There is a mysterious period in life – in growing up – that comes when you know just enough about the world to consider it, but not enough to worry about it. When you’re too young for responsibilities but old enough to drive and think about sex and have an opinion on music, your knowledge of the world feels weightless and your appetite for fear, pretty hefty.
Jason Blum knows exactly who he makes his horror films for, and most of them fit right into this category.
“Women under 25. That’s our biggest audience. Girls like to take their boyfriends to a scary movie and scream. They like being scared together with their friends; I think that’s it,” says Blum who is 46, a supremely experienced Emmy-winning Hollywood producer, and known as the “King of Horror” these days (a title he says is very upsetting to his parents). But he doesn’t feel like any of these things; he’s youthful, animated and gracious. He actually doesn’t seem too far from his own target audience - the kids who simply crave a little fun. And Hollywood? Well, sitting here in Blumhouse Productions HQ in Historic Filipinotown, Hollywood feels a million miles away. Across the street is a homeless healthcare clinic and across from that a big empty parking lot sits covered in graffiti.
The sheer volume of films is impressive but it’s the numbers people love to talk about: Paranormal Activity, Blum’s first big hit, cost only $15,000 to make and grossed 193 million dollars at the box office. Even after considering marketing costs, the return is enormous. Since Paranormal Activity, production budgets have increased but are still only a fraction of those typical in Hollywood. And it’s not a fluke; it’s a model tightly and artfully adhered to. Blumhouse Productions work on micro‐budgets producing horror movie franchises that get a mainstream release through major studios (they have a first‐look deal with Universal). With such small production budgets, the movies are almost guaranteed to at least break even at the box office. This low‐cost, low‐risk approach means more creative freedom and most importantly, more films get made.
But it’s 2015 and the world is quite literally on fire; why is horror such a bankable genre?
“I think it’s for the same reason that people want to go on a rollercoaster. It gets your adrenaline going, you feel alive. People love to tempt fate, they always have, and movies do it mentally,” Blum says as if he’s letting me in on a secret. “You can’t control the bad news. But you know you’re not going to get hurt when you watch a horror movie. Scary movies go in and out of fashion, but I feel like the time when they’re most popular is when the world is most chaotic.”
Blum hasn’t always worked in horror, it’s only been in the past few years that he’s made this name for himself and even then he’ll throw a curveball, like last year’s Whiplash, which won three of the five Academy Awards it was nominated for. With horror treated as the ugly stepsister in Hollywood, you’d think that all the positive attention for Whiplash would be embraced, but Blum says it only strengthened his love for making horror films.
Scary movie fans pay 12 bucks on a Friday night to go out and be scared and I think there’s something very liberating to that.
“I just love the community. It’s a bunch of misfits. I think people who make scary movies are much more supportive and nurturing. And scary movie fans are my favorite fans because they – or ‘we’ I should say – are oddballs. Scary movie fans pay 12 bucks on a Friday night to go out and be scared and I think there’s something very liberating to that,” Blum says.
But don’t get him wrong, he still watches and enjoys the Oscar films, sometimes as much as he enjoys watching horror films, though what you watch and what you work on are two different things. Blum grew up in the art world; his mother is an art historian and his father is Irving Blum, owner of the Ferus Gallery and one of the most prominent art dealers of the '60s representing Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and Lichtenstein, among others. Producing horror films feels like a departure from this world, a fact that Blum – who has a permanent roguish look about him – is aware of. “Well yeah, the world I grew up in definitely is the Oscar‐friendly world of movies, more critical. I like having my toe in the water but not my body,” he says laughing, “I like spending a little of my time there, but not most of it.”
It’s a passion for telling stories that are different. It’s not that everyone doesn’t want to do unique stories, but it’s very difficult to say that and be making movies for 50 million dollars.
Considering the plot of the sixth and final Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, Blum’s happily staying put in his scary movie world. In the film, a family moves into a new home and finds a box of 20‐year‐old VHS tapes and an old video camera. On the tapes we see a young Katie and Kristi, the series’ long‐ running and ill‐fated characters, receiving lessons in supernatural abilities from their grandmother. When the girls start to respond – through the screen – to the family on the other side, a portal is opened and the series’ demon, Toby, can go after the family’s young daughter. The film is terrifying and immensely creative, a near impossible feat six films into a franchise, making clear the filmmakers’ passion for the story and a do‐or‐die commitment to scaring the shit out of their audiences.
“It’s a passion for telling stories that are different. It’s not that everyone doesn’t want to do unique stories, but it’s very difficult to say that and be making movies for 50 million dollars. As soon as you’re risking that kind of money you have to water down your storytelling. Unless you’re 5 directors – David Fincher, Jim Cameron... – but if you’re one of the rest of us, cutting the budget is another way to do that,” Blum says, who made Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension for 5 million dollars.
