Why the Horror Boom Might Become the Horror Glut
Plus: A Paul Rudd classic assigned!
Horror has long been a cornerstone of Hollywood finances, from the Universal Monsters of the 1930s and 1940s to the slashers of the 1970s and 1980s to the found footage films of the 2000s to the neverending zombie apocalypse we’re currently living through. Horror sells. And cheap horror has always been the place you find your greatest return on investment.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Get Out: the best way to strike it rich in showbiz is to make a horror movie for very little money and watch it rack up audiences as terrified word of mouth spreads. In the post-pandemic era, this model has held true: the most interesting box office stories are those of Barbarian, M3gan, The Black Phone, Smile, and Terrifier 2, movies made for relatively little that nevertheless did big business at the box office.
The king of this model—small investment up front; promise of big payouts later—is Jason Blum. Alongside Marvel’s Kevin Feige, Blum is the most important producer in the game: starting with Paranormal Activity (which he produced for around $15,000 and which earned nearly $200 million worldwide) and moving through the Purge, Insidious, and Sinister series, he has an almost preternatural understanding of this sector of the market.
The big payouts don’t apply only to the studio. When The Purge popped at the box office, Blum told Tatiana Siegel that the lead actor, Ethan Hawke, made well more than his typical payday (which sources told her was in the mid-seven figures). He took a percent of the gross rather than his standard fee, and since it did so well, he made out.
This model has also paid dividends recently for M. Night Shyamalan, who was serving time in director jail following a string of costly flops. In 2015, he made The Visit with Universal and Blumhouse, self-financing the $5 million budget for the found-footage horror flick that earned nearly $100 million worldwide. Next came Split, another relatively cheap horror movie ($9 million) he financed himself that turned into a smash, grossing nearly $300 million. But the budgets started creeping up (Glass, Old, and Knock at the Cabin all cost around $20 million) and the box office started trending down.
I bring up Blum and Shyamalan because I can’t help but feel as if the two following things are related.
On Wednesday, Blum tweeted this:
And on Thursday afternoon, news broke that M. Night Shyamalan was moving from Universal, which has a tight relationship with Blumhouse, to Warner Bros.
One can understand why Blum might be getting a little nervous. New Line (a division of Warner Bros.) won a big auction for Barbarian drector Zach Cregger’s next picture, Weapons. I get the sense that the spate of low-downside/high-upside horror releases is leading to a boom in high-concept scripts getting sucked up. More studios are getting ready to spend more money to bring more horror to the big screen.
Blum’s greatest skill is, as mentioned, his ability to make movies for cheap. “Cost-plus,” the model used by streamers desperate to limit back-end costs, encourages just the opposite: rather than getting a cut of any potential box office or VOD sales, filmmakers get a flat percentage of the budget. When your compensation is tied to your budget, you have little incentive to limit costs.
But his second greatest skill is understanding not to flood theaters with marginal product. Part of this, again, has to do with cost: marketing is expensive. On top of that, though, you don’t want to dissuade casual horror fans from showing up by constantly putting out crap. Blumhouse pretty ruthlessly relegates movies without an obvious market to VOD. If you make movies for cheaply enough the upside in theaters is tremendous and the downside, when you have to dump misses to VOD, is minimal.
Whether the rest of Hollywood can resist the temptation to oversaturate this market remains to be seen.
Our bonus episode of Across the Movie Aisle this week focuses on Channing Tatum, who I don’t think has ever been in a horror movie but would, I think, make an excellent horror villain. Someone make that happen!
As I discussed in my Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania review, the MCU aesthetic is really starting to wear on me. Do some stuff in real locations for a while, guys. The green screens are killing us.
Lots of positive responses to last week’s Bulwark Goes to Hollywood with longtime theater producer Julian Schlossberg. I hope you check it out!
I’ve mentioned this before, but Jason Blum is a great podcast guest; his chats with Kevin Goetz and Matt Belloni are must-listens.
Great piece in Puck by Julia Alexander tracing Netflix’s journey in original programming through the lens of Arrested Development. And the forthcoming disappearance of AD’s fourth and fifth season from Netflix is a reminder that the streaming era is just another throwback to the days of broadcast, when shows would go off the air and then disappear forever. Or, at least, until someone paid to air reruns.
It’s interesting to see what Disney is and isn’t willing to censor for the sake of the Chinese market.
Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets is coming to the Criterion Collection, which means that now is as good a time as any to revisit Bill Ryan’s obit of Bogdanovich that goes deep on what made Targets so interesting.
I enjoyed doing my friend Aaron MacLean’s podcast, School of War, to talk about war movies. Fun show!
Assigned Viewing: Role Models (Prime Video)
If you want to watch a funny movie with Paul Rudd this weekend, have I got a good one for you!
This makes me wonder if the "horror boom" in entertainment and "news" is distracting us, desensitizing us and diverting our attention from the horror of growing alt-fascism as the nation and the world slouch toward authoritarian autocracy and climate catastrophe. This storyline does not seem to be heading toward a happy ending!
“So don’t talk to me about hours when YOU’RE STANDING OVER THERE, AND YOU’RE STANDING OVER THERE, AND I DON’T KNOW WHICH WAY IS UP!”