“Get Out,” the low-budget horror hit that dominated the weekend box office, proves that it pays to be fiscally prudent and creatively risky. The story of a black man who finds himself preyed upon by liberal white suburbanites is a “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” for our racially polarized time. It’s a film that uses scares as social commentary.
Writer and director Jordan Peele, previously best known for his work on Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele,” never expected a studio to greenlight his project. At a time of #blacklivesmatter and Trump, that kind of subversion just seemed too hot to handle.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Peele said that when he told producers that he had a cool pitch, he would always add, “The caveat is: No one will make this movie.’” Most studios would greet any non-superhero related proposal these days with a hard pass, but then again, most companies’ don’t have producer Jason Blum’s bottom-line oriented approach. Shot in less than a month for $4.5 million, “Get Out” was able to skewer a touchy subject because it cost so little to make.
That’s very much in keeping with the model of Blumhouse, Blum’s company, which has made a cottage industry of manufacturing cheap movies that often turn into outsize horror hits. The company won’t spend more than $5 million on new projects, and budgets will only approach $10 million if it’s a sequel to a previously established property. That’s a small fraction of the more than $40 million that major studios spend on average for their films, and it wouldn’t even cover the green screen rental on $100-million plus superhero films. Despite the frugality, Blumhouse films fare better than other big studio attempts at horror, such as the recent bomb “A Cure for Wellness,” a Fox release that has eked out $12.1 million globally on a $40 million budget.
“Get Out,” which debuted to $30.5 million, is the eighth Blumhouse production to make more than six times its production cost in its opening weekend, joining several “Paranormal Activity” chapters, “Sinister,” and “Unfriended.” Not everything works, of course. Blumhouse scored one of the worst wide-release openings of all time with 2015’s “Jem and the Holograms,” a $5 million adaptation of the ’80’s’ television series, that made less than $3 million on a $5 million budget.
Still, the hits have far out-paced the duds, and even a film like “Jem” doesn’t leave a river of red ink because of all the economizing. The enviable profit margins are part of the reason that Blumhouse is seen as such a critical component of Universal Pictures’ slate, taking their place alongside the “Jurassic Worlds” and “Minions” of the world. The companies have partnered together on the likes of “The Purge” and “Ouija” and are involved in a ten-year first look deal that was announced in 2014, an unusually long pact in an industry that typically only signs alliances that last three to five years.
“There’s a lot of attention paid to what you expect when you see Jason’s logo on the front of films,” said Nick Carpou, Universal’s domestic distribution chief. “It tends to mean you’re going to have good time, you’re probably going to get scared, and there’s a strong subversive aspect to them.”
Carpou believes that Blumhouse hits like “Get Out” and last summer’s “The Purge: Election Year,” a thriller that tapped into anxiety surrounding the 2016 presidential race, work because they shine a mirror on the political moment.
“It’s not enough that you’re just seeing films that scare you,” he said. “The most successful ones hit you from many levels.”
In Hollywood, Blumhouse and Jason Blum are widely admired. They’ve had the kind of low-risk, high-return hit streak that put companies like Lionsgate and New Line on the map in a different era. The question is whether or not that reputation is translating beyond the industry. Some box office sages believe that Blumhouse is on the verge of being a brand like Miramax was in the 1990s or like Pixar is today; a company that has a name that resonates with rank-and-file consumers.
“They’ve become the Pixar of the horror genre,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “When a Blumhouse film comes out, you expect quality. Just like with Pixar, the story there is king.”
Chalk up “Get Out” to kismet. Blumhouse only found out about Peele’s bloody riff on “meeting the parents” because an intern happened to hear a podcast in which the comic actor expressed his desire to make a horror film. The company ended up being the perfect home for Peele’s off-beat vision. It has a penchant for betting on filmmakers with a visual flair and for drilling down on story. Blumhouse has previously partnered to great effect with M. Night Shyamalan on “The Visit” and “Split,” James Wan on “Insidious,” and, in a bit of a genre-departure, Damien Chazelle on the Oscar-winning “Whiplash.”
“They understand talent,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with ComScore. “They bank on filmmakers.”
So far, that bet is paying off.