Girls’ fright out

Horror pics bank on new femme fanbase

When you think of hardcore horror fans, the demographic image is that of nerdy guys in basements.

But Hollywood distribution and marketing pros — who have glutted October this year with horror pics including “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning,” “The Grudge 2” and “Saw III” — have been banking on a growing female fanbase that’s keeping genre fare in high demand.

Studio execs have noticed for the past few years — in the wake of PG-13 hits such as 2002’s “The Ring” ($129 million) and 2004’s “The Grudge” ($110 million) — that females under 25 made up a large chunk of B.O. bucks. Exit polls show that slightly more women than men saw “Grudge 2” over its opening weekend.

But even as a string of gorier, harder-edged slasher pics — including the “Saw” franchise — have entered the market, they are pulling in women with their way perhaps paved by their PG-13 predecessors.

The trend mirrors the popularity of R-rated comedies with both sexes — one that began with “American Pie” and extended through “There’s Something About Mary” and “The Wedding Crashers.”

“There’s no question that female audiences for horror films have increased over the past few years,” says Tom Ortenberg, distribution head of Lionsgate, which will roll out “Saw III” Halloween weekend, as well as “Hostel 2.”

“Our exit polls showed that audiences for both ‘Saw’ and ‘Hostel” were split 50-50. Horror films make great escapist entertainment and everybody likes being scared.”

In advance of the latest R-rated “Texas Chainsaw” from New Line, the pic was tracking significantly higher with women under 25 than with their male counterparts.

“I had seen this trend emerging over the past few years starting with the demographics of ‘The Ring,'” says Vertigo Entertainment’s Roy Lee, producer on both the “Ring” and “Grudge” franchises. “The female audience, particularly under 24, had a larger than expected percentage. Then, with the release of ‘The Grudge,’ the trend was definitely more noticeable.”

Lee — who keeps his pics PG-13 to woo larger demos — also points out that the trend is global.

“I had been told by Hideo Nakata (director of the 1998 Japanese horror pic “Ringu,” which inspired “The Ring”) that the young female audience was the driving force behind the (film’s) popularity in Japan. He said he would go to the early screenings of the movie and would see all the young schoolgirls emerge from the theater and immediately text message their friends to say how scary they thought the movie was.”

“Young girls play a significant part of the audience,” says Rory Bruer, prexy of distribution at Sony, which recently rolled out “Grudge 2” to a $22 million opening. “Horror films become a sort of group participation experience. It can provoke screaming. It can provoke laughter. There’s a communal part to the film.”

But Bruer adds, “There is a level of (violence) that young females will feel comfortable with and I do think that some of the R-rated films go far beyond that.”

Distributors have traditionally rolled out horror pics around Halloween to take advantage of the spooky season, but now October is brimming with competing pics.

On top of the consecutive rollouts this month of “Chainsaw,” “Grudge” and “Saw,” Compass Pictures Intl. is rolling out a digitally remastered “Halloween” on 150 screens through the country’s largest exhib chain Regal on Oct. 31.

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