There aren't a great deal of mavericks left in the film industry, but that doesn't mean they are an extinct species. is one of the most successful and influential figures in the industry today, and has found a way to be independent-minded while still achieving big-studio levels of financial reward. He has been behind horror film triumphs like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Sinister, and The Purge while also backing indie gems like The FP and The Bay. This week, Oculus, the latest haunted house flick in his repertoire, hits theaters and is sure to give even the most jaded of genre fans powerful nightmares.
I was lucky enough to sit down with Jason to discuss not only Oculus, but also to allow him to share pages from his personal producer's playbook to see if he could mold us into proper horror film moguls.
First things first, when searching for a horror film to put your name on, you've got to select the perfect subgenre. Blum has demonstrated an astonishing adeptness for haunted house movies. Is this subgenre resurgent or did it never leave us in the first place?
I think if [haunted house movies] were inching backwards, Oren [Peli's] "Paranormal Activity" moved them back to front and center. In a certain way I think it’s the ultimate haunted house movie. It definitely made them more popular.
When asked about the staying power of this subgenre, Jason hit the nail right on the head...
As someone who worked on scary movies all the time, the place you feel most vulnerable is your house, particularly your bedroom. That’s where you’re the safest. And if that’s safety, if you’re house is invaded in any way, that’s when you’re the most scared. That’s why the haunted house movie is so particularly appealing.
So we've selected our subgenre, but where do you find movies that you want to back? We asked Jason where he came across Oculus...
I came on the movie once it was complete. I saw the movie at Toronto, and I loved it. I felt it had something in common with "Sinister," "Insidious," and "The Purge." The distribution of "Oculus" was unclear and I offered to jump in and see if I could help get it out in a bigger way than it looked like it was going to.
What if we come on to a movie more at the onset, but we don't have a truckload of cash to put behind it. Blum has repeatedly been able to spin small-budget projects into box office gold without sacrificing innovative ideas and execution. How does that work?
Budget is much less a function of commerce and much more a function of creativity. If you make a scary for a very low budget, you can take risks. Not everything we do gets a wide release. Not everything we do becomes a big financially success. But when it doesn’t the movies recoup, so we can keep trying to take risks. If it comes out in a limited basis, no one makes any money, but no one loses. That allows us to try new things. What I’m always looking for, which is very different than what I would do if I worked for a studio, is what is a different, new angle. If you come with a new idea, which is really hard to do for a scary movie that can be made inexpensively, chances are, depending on who’s directing it, we’ll make that. So that’s what I’m looking for, as opposed to checking boxes, which is how most people look for movies.
So now we just need the perfect director and writer. Any tips for who we should be looking for? How can we afford established talent?
We usually work with directors with two or three movies under their belt, sometimes more. We give them total creative control and creative cut in exchange for keeping the budget very very low. That’s our model on the director side is working with seasoned people who want a shot at making something that’s wholly their own in exchange for very little money.
In terms of writers, Blum is also not afraid to cultivate talent from unexpected places. For Sinister, he brought on as a co-writer C. Robert Cargill, who had been a film critic for Ain't It Cool News for several years. So seasoned directors ready to do something more creative than the Hollywood system would afford them and talented writers from unexpected creative outlets? Got it!
But once our movie is finished, how should we distribute? Given the popularity of VOD and streaming services, should we even bother with the theatrical model anymore?
VOD is a sustainable rival to DVD, but I don’t think it’s a sustainable rival to theatrical release. I think it complements theatrical release. I think the VOD model will keep movies relevant, particularly to young people who are used to being able to see whatever they want whenever they want on whatever kind of device they want. I think holding movies back from them only really hurts the movies. So I think VOD overall will be very beneficial to the movie business, and complement the theatrical side of the business. Not rival it.
So VOD as a complement but not an alternative to theatrical? Got it. Now, marketing the movie. Do we need to spend a great deal on print and advertising? Is social media a viable tool for marketing? Does it really yield results?
Initially they did not intend to release the movie wide. The initial plan was to go limited, which is what they did on the first weekend. Then, I think 50% because of the movie and 50% because of the marketing campaign, it took off and the next weekend they opened it wide. The “Demand It” campaign that Paramount came up with was really a result of the fact that they were told that instead of having (for example) $30 million to release this, you’re gonna have $3 million. I don’t know if those are the exact numbers, but the idea grew out of having to work within financial parameters.
Great, this is all fantastic advice. So once we've achieved success, and reach a point wherein we have many upcoming projects on our agenda, what should we say if some dopey online film writer happens to ask us which of our in-development projects we're most excited for?
Oh my god, I don't have a favorite child! Are you kidding? I'm excited about all our movies. I'm most excited about "Oculus" because it opens this week.
Oculus is currently in theaters, so what are you waiting for? Go check it out.