Long rooted in action pix, indies make horror their genre of choice

For several decades, as studio pics themed around heists, terrorist plots, high-tech espionage and global disasters packed theaters, inexpensively produced indie knockoffs starring B-list action heroes performed almost as reliably at the videostore.

Lately, however, the big-budget action-thriller has perhaps shown the age of the venerable generation of stars that made it such a box office staple in the first place, with recent releases including “Firewall,” “Hostage” and “Mission: Impossible III,” just to name a few, not performing up to the level of earlier genre predecessors.

Meanwhile, in the age of DVD sell-through, the made-for-homevid segment of the action-thriller biz has also experienced a drop-off in consumer demand, indie suppliers say.

“I think there are only so many Stephen Baldwin action films the public will see,” notes a home entertainment exec for a top indie distrib. “Action-thrillers had been the staple of the independent film business for a long time, but I think horror replaced that.”

Of course, no one is suggesting that action films with name-brand stars no longer perform in the direct-to disc marketplace. But genre-wise, horror seems to be scaring up the bigger profits these days, with ghost-, demon- and serial-killer-themed properties benching well above their cost-of-production weight at the box office, and in both the homevid retail and rental realms, too.

And as they are prone to do when a genre clicks, indie suppliers are flooding the homevid market with inexpensively produced scary movies.

“Horror seems to have maintained quite a presence lately. There’s tons of it,” says Paul Gardner, president of Union Station Media, which plans to itself steer clear of this traffic by releasing only one horror title this year. “You just have to look at the video wholesaler publications to see just how many horror titles there are in the marketplace right now.”

“The category has definitely had an uptick, no question about it,” adds Ron Schwartz, exec VP and G.M. for Lionsgate Home Entertainment. These days, of the eight to 10 DVD premiere titles the company releases a month, often as many as four are horror, he notes.

For its part, Lionsgate has been at the forefront of this scare surge. The sudden spike in horror output is ubiquitously traced to the indie’s “Saw” and “Saw II,” which drew $55 million and $87 million at the domestic box office, respectively — and more than surpassed those totals through DVD sell-through and rental, according to Schwartz.

Gardner ties the uptick to Lionsgate’s 2002 sleeper hit “Cabin Fever,” which took in more than $21 million at the domestic gate — and millions of dollars more on DVD — but was produced on a budget of less than $2 million.

“Asian horror has really come on strong, as well,” adds Randy Wells, VP, Magnolia Home Entertainment, which just acquired a South Korean film about bloodthirsty mutants, “The Host,” at Cannes.

Typically, an R rating is an albatross for a studio picture. But according to Schwartz, it worked as a competitive advantage for “Cabin Fever.” “It helped it get to the core audience for (horror) films,” he says. “You don’t see the studios today producing a lot of R-rated horror films.”

Producing and distributing horror holds other advantages for indies.

Unlike action thrillers — which, in the direct-to-homevid realm, are typically sold around known performers such as Steven Seagal, Ice-T and Jean-Claude Van Damme — horror titles manage to generate sales without name-brand thesps attached to them.

In fact, the genre’s appeal is in its scary story concepts, and it tends to attract talented young filmmakers skilled at infusing decent production values using the latest digital technologies. All of this makes it easier to achieve a theatrical-level feel for a direct-to-disc horror title than it might be for other film genres.

“We put out a horror movie not long ago called ‘The Ghosts of Edendale.’ The whole movie was made incredibly inexpensively on a laptop, yet it competed in the marketplace,” says Arnie Holland, prexy and CEO fo Lightyear Entertainment. “We put it out with a good cover, and that movie did well for us.”

Of course, the proliferation of horror titles is creating what Wells calls “a very competitive marketplace.” In fact, some industryites are comparing the flurry of scary movies to the glut of so-called “urban” titles several years ago, when, every month, suppliers were shoveling dozens of ultra-low-budget shoot-’em-up pics starring rappers into the marketplace. That bloated genre soon subsided under its own weight.

“Independent and studio video suppliers were putting a ton of urban product into the market,” Gardner notes. “They used to be able to throw anything out there and it would sell, but after a couple of years the market couldn’t absorb any more of the product.”

“What we’re seeing in horror is very similar to what we saw with urban titles a few years ago,” agrees Jeff Clanagan, CEO and prexy of Codeblack Entertainment. “You have a ton of content coming out on a conveyer belt right now.”

For horror producers and distribs, that’s downright scary.

(Daniel Frankel contributed to this story.)

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