With A Little Magic, Small Budget Horror Films Pack A Big Punch

Aug 30, 2016
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This past weekend, the number one film in the U.S. was the horror flick "Don't Breathe."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DON'T BREATHE")

DYLAN MINNETTE: (As Alex) We're trapped in here.

JANE LEVY: (As Rocky) There has to be a way out of here.

SHAPIRO: Number two was the comic book blockbuster "Suicide Squad," which cost $175 million to make. "Don't Breathe" cost less than a tenth of that, $10 million. Lots of horror movies with tiny budgets have had a monster-sized impact on the box office, like "The Blair Witch Project"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT")

HEATHER DONAHUE: (As Heather Donahue) I am so scared.

SHAPIRO: ...Or "Open Water."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OPEN WATER")

BLANCHARD RYAN: (As Susan) We're stuck in the middle of the ocean.

SHAPIRO: And, of course, "Paranormal Activity."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PARANORMAL ACTIVITY")

MICAH SLOAT: (As Micah) My girlfriend Katie, she thinks there's something in the house. I don't know.

KATIE FEATHERSTON: (As Katie) You believe me, right?

SHAPIRO: Jason Blum runs the production company behind Paranormal Activity and other micro-budget horror movies. He told me success with this genre comes from great storylines, riveting drama and also something else.

JASON BLUM: Scary movies benefit from lower budgets. And that's because the scariest things are things that seem the most real. And when you take out all the bells and whistles in production you really have to focus on, you know, small stories that take place in a house. And that's, I think, where people usually feel most vulnerable, in their house. And the room in their house they feel most vulnerable is their bedroom. And if you don't have a lot of money, you kind of have to force - it forces the director to tell these very intimate stories, which I think are much scarier than big effects extravaganzas.

SHAPIRO: You know, we're describing "Don't Breathe" as a movie that was cheap to make. It cost $10 million. But "Paranormal Activity" cost $15,000, a tiny fraction. What kinds of ruthless decisions do you have to make when you're operating on that much of a shoestring?

BLUM: Well, that is definitely the most extreme example for sure. But I think there's kind of a triangle, three things that affect budget - the number of characters, the number of locations and the number of stunts and special effects. And I tell the directors they can kind of choose one of those three things. They can either have a lot of speaking parts, you know, a handful of locations or we can do a stunt or two, but only one of the three.

And if you actually went back and kind of looked at our movies, you'd kind of see that play out. I actually believe, though, that when you really forced parameters from the beginning, it leads to interesting things. And I can't say, you know, the movies are always - always benefit from it, but more often than not I feel like the movies benefit from the lower budgets which push directors to make unusual choices.

SHAPIRO: That seems like it would be true of any genre, and yet we only seem to see these low-cost breakout hits in horror. Why do you think that is rather than, I don't know, drama or romantic comedy or other things?

BLUM: Well, I don't - I actually don't agree with that. I think when you go to see a romantic comedy, I think a couple things are different. First of all, you want a movie star in a romantic comedy. A horror movie is almost better with someone who you don't see every day in magazines because it's kind of scarier. You don't know them, and you can put yourself in their position more easily. I think when you go see a romantic comedy, you want big, big stars that you know well and you want to see them fall in love. And I think that, first of all, right there, it's more expensive.

When you go see an action movie, you want a great action sequence. And that costs money. So it's easy for me to say, you know, I keep my budgets low, but I have a big advantage because I think horror benefits from that. And I don't really - I think most other genres, you actually do need a lot of money to deliver what the audience wants.

SHAPIRO: Do you think the success of cheap horror movies has had an impact on the big studios?

BLUM: You know, that's a great question. It's had less of an impact than I would've thought. Two or three years ago, everyone used to ask me, are you worried about people copying your model? And I used to say no, I don't worry about it. It seems no one's doing it. If you ask me that now I would say I'm certainly concerned about it a little bit more, for sure. I think studios are - they're - you know, they're oil tankers. They're slow to react, but I do think they're beginning to react now. And it'll be interesting to see what happens in the next year or two. And I bet there'll be a lot of great scary movies, which I'm certainly looking forward to seeing and hope some of them I will have made.

SHAPIRO: Jason Blum, founder of the production company Blumhouse Productions. Thanks for joining us.

BLUM: Well, thanks. Thanks so much for having me. Talk to you soon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.