‘Don’t Breathe’ Won’t Cure Hollywood’s Blockbuster Addiction

Hollywood has an addiction to sequels and reboots — and “Don’t Breathe” won’t be the cure.

Produced by Sony for roughly $9.8 million and marketed for less than $20 million, the story of a gang of teenagers who make a deadly mistake by picking on the wrong blind man, debuted to a smashing $26.1 million this weekend. It will be one of the rare major studio releases this summer to make back its budget in a matter of days. It also extends a string of economical horror hits — building on the success of “The Purge: Election Year,” “The Shallows,” “The Conjuring 2” and “Lights Out,” four recent winners that carry an average budget of $17.9 million, a fraction of what it costs to reassemble the Avengers every summer. Success like that leads to the obvious question: why aren’t there more “Don’t Breathes”?

After all, “Don’t Breathe” will certainly enjoy more capacious profit margins and represent a better return on capital than, say, “Suicide Squad.” That superhero spinoff has made more than $600 million globally, but it cost $175 million to make and tens of millions to market, putting a far greater strain on its backers’ time and treasury.

Popular on Variety

“Horror movies always seem to find an audience,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore. “They are extraordinarily cost efficient. You don’t need a ton of money to make one. All you have to have is a darkened room and some people chasing other people and you’ve got a horror movie.”

Horror maestros may balk at having their movies reduced to that kind of a formula. Yet there’s no denying that at a time when sequels and reboots are sputtering out, horror continues to be one of the most reliable genres at the multiplexes. In fact, “The Conjuring 2” and “The Purge: Election Year” are two of the only sequels this summer that will make more money than their predecessors, making them green shoots in a garden that’s choked with weeds. The last wide-release horror film that bombed is “Victor Frankenstein,” and that was more of an action-thriller than a true gore-fest. The most terrifying thing in the movie was Daniel Radcliffe’s sideburns.

In contrast, this summer has suffered more than its share of costly flops. It’s standing room only in the hall of ignominy as “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows,” “Ben-Hur,” “The BFG,” “Ghostbusters” and “Independence Day: Resurgence” crowd in with their tens of millions of dollars in write-downs. But don’t expect much belt-tightening at the major studios.

Chalk it up to the conglomeratization of the movie business. Ever since a wave of consolidation began hitting Hollywood in the Reagan era, studios have become smaller and smaller subsidiaries of the sprawling media empires that house them.

That’s radically upended their mandates. Time Warner, Viacom, 21st Century Fox, Walt Disney Company and other parent companies don’t care about earning $20 million on a movie. That won’t move the needle on their stock price, particularly when there are advertising revenues and retransmission fees, licensing agreements and merchandising pacts, toylines and theme park rides out there to dazzle investors. For all its success, “Don’t Breathe” and its gang of teenage delinquents aren’t likely to inspire a Saturday morning cartoon or land on many lunch boxes. Even three of four of these movies won’t cover the enormous overhead it takes to maintain global distribution networks, massive studio lots and to keep thousands of employees from Culver City to Tokyo humming.

That means more comic-book movies, more Star Wars, more Harry Potter and an ever-escalating array of reboots, sequels and spinoffs. There’s also an allure to these movies that evades even the most successful horror franchises and that makes studio executives hesitant to embrace what many view as a B-genre.

“In Hollywood, the herd mentality is massive,” Jason Blum, the producer of “The Purge” told L.A. Weekly last fall. “The reason people don’t make low-budget movies is that it’s completely not sexy — we’re not the cool guys on the block.”

It’s easy to look at the carnage this summer and decry studios as profligate and out-of-touch, but it’s easy to understand why they’re spending big in the hopes of landing one of those rare, four-quadrant smashes. Look at what happens when they connect. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” isn’t just one of the biggest box office hits of all time. Excitement about the return to a galaxy far, far away created a licensing windfall with few precedents. In 2015 alone, Star Wars toys brought in an estimated $700 million in revenue and helped boost global retail sales of licensed merchandise by more than 4%. That more than justifies the $4 billion and change that Disney shelled out to buy  Star Wars-maker LucasFilm. It’s also the  kind of success that will cross-pollinate across the Magic Kingdom, allowing the company to plug the films’ Jedi Knights and Sith Lords into its various divisions, spawning cartoons, attractions, and action figures in the process.