If I was running a company where we did 30 million dollar movies and someone pitched me the idea for The Purge I’d say, ‘We’re never making that.’
Blum goes on to explain why most of the films he’s made, really shouldn’t have been made. “If I was running a company where we did 30 million dollar movies and someone pitched me the idea for The Purge I’d say, ‘We’re never making that. That’s a crazy fucking idea, there are just too many ways the story could go wrong. It’s too close to real life,’” he says. “That’s why we can make movies like The Gift which came out on 2500 screens, it’s going to make over 40 million dollars, it’s got 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and the lead of the movie may have raped his wife! When does that happen at the cineplex? I mean at Sundance, it happens in every movie,” he says laughing.
BH Tilt is all about experimenting with new forms of distribution and marketing and helping filmmakers bring their die-hard horror movies to audiences. – John Hegeman
Pulling the plug on enormous production budgets is one way to shake up the long‐held Hollywood model for commercial films; dipping into the distribution and marketing side of the industry is another, and that’s where Blum’s new BH Tilt comes in. The genre‐specific label will release films that cater specifically to the strong contingent of horror fans that Blumhouse has ring‐fenced, and the marketing model will follow suit with a targeted digital and social focus. "BH Tilt is all about experimenting with new forms of distribution and marketing and helping filmmakers bring their die‐hard horror movies to audiences,” says BH Tilt’s John Hegeman. Their first big release, Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno, is about a group of student activists taken captive by a tribe of hungry cannibals in the Peruvian jungle. Described as “awesomely gory,” it’s the perfect film to test out the new model on; this is not a horror conversion film for those sitting on the fence, it’s for the die‐hard fan with a pre‐existing penchant for twisted and terrifying squirm‐in‐your‐seat stories.
The entire genre seems to be moving towards Blum’s beck and call; financially speaking, he is easily horror’s most successful producer but he also just gets his audience, which is now being fed not just through his films, but also through a constant stream of scary stories on the recently re-launched blumhouse.com. “Horror is most effective when you inject it with fun,” Blum says. “There are some horror movies that are just bleak rides that start sad and go from bad to worse, never taking your foot off the gas but I don’t like those movies particularly. They just aren’t my taste and they also aren’t commercial. In order for it to have a cultural impact and not just be a niche movie with a small release on Netflix, there has to be some fun in it. It can’t be just gross.”
On paper, the films Blum makes do not appear to be fun. Siblings brutally murdering their parents, a family trying to survive an annual 12‐hour window where all criminal activity is legalised, demented grandparents tormenting their grandchildren... Someone who’s not a horror fan would wonder about the mental state of these filmmakers. But a horror fan doesn’t look at it on paper; they feel the fear and they laugh at the humor, they watch the film not as world‐weary adults but as risk‐takers who go in asking “what if” instead of “why the hell?”
Beloved horror writer and director Guillermo del Toro, for example, describes himself as a freak and says he identifies with monsters. Horror fans seem to give their imagination more breathing room, hand it some crayons and let it color in a few blank pages. Blum exhibits this all over the place from the van he fitted out into a mobile office complete with wifi, a printer, and a sofa to work from; to the live immersive events he produces like The Purge: Breakout where fans were trapped in a violent house and forced to make an escape. This marriage of imagination and ambition is not strictly about age, but it tends to be linked. Del Toro says that “when you get comfortable, you start growing old.” Being entertained by a horror film is really just a state of mind.
“I know Guillermo really does, but I don’t believe in the supernatural,” Blum says. “I’ve had one experience in my 46 years when I saw this figure at the end of my bed. I was living in New York and I’ve never been able to explain it. It wasn’t a dream but it still hasn’t made me believe in ghosts. I think it’s more complicated than what science can explain.”
So if he’s not afraid of ghosts, then what is Jason Blum the King of Horror afraid of?
“That’s a question for my shrink! What am I afraid of? Well, so many things. I’m not afraid of experiences – like flying or eating weird foods or walking in a bad neighbourhood. I try everything new,” he says cautiously, smiling, “but internally, well... I have lots of fears; there are plenty of them lurking in my brain.”
And with that, we were off to see the view from the rooftop – which is stunning – and the red velvet seats that Blum salvaged from the Chinese Theater to use in his screening room. Posing next to an old popcorn machine and vintage candy jars, Blum relays some history of the building and talks about his mobile office van. There is no end to Blum’s enthusiasm for what he does. The financials of his company can be blinding, they can paint a picture of him as a serious man in a fancy corner office capitalising on an ostracised genre with a large hungry audience. But in Blum’s case it seems to be a balance of brains and perfectly placed passion: a misfit businessman who just wants to have a little fun.
Blumhouse Productions and Paramount Pictures’ Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is in theaters on October 23. The new Blumhouse horror-themed game show, Hellevator, debuted on GSN on October 21.
This article was originally posted in the Moviepilot Magazine – Fear Issue.