Jason Blum, the producer turning low-budget horror films like Get Out and Paranormal Activities into box office miracles
Blum’s company Blumhouse Production has made some of the most successful low-budget horror films ever. He talks about how to frighten people, working the greats and how Hollywood isn’t built to make good low-budget films
Whether you like his films or not, Jason Blum’s business model has been nothing short of spectacular. His company Blumhouse Productions has been behind some of the most financially successful horror movies of the 21st century – films like Insidious, Sinister and The Purge, all made with low overheads.
“Scaring people is best when it’s intimate,” explains Blum, 49. “All the things that make horror movies good are usually less expensive, not more expensive.”
The son of an art dealer, the Los Angeles-born Blum formed his company in 2000, after working both in the independent and studio sector. His game-changer was 2007’s Paranormal Activity. Oren Peli’s found-footage haunted house tale cost just US$15,000 and made US$193 million.
“Paranormal Activity was the ultimate independent film,” says Blum. Turning him into a “horror fanatic”, it also crystallised his methodology. “[After that] I kept saying I will make low-budget independently made films and work on having them released by a studio.”
Since then, he’s been good to his word, although this doesn’t explain why others haven’t followed suit. “It’s mostly ego in Hollywood,” he shrugs. “It’s so ingrained in every aspect of the system: the lawyers and the agents and the managers and the talent and the financiers. It’s so baked in.
“You have a movie, it’s successful, you make a more expensive movie. That’s just what you do. It’s America. We’re addicted to money. I think it’s one thing to say: ‘I will keep doing low budget movies’, but then to have success, and continue to do that, proves to be difficult for people’s egos.”
This month, Blumhouse releases Truth or Dare, the story of teens haunted by a malevolent spirit that forces them to play the popular party game or face dire consequences. “I just try and find concepts that are really relatable,” Blum says. “If they’re relatable, they’re scary.”
Directed by Jeff Wadlow, who previously had a rough ride on the maligned comic book sequel Kick-Ass 2, it stars Lucy Hale, Tyler Posey and a host of other up and comers. It cost just US$3.5 million, and has already made US$90 million.
Naturally, Blum is big into sequels. This year has already seen the release of Insidious: The Last Key , a prequel to his demonic possession franchise. Another origin story, The First Purge, is also on its way, filling in the blanks in this politically-tinged horror series about a futuristic America where one night every year all crime, including murder, is legal.
Both are the fourth entries into their respective franchises, but Blum points out that he’s encouraged the original creators to stay involved.
In the case of The Purge, James DeMonaco wrote all four episodes (and directed the first three). Similarly, Leigh Whannell penned all four Insidious episodes (while James Wan directed the first two in the series and produced all four).
“We get them back for two reasons: the ownership that they have in the movie and also we let them play around, we let them experiment.” But financially it makes sense too. “I would rather give up a bigger piece to the creators of these original movies in the hope that you’re giving up a bigger piece of a bigger pie.”
It’s almost the reverse policy of the Hollywood studios that view the horror genre “as a cash-grab”, says Blum. “They’re very inclined to have a hit, fire the people who made the hit because they’ve now become too expensive, [and] hire new people to keep it going.”
It’s why so many studio horror movies are a case of diminishing returns, littering the landscape with lousy sequels. Blum and his employees treat the genre with respect, but “we don’t take ourselves so seriously”, he adds.
Blum has even courted the creators of franchises he wasn’t originally involved in – notably John Carpenter, the director of iconic horror Halloween. The franchise is getting a new entry this coming October, with Jamie Lee Curtis returning to her signature role as Laurie Strode, as she faces off with the mask-wearing killer Michael Myers.
“It’s an outgrowth of Halloween,” says Blum, who brought Carpenter back to do the music (as he so memorably did for his 1978 movie) and be something of a godfather to the project.
He has also forged relationships with fallen directors in need of encouragement – notably, M. Night Shyamalan. His 2016 psycho-thriller Split , starring James McAvoy, was his best reviewed film in years.
Set in the same universe as his comic-book inspired film Unbreakable, which starred Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, it’s now led to the upcoming Glass, bringing all the characters together.
Blum is keeping tight-lipped on the plot, however. “Literally if I said that I think Night would burn my house down,” he grins.
Yet, while horror-thrillers are the mainstay of Blum’s operation, he’s not averse to branching out where possible. His company was behind the sublime Whiplash , the tale of a jazz drummer student and his hostile tutor that won Blum his first Oscar nomination for best picture.
Blum won an Emmy for the TV movie The Normal Heart, a hard-hitting Aids drama, and he’s just seen Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a true-life tale about a black police officer infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan, take the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Perhaps the biggest success was Jordan Peele’s Get Out , which won best screenplay at the Oscars this year, and was Blum’s second nomination for best picture. A smart mix of horror and race relations satire, it made an astounding US$255 million worldwide.
“I think it crossed over in the US because we have this horrible president who’s a racist!” says Blum, bluntly.” It fired up all those feelings again in the country.”
With the profits that low-budget films like this and Paranormal Activity have made, it still feels staggering that the studios are putting all their chips on giant blockbusters. “Studios aren’t built to make low-budget movies,” answers Blum.
“It’s very hard to ask a company that makes a US$220 million Star Wars movie to make a US$5 million movie. It’s like asking them to make soda pop. That’s how different the business is behind a low budget movie versus a tent-pole movie.”
Every week, Blum has an offer to make a big-budget film, but he refuses the temptation. “If we want to spend a lot of money, we do it in TV,” he adds, noting they just co-produced Sharp Objects, a small-town murder mystery miniseries starring Amy Adams based on the debut novel by Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn.
“I try to do new things in the space I’m in, but I’m not actively seeking to get out of my [comfort zone]… I like my thriller-horror-action low-budget genre space. I hope to remain there for a long time.”
Truth or Dare opens on June 28
Want more articles like this? Follow SCMP Film on Facebook