Horror genre gets mixed messages

Auds check out of 'Hostel,' into '1408'

For box office watchers, the summer has provided a mixed message on the health of the horror genre.

Lionsgate’s “Hostel: Part II” has made a slim $17.6 million, but Dimension’s “1408” has turned into one of the summer’s sleeper hits, scaring up $68.5 million domestically after costing less than $25 million to make.

What’s happening is simple: More supply, and a more discerning audience. With so many titles to choose from, the fans are getting more selective. Yes, there are more horror films flopping, but that’s because there are more in the market.

But after horror was considered a sure bet for many years, this “market correction” is still terrifying for genre labels and production companies that scrambled to get in on the blood rush.

The allure was powerful: Great profit margins, as slashers and thrillers don’t cost much to make. And they often did good B.O., great DVD biz, and offered studios a chance to work with new filmmakers and talent.

“There was a time when, spaced correctly, even the horror films that weren’t that good would do respectable business,” says one studio distribution topper. “Now, because there are so many of them, only the really good ones survive. Everybody is looking for lightning.”

Year-to-date, horror films have generated roughly $265 million in box office receipts, according to Rentrak. That compares to $405 million in the same frame last year.

Horror has always gone through cycles. Helping to drive the latest downturn is the seeming decline in the appetite for the latest trend: hardcore, R-rated titles. The original “Hostel” scared up an impressive $47 million in domestic box office receipts; since its release on June 8, “Hostel II” has grossed $17.6 million.

The release of “Saw IV” on Oct. 26 will be a clear test of whether the subgenre is officially endangered.

To a large degree, it was the first “Saw” that sparked the latest horror boom. Debuting in October 2004, the film grossed more than $55 million domestically. “Saw II” made $87 million, while “Saw III,” released last October, grossed $80.2 million. Lionsgate is home studio to the “Saw” franchise, as well as to Eli Roth’s “Hostel” series.

In July, hardcore horror title “Captivity” opened at a mere $1.4 million from 1,061 locations. The pic’s release had been delayed over an advertising flap between distrib After Dark Films and the MPAA ratings board, which was deluged with complaints about the gruesome marketing campaign for the film.

The PG-13 “1408,” based on a short story by horror maven Stephen King and starring John Cusack, represents a swing back to more traditional scare fare. The film, distributed by MGM for Dimension, continues to have a spot on the top 10 list.

“By being rated PG-13, people knew it would only go so far. It is more psychological, vs. being about people getting harmed. Consequently, we drew a slightly older audience of both men and women, although older women are our No. 1 demographic,” says MGM prexy of distribution Clark Woods.

So far this year, “1408” is the horror success story at the box office. Fox Atomic says it will turn a profit from sequel “28 Weeks Later,” which has grossed $28.6 million domestically. Despite its cume, “28 Weeks” seemed to get lost in the summer tentpole shuffle, overshadowed by event pics.

It’s been a bloodletting across various horror subgenres, beginning in January with the disappointing perf of “The Hitcher,” which topped out at $16.4 million. Warner Bros.’ Hilary Swank starrer “The Reaping” came and went, making $25.1 million. “The Hills Have Eyes II,” released in March, made $20.8 million; last year, the first “Hills Have Eyes” (a remake) pulled in $41.8 million.

Any number of horror titles in 2006 found their groove at the domestic box office, including remake “The Omen” ($54.6 million), “Silent Hill” ($47 million), “When a Stranger Calls” ($47.9 million), “The Descent” ($26 million), “The Grudge 2” ($39.1 million) and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” ($39.5 million).

Now the distribs are rushing to re-evaluate their release skeds.

Warner Bros. recently decided not to open “Trick ‘R Treat,” produced by Bryan Singer, on Oct. 5. The movie has been pushed back to next year, although it has no set release date.

Lionsgate moved the release of English-language remake “The Eye,” starring Jessica Alba, from Oct. 12 to Feb. 8 of next year.

“Because the horror genre has been such an easy one and so profitable, I think the market became flooded,” Fox Searchlight distribution topper Steve Gilula says.

“Everybody jumped in. That’s why you see this explosion of remakes and new genres like ‘torture porn,’ ” Gilula says. “It is much easier to scare people than to make them laugh.”

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