Although it seems they are synonymous with found-footage horror, low budget movies that will still be financial successes if audiences stop turning out in droves to see them, Blumhouse Productions are arguably something far more interesting. Their prolific output can easily be read as an updating of Roger Corman’s low budget exploitation aesthetic for the 21st century, albeit one that reflects pop culture’s increasingly low standards when it comes to genre filmmaking. After all, Corman-produced films helped launch the filmmaking careers of Scorsese, Cameron and Coppola, among dozens more, whereas Blumhouse acts as a low-budget home for directors whose bigger budget movies have critically and commercially underwhelmed.
It is the rare studio that can take successful auteurs like Barry Levinson or M. Night Shymalan and reduce them to directing found footage horror, rather then working the other way round and using these projects to give them their initial big break. In the Blumhouse world, directors rarely get to escape the clutches of critically reviled horror, as with their movies being released to wider audiences than Corman’s in his heyday, studios are much more likely to take notice of their poor product, whose creative touches can never stray too far from Blumhouse’s central horror aesthetic. It should be noted that Blumhouse have had central parts in producing many critically acclaimed projects, such as HBO’s TV Drama The Normal Heart (for which he won an Emmy) and the Oscar-nominated Whiplash, but the critical adoration heaped on these are the exception rather than the rule; Universal Pictures recently signed a decade-long “first-look” deal with the studio in order to determine which of their movies they would distribute.
So far, their selections have been exclusively from their horror output, with the critical safe bets but commercial insecurities like Whiplash being left to other studios. Blumhouse can help launch the careers of many filmmakers, but to ensure a commercial success and a major distribution deal, you need to subscribe to their way of making movies. We’ve heard filmmakers discuss the Roger Corman film school; it may soon be likely we’ll be hearing about the Jason Blum Film School as well.
Of course, Corman was a trailblazer for independent cinema, a rare influential producer who never had a commercial failure. His autobiography was cockily titled “How I made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime”, after all. Even though he gave filmmakers a strict set of rules, to keep the running time low and the nudity plentiful, he still insisted on giving directors enough independence to ensure their creativity could flourish in a professional environment. Although there is nothing to suggest Blum doesn’t encourage the same creativity in his chosen directors, there is more of a reluctance to break free from established horror formulas, with found footage movies and cheap “jump scares” being the driving forces of his commercial success.
Although founded in 2000, Blumhouse Productions didn’t produce a single movie until 2007’s Paranormal Activity, which subsequently wasn’t released for another two years (with a modified ending after buyers Paramount noted the initial film festival reactions). Produced on a meager $15,000 budget, the movie was an overwhelming financial success, becoming one of the most profitable films of all time based on budget to box office ratio, spawning a lucrative franchise and pushing the found footage horror movie back into vogue. However, the idea of being willing to compromise creative ideals to ensure success, even after strong performances of early cuts at film festivals, is a rare behind the scenes look at Blumhouse’s creative process. Unlike Corman, it seems Blum productions were more than happy to sacrifice important elements if it meant getting not just released by a major studio, but released wide.
Furthermore, with four sequels and one spin-off, Paranormal Activity swiftly changed from a low-budget one-off to an accidental franchise, one that original director Oren Peli hasn’t been creatively involved with since his initial installment. The budgets have got higher, with the new sequel The Ghost Dimension boasting a $10 million budget and being released in 3-D (which means that for some reason all the found footage was recorded on a 3-D camera). But while box office returns are slowly diminishing, their low budgets mean they are always financial successes. In fact, this new movie is the first commercial uncertainty, with controversy over wanting to release the movie On Demand only 19 days after being released in cinemas, leading to major US theatre chains refusing to play it.
The next two original horror movies produced by Blumhouse were 2011’s Insidious and 2012’s Sinister, both of which didn’t stray far from the central paranormal misadventures of their calling card production. Both were financial successes and began the gradual propelling of directors James Wan and Scott Derrickson into making tentpole blockbusters. Wan helmed similar horror movies (The Conjuring and the first Insidious sequel) before taking the reigns of Fast and Furious 7, whilst Derrickson is responsible for next year’s Marvel entry Doctor Strange. Only three years after the release of their first production, Blumhouse has proved to have a clear style that ensured a guaranteed fanbase turning out to each one of these movies, regardless of whether they knew the name behind the productions. With the limited box office returns generated by horror movies, their productions are the closest you can get to being box office champions within the confines of the genre.
Again, it should be noted that both Wan and Derrickson were both established filmmakers before being given the keys to a Blumhouse production, with major successes to their name. Before Blumhouse, Damien Chazelle, the most critically adored filmmaker to emerge from the studio’s roster, had only one low-budget, little seen feature to his name, the gritty 2009 musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. Whiplash was a personal project for the director, eventually being released as a prestige picture during awards season, yet throughout the movie is far more recognizable as an exploitation one. The Whiplash director’s commentary points out the climactic sequence was notably inspired by the 10-minute climactic car chase in Tarantino’s Death Proof, one half of his tribute to grindhouse cinema with Robert Rodriguez. Chazelle isn’t a director who needed to go to a Blumhouse school of filmmaking; he worked as a writer for hire after his debut feature, penning B-movies like Elijah Wood/John Cusack thriller Grand Piano, as well as horror sequel The Last Exorcism Part 2. His experiences gained him a knowledge and appreciation of genre cinema that ensured his movie would still fit in the wheelhouse of a studio best known for producing utter schlock.
But a director like Chazelle, who is now directing the big budget Hollywood musical La La Land, is a diamond in the rough at Blumhouse, as the majority of the studio’s output is critically shunned, only appearing commercially successful due to budgeting reasons. This year alone they have gifted audiences flops like The Lazarus Effect, The Gallows, Sinister 2, Area 51, The Boy Next Door and The Green Inferno; whereas Corman’s movies showed enough cinematic invention to warrant worldwide retrospectives to this day, Blum’s movies seem to be designed solely to make their money back upon opening weekend. A movie like Whiplash may stay in audience’s imaginations forever and give its director a career. But a movie like The Gallows ensures that debutant co-director Chris Lofing (as well as co-director Travis Cluff) will be stuck in the no-budget no man’s land for a while longer. Although audiences reacting negatively to the movie’s ending is a strange counterpoint to the studio thanklessly changing the ending to their calling card film years earlier to ensure audience success. Blumhouse is such a well established brand that no vitriolic reaction to an ending is going to stop them from not only breaking even, but getting a major Hollywood studio to release it internationally. Studio’s may very well release their movies, but that is because they are a financial no-brainer. How fast they fall down the box office charts and audience imaginations after viewing is scarier than anything in the movies themselves.