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.
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“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.