Jason Blum and his studio Blumhouse have turned original (and low-budget) horror films like “Paranormal Activity” and “The Purge” into iconic franchises, but his newest film, “The Black Phone,” will be a test of whether his successful formula still works after the pandemic.
In an interview with TheWrap, Blum discussed both the state of horror and the box office as a whole. While he is still optimistic about the future of the genre in which he has spent over two decades producing hits, he said that there’s still a lot to learn about what kinds of films will work at the post-COVID box office, and that shape how Blumhouse approaches the theatrical market moving forward.
“We know IP horror works, but we don’t know if original horror is working well, and I think the industry is looking at ‘Black Phone’ to see if the marketplace going to accept original horror now,” Blum said, adding that if if “Black Phone” struggles at the box office, “that does not bode well for original horror that’s theatrically released.”
When developing films for theaters, especially in horror, Blum said that studios are looking for easily marketable concepts and plots, something that can be packaged in a 15- or 30-second TV spot in a way that is not as crucial for titles that go direct to streaming. For years, Blumhouse has turned low-budget horror films into hits through word-of-mouth marketing of hooky premises — whether it’s a high schooler forced to relive the day of her murder over and over in “Happy Death Day” or a society where all crimes are legal for one night each year in “The Purge,” which has since become one of Blumhouse’s most bankable franchises. (The five film in the series have earned $535 million worldwide.)
Now Blum is trying to do it again with “The Black Phone,” director Scott Derrickson’s film about a boy kidnapped by a serial killer who learns how to survive from the killer’s past victims via a disconnected black phone. With strong reviews, the film is expected to turn a profit with a $15-18 million opening that matches its production budget.
But some of the horror films that have struck gold in theaters since the pandemic are based on recognizable IP, like “A Quiet Place – Part II” or Blumhouse’s own “Halloween Kills.” (“The Black Phone” is based on a short story first published on the web by Joe Hill.)
Prior to the pandemic, Blumhouse’s low-risk approach yielded plenty of success. In May 2019, the Octavia Spencer horror film “Ma” made $61 million worldwide against a $5 million production budget. Two years before that, Christopher B. Landon’s horror-comedy “Happy Death Day” did even better, grossing $125 million globally against a $5 million budget — prompting a sequel that grossed a weaker but still respectable $64.6 million against a $9 million spend. And since then, some of Blum’s other titles have dipped their toes in both the theatrical and streaming worlds, with the Stephen King adaptation “Firestarter” and “Halloween Kills” both streaming on NBCUniversal’s Peacock the same day they hit theaters for limited runs.
As a producer, Blum said he would prefers the old-school theatrical financial model, where everyone reaps the rewards if your movie actually does well, while the absence of any box office-based bonuses for streaming releases means that the payment must come entirely up front. “It’s also more fun, all things being equal. There’s nothing quite like a wide release of a studio movie,” he said, conceding the necessity of playing in both spaces. “It’s too limiting on my business to only do that. So we work across the board with everybody, but I certainly like the theatrical model better.”
“The Black Phone” isn’t the only original horror film due in theaters this summer. Universal is releasing Jordan Peele’s “Nope” on July 22. But “Nope” may not be as strong a gauge on the viability of original horror — since Peele has built up such a cult following from previous horror hits “Get Out” and “Us” that he’s become the core of his new film’s marketing. That’s allowed Universal to keep the film’s premise concealed in much of the promotional material.
For “The Black Phone,” the crackerjack premise is the big draw — with apologies to fans of Ethan Hawke, who plays the menacing “Grabber.” And Blum remains confident that the film delivers enough genre-specific thrillers to lure moviegoers out of their homes. “I don’t think there are a lot of genres that are that are that audiences still want to go to a movie theater to go see, but horror is one of them,” he said. “A great way [for filmmakers] to get theatrical releases for their movies is to put the themes of the story they want to tell in the shell of a horror movie or under the in the horror genre; and it provides a theatrical delivery system for your story.”