Jason Blum is the CEO of Blumhouse Productions, the horror specialists who have made a habit of delivering studio-size hits from indie-size budgets. Since hitting it big in 2007 with Paranormal Activity (budget: $15,000, box office: $193 million) Blum & Co have followed up with three sequels (a 4th comes out later this year) that cost less than $5 million each but earned more than $500 million in total.
They've also made a series of other tidily profitable scare fests including Dark Skies (budget: $3 million, box office: $23 million), Sinister (budget $3 million, box office: $77 million) and Insidious (budget: $1.5 million, box office: $97 million; sequel on the way...).
Next up is The Purge - out now in the UK, next week in the US - a suburban horror where, for one night of the year, all crime is legal. We sat down with Blum to discover the secret of his success and what the future holds.
|Jason Blum with Ethan Hawke, star of The Purge|
The Purge raises a lot of questions about modern society, in much the same way as, say, The Stepford Wives did in the 70s. Did you deliberately set out to make a horror that asked those kind of questions?
No, it was just an added bonus. I think the minute you set out to do that, you're in trouble. I set out to make fun, entertaining, original, weird horror movies. And the great thing about working in low budget is that it allows you the creative freedom to do that. The social commentary in The Purge existed in the concept when it was first pitched to me and existed in the script, so it didn't surprise us, you know, when the movie came out. It was there the whole time. But it wasn't a driving force to do the movie. I just like making horror movies that are unexpected.
Were you a horror fan growing up?
Actually, I studied film in school and I took a seminar in Hitchcock. We watched every Hitchcock movie. I always said 'I can't believe I'm taking a college class and I get to watch every Hitchcock movie', but it actually turned out to be useful in my life. I particularly love Rebecca, and Rope. His movies are awesome.
Rope could almost be a template for a Blumhouse film: high concept, low budget...
Yeah, Rope would be perfect for us. And the one take thing? It'd be like, 'Why not? Let's try it.' But, you know, our movies will never be nearly as good as his movies, but it's a good thing to aspire to.
You tend to give your directors a lot of freedom. Most of them get final cut, don't they?
|When I'm sitting with a director, I always say to them, 'I can't promise you a hit, but I can promise you the movie will be your movie'|
The reason that we do that is you can't ask someone to work for free, to work for back end - so basically to bet on themselves - and then not let them on bet on themselves. So when I'm sitting with a director, I always say to them, 'I can't promise you a hit, but I can promise you the movie will be your movie. Every creative choice, you're gonna own'. The minute you say that, the minute they're not threatened, they start asking you for your advice: Who would you cast? What would you do? Which is great.
That's not a very standard arrangement though.
It's not. And it's still a struggle in the Hollywood agency/representation world, you know, to do that. Not with the talent, but with the lawyers especially and agents. This idea that you're going to turn down a paycheque to work for back end is quite foreign to most of them.
That's why the model's hard to emulate.
But it's a model that ensures the films are low budget enough to be almost risk-free. Yet they seem to get much wider distribution than other small films. How do you manage that?
Well first of all, a lot of the movies you'd be comparing us to aren't trying to do that. Most independent movies, the aim is Sundance, Spirit Awards, great reviews and the art house cinema. Like, that's the goal. We set out on every movie we make to get a wide release. We don't always get a wide release, but that to me is a good thing.
Because the great thing about making movies for less than 5 million dollars as opposed to 20 million dollars is, if you make a movie for 20 million dollars and it's bad, you've still got to have a wide release to try and get a return - and that's not pretty for anybody! We keep our budgets down, so we can take chances. If the movies don't come out, then we do a limited release. It's not the end of the world. No one loses money. As you say, it's relatively as risk free as you can get for the movie business. So that's one thing. But as I say, we're trying to design movies specifically for a wide release.
It seems to be working rather well so far.
There are a lot of reasons... it's not like there's some secret sauce in the model. I got super lucky with Paranormal Activity. Incredibly lucky. And rather than use that to make more expensive movies, I wanted to use that success to build a model to make low budget wide release movies. And I think a lot of other people in Hollywood are interested in doing those only when they can't get a big movie going. We're not trying to make big movies. These movies are not our second choice. It's not a substitute for us. It is our first, second and third choice. And I think that's very different to other producers who've done a lot. I have the ability to make bigger studio movies and I choose not to. I think that is unusual and helps make the model work.
So, having built a successful model for making low budget, wide release film, do you think you could apply it to other genres?
I think high concept thriller, definitely. Sci-fi definitely. Action... to a certain degree, depending on the scope of the action. Comedy? No way.
Why not comedy?
I can't recall a comedy in the last decade made for less than five million dollars that got released on thousands of screens. Maybe Jackass? I just think comedy is much more sensitive to movie stars. If people are going to the mall to see a comedy, Steve Carrell or someone like that has to be in it.
What about dramas?
An independent drama, by definition, is low budget drama and there's a limited audience for those. The audience for drama is really much more migrated to television. And I think that drama is much, much better on TV than almost all movies. There are always exceptions - say, recently, Before Midnight. But there are maybe five Before Midnights a year, while on TV almost every week there's something great.
People watch TV on so many different platforms now. Do you see movies going the same way?
I hope so, and I hope it's not more than five years. It's an incredibly wasteful system. It pushes people to pirate movies. I think it's really bad for the business. My movies, as well as they've done theatrically, if the models were better, they'd do way better. Twice as many people see my movies than pay for them. It's fine to put ads on TV, saying, "Don't pirate" but that's like telling your kids not to go to parties and drink. It's not realistic. The model, the distribution for movies, is broken right now. And it has to get fixed.
What's next for Blumhouse?
We've got Insidious 2 and Paranormal 5 this year. And then a Lionsgate movie, Jezebel, in the new year.
So, no sign of Area 51? [Long rumoured 'found footage' film from Paranormal's Oren Peli]
Definitely not this year. Possibly next year. It ain't good yet, but it might get good! We're still fussing with it...
Interview by Aubrey Day