Fright plan for all seasons

Horror mavens hone strategy in face of Oct. glut, DVD dip

In theory, October should be one of the best times to release a horror movie.

Yet the reality is that the weeks surrounding Halloween have scared off most studios for years: Lionsgate launched its “Saw” franchise in 2004 and has dominated the date with a new sequel each year.

With the exception of last year’s surprise hit “Paranormal Activity,” which hauled in $197 million worldwide after Paramount expanded the indie pickup’s playdates in October, most fright pics that unspool during the month have largely cannibalized each other’s runs at the megaplex.

That’s led studios to expand the scope of their horror releases beyond Halloween, which in turn has helped boost the box office potential of most genre pics, propped up a portion of the homevideo biz and encouraged the creation of new production shingles to get audiences’ pulses racing.

Last year, 24 horror films were released, according to Rentrak. Of those, only four went wide in October. In 2008, it was a similar story, with just three of the year’s 25 horror films playing broadly around Halloween.

This month, six horror titles have already struggled at the box office. Overture Films’ “Let Me In,” Paramount Vantage’s “Case 39” and specialty titles “Chain Letter,” “I Spit on Your Grave” and “Hatchet II” each earned less than $6 million during their first frames; Universal, on behalf of Rogue Pictures and Relativity Media, was able to do only slightly better with horror vet Wes Craven’s latest, “My Soul to Take,” opening to $6.8 million.

Paramount’s “Paranormal Activity 2,” out Oct. 22, and the seventh installment of the “Saw” franchise, in 3D on Oct. 29, are expected to easily resurrect the B.O. again while spilling a considerable amount of blood.

As the campaign so effectively put it one year: “If it’s Halloween, it must be ‘Saw.’?”

But until “Saw” has officially ended its run — the new pic’s tagline calls this installment the “final chapter” — most studios have opted to release their bigscreen bogeymen throughout the rest of the year, especially during the January to April span, to avoid the tricks, rather than the financial treats, October poses to distributors.

The month’s competition isn’t limited to megaplex tentpoles. Homevideo units at Warner Bros. and Universal are releasing director’s cuts or anniversary editions of “The Exorcist” (the top-grossing horror pic of all time) and “Psycho” (now 50 years old). On TV, AMC will start its new zombie series “The Walking Dead” on Halloween night. Videogame publishers are stealing away moviegoers with a new “Saw” game and a new “Castlevania” or horrific add-ons to hit games like “Left 4 Dead,” “Alan Wake” and “Red Dead Redemption.” Meanwhile, theme parks are hosting Halloween-themed makeovers while haunted house attractions are filling up weekends.

It’s telling when even longtime horror franchises like “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Friday the 13th,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Halloween” duck the October pileup.

“When you’re dealing with a specific genre, you want to avoid being in the throes of more competitive periods,” says one distrib executive. “So you look to a corridor where there’s been proven success.”

Studios have found a strong foothold for the horror genre during first quarter and end-of-summer play periods. The remake of “Nightmare” haunted dreams in April, debuting with a sizable $32.9 million and winding up with $63 million domestically, while “Daybreakers,” “Legion,” “The Wolfman” and “The Crazies” bowed before that, and “Splice” and “Piranha 3D” followed during the summer. “The Last Exorcism,” “Resident Evil: Afterlife” and “Devil” led into October.

And while Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” which Par pushed as a haunted asylum pic, shifted from October 2009 to February 2010 to balance fourth-quarter marketing costs, the switch paid off over the long haul as the film tapped nearly $130 million in domestic grosses.

Next year, the “Scream” franchise returns in April, along with a remake of “The Thing,” followed by “Priest” in May and “The Apparition” in September. DreamWorks’ remake of “Fright Night” was originally skedded for next October but has since shifted to Aug. 19.

Supernatural fare like “The Haunting” and “Paranormal Activity” is on the upswing after the reign of teen-skewing fare, torture porn pics and reboots and remakes of classics.

While some auds have moved on, distributors all point to the juggernaut that “Saw” has grown into over the last six years for Lionsgate and its Twisted Pictures producers.

To date, the franchise has earned $763 million at the global B.O., with DVD sales earning it closer to $1 billion.

The franchise’s dominance even forced After Dark, which produces an annual horror fest of “Eight Films to Die For,” to shift its event from November, where it ran for the event’s first two years, to January and February for the most recent runs. DVDs of the banner’s films are now released within the following two months.

“We’ve always avoided October on purpose” because of “Saw,” says After Dark CEO Courtney Solomon. “The natural instinct would be to put (After Dark’s films) out on Halloween. But to me, if the audience of a horror movie is interested in seeing it, they’ll see it whenever it comes out.”

So far, Solomon’s wisdom has been validated, with the fest having generated $2.6 million from a limited run in theaters over the past four years and the pics earning tenfold that on homevideo.

Despite the overall downturn in the homevid biz, Hollywood’s horror titles still sell and rent well, with October driving sales of recent studio chillers and library fare. Halloween ranks third behind Christmas and back-to-school season as the most important holiday sales stretch for retailers.

“Horror is an important genre for homevideo, but it peaks in mid-September through Oct. 31,” says Jeff Baker, exec VP and general manager of Warner Home Video’s theatrical catalog, which does well selling “The Shining,” “Poltergeist” and “The Exorcist” each year around Halloween.

This year, the studio is releasing an extended director’s cut of “The Exorcist” on Blu-ray for the first time with a slew of bonus features. It also launched “Splice,” the “Nightmare on Elm Street” remake and a third “Lost Boys” direct-to-DVD pic on DVD this month, while Fox is releasing “Predators,” and “Mirrors 2” and Universal is bowing the 50th anniversary edition of “Psycho” on Blu-ray.

While the sci-fi genre sells better than horror on home-video, the studio sees sales of horror titles grow 130%, on average, during the Halloween timeframe. Universal’s “Drag Me to Hell,” for example, earned $5.7 million from disc sales in its first week last October and went on to earn $13 million. The Sam Raimi pic had opened in May, earning $42 million in theaters.

Retailers give homevid such a push during the period that other films wind up flying off the shelves as well, including non-scarers like the “Transformers” sequel, “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” “The Proposal” and Disney’s “Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure.”

“Historically, horror has always been a good genre for sell-through, but we do have this peak period that’s become a very significant time of year,” Baker says. “Horror, like comedy, has good repeatability.”

But the DVD downturn has some horrormeisters recalibrating their plans.

Joel Silver’s Dark Castle Entertainment pulled the plug on plans to produce a series of direct-to-DVD projects, including a third installment to “House on Haunted Hill.” The producer began to pursue other projects when “that business fell off a cliff,” he said earlier this year. “That used to be a lucrative business, and we had great success in our DVD releases of our horror releases,” with “Gothika” performing well on DVD but “Orphan” disappointing.

Silver may be down on the horror biz of late, but it’s a market that has driven the bottom lines of labels like Twisted Pictures, Screen Gems and Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures, along with indies like Asylum, Magnolia’s Magnet and Anchor Bay, and brought
back Hammer Films from the dead, starting with “Let Me In.”

And there are plenty of newcomers looking to carve out a slice at the right price.

Former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash just launched Slasher Films as a production shingle, with an eye to co-producing, with Scout Prods. (“Session 9”), a slate of horror films that recall the thrillers from 1970s and ’80s.

Despite the uncertainty in the biz overall, horror retains a high profitability potential — from “Paranormal Activity,” with the highest budget-to-gross ratio ever, to the first “Saw,” which was produced for $1.2 million and went on to earn $103 million worldwide.