2024’s two imaginary friend movies – a mix-up waiting to happen?

Imaginary and IF
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One is a family-friendly comedy, and one definitely isn’t – here’s the difference between John Krasinski’s IF and Blumhouse horror Imaginary.

If we had a quid for every time a 2024 movie revolved around adults tangling with children’s imaginary friends, we’d have two quid, and you know the rest. But it strikes us that releasing an big-budget family comedy about it this close to the supernatural horror movie version is asking for trouble.

Already in cinemas now, Imaginary is a Blumhouse offering in which children’s author Jessica (DeWanda Wise) moves into her childhood home with her husband and his two daughters from a previous marriage. Things go smoothly until their youngest, Alice (Pyper Braun), forms an intense bond with Chauncey Bear, a teddy with a malevolent streak. The film’s tagline comes from Alice’s dialogue – “He’s not imaginary and he’s not your friend.”

And coming along next month from Paramount, IF is something of a departure for A Quiet Place director John Krasinski. Bea (Cailey Fleming) is a young girl who suddenly starts seeing everyone else’s imaginary friends, or “IFs”, after they’ve been abandoned by their kids. Ryan Reynolds plays “The Man Upstairs”, a neighbour who has the same ability, while the star-studded voice cast includes Steve Carell, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the late, great Louis Gossett Jr, and umpteen others.

On the surface of it, there’s little chance of cinemagoers confusing the two when they get to the box office. Imaginary’s got legs for a horror movie but it won’t still be around on 17th May, when IF drops. Plus, like Blumhouse’s January release Night Swim, it’s one of those PG-13 American chillers that’s landed a 15 certificate in the UK.

Through some combination of the film ducking an R rating in the US and being too strong for a stricter, post-Woman In Black 12A over here, Imaginary has wound up getting a higher rating and the accompanying round of “not scary enough” reviews on this side of the pond. The BBFC guidance for the 15 certificate cites only that it “contains strong threat”.

Wadlow was sanguine about the potential clash in a March 2024 interview with SlashFilm, saying:

“There’s an interesting Hollywood history of zeitgeisty movies hitting cinemas at the same time. [Imaginary friends] was one of those things that just hadn’t been exploited in pop culture in a long time, probably not since Drop Dead Fred. So, it was bound to happen.”

And he’s right to say that “twin movies” have long been a trend. The classic is Deep Impact and Armageddon – two movies about Earth-killing asteroids released in that order in summer 1998, but different enough in their titles and scheduling to ensure that people looking to see the DreamWorks-backed drama were unlikely to find themselves seated for hoo-rah, silly, emotional rollercoaster Bayhem by accident.

Heck, to use a much more imminent example, The First Omen arrives in cinemas worldwide this week. The franchise trappings and marketing will distinguish this horror prequel about a nun who is pregnant with a demon foetus from Immaculate, the indie psychological horror about a nun who’s pregnant with a demon foetus, which is also still in its theatrical window. And they’re both set in Italy too.

While Imaginary and IF are twins like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito are twins, there’s a whole different can of worms in the current film distribution situation. Imaginary won’t still be in cinemas by the time IF comes out, but it will probably hit its VOD/streaming window around the same time. Indeed, in the US at least, Lionsgate has set the digital release for 14th May, right before IF hits cinemas on the 17th.

When Krasinski’s film was announced all the way back in 2019, it was called Imaginary Friends. Since then, Hollywood’s pivot to streaming has been accelerated by cinema closures during the pandemic, and viewers have become accustomed to being served family-friendly films day-and-date with their cinema release.

The title was changed to IF in January 2022 and the marketing campaign has loudly put over its made-up acronym more prominently than, say, R.I.P.D., another Reynolds-fronted comedy. More than a year after this, Lionsgate acquired worldwide rights to Imaginary, so it seems an unforced error that the family-friendly film has wound up with the more ambiguous title.

Even movies with the same title are more distinguishable than these two. Some of us are old enough remember the horror film Jack Frost, which was shot in 1994 but acquired and released conspicuously close to the 1998 Christmas comedy Jack Frost, starring Michael Keaton. And if we don’t remember the film, we remember the terrifying holographic scary snowman cover stopping us dead in Blockbuster shops (content warning: VHS jump scare).

Meanwhile, if (IF) I told you that one of these two imaginary friend movies has a poster with a huge furry hand prying open a window at night, you might reasonably think it was the horror movie. And you’d be incorrect.

We imagine that in the next month or so, many more millions of dollars will be pumped into marketing IF than Imaginary, but after the cinematic window, you have to know what you’re looking for. One thing that’s carried over from the days of the rental shop experience is that someone might as easily pick the wrong thing from a menu of thumbnails as from a shelf of VHS or DVD covers.

None of this is to say that parents will be ignorant of what they show their children. Hilariously, it’s probably just as likely that adults could fumble the remote and rent the kids’ film instead of the horror movie. But then who can keep track of which movie is about a cuddly Steve Carell-voiced monster and which is about a demonic teddy bear any more?

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