In this atmosphere, horror films are strictly additive. Some studios, such as Universal, which has a ten-year deal with “Paranormal Activity” maker Blumhouse, and New Line, which was built on the back of Freddy Krueger and the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series, remain more committed than others and are the richer for it.

Just don’t expect greenlight committees across Tinseltown to take a hard look at the numbers and to start backing scores of blood and guts yarns instead of raiding comic book vaults or trying to spruce up tired franchises. At best, horror films are solidly profitable singles and doubles. Instead of hitting for average, Hollywood will keep taking big swings, hoping for that elusive home run.

More Film

  • Donna Rotunno Gloria Allred

    Donna Rotunno Complains to Judge About Gloria Allred Attacking Her in the Media

    Harvey Weinstein’s lead attorney Donna Rotunno asked the judge to silence Gloria Allred, the high-powered attorney who is representing three women who’ve testified in the New York rape trial. Before the jury entered the courtroom on Friday morning, the fourth day of deliberations, Rotunno made a complaint on the record to the judge regarding Allred’s [...]

  • Call of the Wild

    Box Office: 'Call of the Wild' Fetches $1 Million on Thursday Night

    Harrison Ford’s “The Call of the Wild” opened with $1 million on Thursday night. STX’s supernatural horror sequel “Brahms: The Boy II,” meanwhile, earned $375,000 at 1,800 screens from Thursday previews. The earnings for Disney-20th Century’s “The Call of the Wild” is in the same vicinity as “The Upside,” which took in $1.1 million from [...]

  • Infinity Hill

    Viacom International Studios, Infinity Hill Sign Exclusive First Look Deal

    Viacom International Studios (VIS) has signed an exclusive first look development deal with Infinity Hill. The companies will co-develop and co-produce a slate of Spanish-language features, filmed globally and utilizing international talent on both sides of the camera. Infinity Hill is the new label from longtime Telefonica and Viacom exec Axel Kuschevatzky, one of the [...]

  • There Is No Evil

    German Regional Film Funder Boosts Budget, Targets Young Filmmakers

    Since taking the helm at German regional funder Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein (FFHSH) last year, Helge Albers has revamped the organization, worked to increase its budget by €3 million ($3.3 million) and introduced new initiatives aimed at young filmmakers. Albers, a former film producer who previously served as head of the German Producers Assn. and a [...]

  • EFM European Film Market Berlinale Placeholder

    European Film Market Tackles Big Issues Under New Leadership

    Growing demand for a united European response to the ever encroaching dominance of streaming platforms will be high on the agenda at this year’s European Film Market in Berlin. The first EFM to take place under the leadership of new Berlin Film Festival heads Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian is also introducing a new initiatives, [...]

  • Dan Scanlon (L) and US producer

    Berlin: Director Dan Scanlon Discusses Pixar’s 'Onward,' and His Michigan Inspiration

    Pixar’s “Onward” saw its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, and the film’s director, Dan Scanlon, and producer, Kori Rae, talked to the press at the festival about the film, which follows brother elves on a magical quest to reconnect with their late father. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt voice the brothers who [...]

  • Johnny Depp arrives for the 'Minamata'

    Johnny Depp on 'Power of the Small' at Launch of 'Minamata' at Berlin Film Festival

    Johnny Depp arrived at the Berlin Film Festival Friday to support the film “Minamata,” in which he plays celebrated war photographer W. Eugene Smith. In the film, based on real events, Smith is pitted against a powerful corporation responsible for poisoning with mercury the people of Minamata in Japan in 1971. Also in Berlin were [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content