From “Paranormal Activity” to “The Purge,” producer Jason Blum has been the driving force behind many of the defining horror films of the last decade.
His influence isn’t just creative. He’s also revolutionized the way these films are made, creating a compensation structure that encourages top talent to take a percentage of the profits in return for working for less money up front. That’s kept budgets low and resulted in a spectacularly successful run of cost-efficient smashes.
Blum is out in force at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW), where he has three films screening — “Hush,” a home invasion thriller that got snapped by Netflix; “In a Valley of Violence,” a western with Ethan Hawke and John Travolta; and “Alive and Kicking,” a swing dance documentary — that show his gaze is wider than just shock and scares.
Before taking off for the Austin-based festival, Blum spoke with Variety about what the future holds for horror films, movie marketing and his company, Blumhouse Productions.
How is SXSW different from other festivals?
It’s a little more consumer-facing. The audience in Austin is a little broader, so it’s a fun way to gauge how a movie will play. Because of the music and the technology that’s there, there’s a wider array of folks. Sundance is such an acquisition-frenzied, industry-centric experience, and at SXSW many of the movies have distribution. And the focus is more on positioning the movie as opposed to selling them. People are more relaxed. They’ve just come out of the slopes of Utah with their shoulders above their ears.
What can you tell us about the films you have at this year’s festival?
They all have our stamp on them, but they’re all super different. The thing these three movies illustrate that we do and that I’m most proud of about our little company is that we work with people over and over again. This is our fourth movie with Ethan [Hawke], it’s our third movie with [“Hush” director] Mike Flanagan.
Why is that important to you?
They wouldn’t work with us multiple times if they didn’t have a good experience. With our model, they’re not working for money up front. The most important part of the overall strategy is that people take bets on themselves and if it works out, they’re well compensated for it.
You are rewarded in success and so we need to have a transparent process. This shows that we keep our word. The most effective tool I have to work with artists I admire is to point to other artists that I admire, and show that I’ve worked with them many, many times. It’s not because I have option deals, it’s because they want to keep working with us.
What kinds of horror films are working right now?
It’s not really about what’s working and what’s not. Horror goes from being more supernatural and it swings back to being more bloody. There’s a bit of a pendulum, and now we’re seeing things get a little less supernatural. Great stories and acting always win the day. If the story behind the scares is dramatic and the filmmaking is great, it works. If those things aren’t great and the scares are secondary, it doesn’t. “Hush,” for instance has this terrific conceit where the woman is deaf and she can’t hear her stalker. It’s terrifying and unique, and those are the things that always rise to the top.
The movie business is dominated by tentpole films right now. Is it difficult for your movies, which are made for a fraction of the cost of major studio releases, to break through?
It’s harder and it’s easier. It’s harder to have a successful wide release for scary movies, for our movies, when you’re competing with “Star Wars” and “Spider-Man.” It’s easier in the sense that companies like Netflix and HBO are around and that helps make our movies more accessible. Take something like “Creep,” which we were here with two years ago.
[Editor’s note: “Creep” was released on-demand in 2015 before debuting globally on Netflix]. More people saw “Creep” because of the way it was marketed and distributed than would have six or seven years ago. It would have played in the middle of the night on cable or gone straight to DVD and only the diehard fans would have seen it. Because of Netflix, millions more people got to see it.
You’ve been experimenting with how films are distributed and marketed through BH Tilt, your multi-platform release label. Last fall, you released “The Green Inferno” in fewer theaters, and got the word out by relying more heavily on digital promotion than broadcast ads. How is it working?
We’re still experimenting. We haven’t had a home run yet and we haven’t struck out either. “The Green Inferno” did as billed, it didn’t break any records. Next up is “The Darkness” on May 13. We believe this is where marketing is going. It’s where young people are. The audience that’s under 25, most of those people see things their friends recommend, and we think that grassroots marking is just becoming more relevant than ever before. You can’t market something that doesn’t deliver. You can’t do that anymore. It raises the bar for all of us who make movies or TV.