straight-to-Hulu “Into the Dark” movies “Delivered” and “Blood Moon” before this, said she supports for the film.
“The day-and-date release came in simultaneously with the Halloween release date, and that felt like such a strong weekend to open this film,” Tammi said. “It expedited our timeline in terms of our post-production schedule, but it also meant that we were going to get it out to the fans sooner. And they’ve been waiting for this for so long.”
But, she added, “I really do think every choice we made making this was with the theatrical release in mind. And I really, really hope that as many people as possible can see it together in theaters.”
Heading into this weekend, “Five Nights” stands as an outlier project challenging the adaptability of video games for the big screen, the strength of the younger horror audience at the box office, and movie theater appeal in the streaming age. Should it outperform something like an “Exorcist” sequel from the guy behind “Halloween” (2018), you can bet studio execs will have Freddy in mind when making future decisions — but Tammi says they’re almost not comparable.
“I don’t think of ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’ as a pivot away from [something like] ‘The Exorcist,’” she said. “I think they’re really different things and both have huge built-in fan bases. Look, at the end of the day, I think both myself and David Gordon Green, we’re hoping to create something that would really satisfy those fan bases. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.”
“We’ve put all of our blood, sweat, and tears into trying to make that happen,” she continued. “And I hope that we continue to do that. I think there’s going to be so many more opportunities — and there already are — for game adaptations or other viral video-like content that already have fans that are hungry to see [those stories] come to the theaters. I hope that is not at the expense of new and original stories as well. I think there’s a place for all of it, and I’m super excited that ‘Freddy’s’ is a part of this moment where game adaptations are having some real traction.”
Best of IndieWire