Interview: Producer Jason Blum Looks to the Future of Horror

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CHICAGO – With his production company, Blumhouse, Jason Blum might be the most important voice in modern horror. As studio horror films became glutted with remakes and sequels in the ’00s, Blum changed the model with low-budget, high-profit films like “Paranormal Activity” and “Insidious.” His latest, “The Purge,” starring Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey, opens on Friday, June 7, 2013. He’s a fascinating guy with a lot to say about not just his chosen genre but filmmaking and how we watch movies in general. It’s all changing and Jason Blum is out in front.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Let’s start with clarification - producers have different degrees of hands-on philosophies. How hands-on are you with your productions? Were you involved with casting?

JASON BLUM: Ethan is my best friend. So definitely involved there. To answer your question in a roundabout way: All we do is low budget movies. Our goal when we sit down with a director is that we want to make movies that can be made inexpensively but can be released wide by a studio. We don’t always get there but we get there more than 50% of the time. We work for free. Directors work for free. Actors work for free. Everyone works for back-end. In exchange for that, I firmly believe that you can’t ask someone to work for free unless they’re really betting on themselves, so the director or the other producers we work with get final cut. I give it away. I give it to Scott Derrickson [“Sinister], James Wan [“Insidious”], whomever I’m making the movie with. They need to really bet on themselves. The directors have all the creative control and control over cast. The great thing about low-budget movies is you can get movie stars but you don’t NEED movie stars. They get to do whatever they want. 50% of us are very hands-off. The result is that when you give that control to a director, they actually end up being much more collaborative. We give fifty pages of notes on every script. I got the script and suggested Ethan. We give a TON of creative input, we force NONE of it. Some of it they take, some of it they don’t. We’re hands-on but not forced. We don’t control our directors at all.

The Purge
The Purge
Photo credit: Universal

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Are you on-set?

BLUM: Oh yeah. For every movie. Not all the time. Someone from the company is on-set all the time. Unless it’s going INCREDIBLY well, which rarely happens. I always like to be involved in every part of the process. A LOT in distribution.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Why are you most involved there? You said in a way that it sounds like that’s what most interests and engages you.

BLUM: 50/50. 50% of my job is producing a movie, 50% of my job is getting people to see it. What I’m passionate about is making movies inexpensively that the studios release. That is a very specialized, odd place to be. It takes a lot of time. A lot of conversations. A lot of will to convince a studio to spend $25 million on some movie that cost less-than-20% of that. “Paranormal Activity” took three years. Everyone in the world said I was batshit crazy. A lot of it is a financial reality. When you’re sitting in a boardroom of a studio and you have something that you’re $25 million in the hole on that you’ve got to release and another thing that cost fifteen cents that you could double your money on without taking any risk. Why take a $25 million risk on a movie you don’t need to? Every studio is like “I want to be business with you” but they don’t…Universal understands what it means. A lot of studios like it in theory but in practice…I’ve worked with a lot of the different studios.

Adelaide Kane and Jason Blum of The Purge
Adelaide Kane and Jason Blum of The Purge
Photo credit: Universal

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Why is it taking so long for the model to change? Why aren’t they all knocking on your door?

BLUM: They are…but then the reality? “We give director final cut over everything.” “What?!?! We don’t want to do that.” Directors come and bitch at me in my office about the notes they’re getting and I say, “Well, they’re paying you a million dollars.” I’m by no means trying to make expensive movies because as soon as you get a fee for a movie that hasn’t been produced yet, you HAVE to listen. I like rolling the dice with everyone involved with the movie.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: And yet you still go to the studios. Why not go the independent route entirely and do something Shane Carruth did with “Upstream Color” and essentially release it yourself? You want to go bigger.

BLUM: I’m not interested in that at all.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: The studio system is still important to you?

BLUM: You can’t begin to compete with the studios. The way that studios produce movies needs fizing and the way that independent films are distributed needs major fixing but the way that independent films are made is great. But you can’t begin to remotely compete in the way studios get involved in pushing a movie out to the world.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: So you want to combine the two — the freedom of independent cinema with the distribution power of the studios.

BLUM: I am combining the two. “Paranormal Activity,” “Sinister,” “Insidious,” “The Purge” — TOTAL independent movies. Not TOUCHED by a studio in the making. All of them released by studios. That’s the business model that I’m focused on and, knock on wood, it’s turning out allright. It’s what I get my greatest joy out of professionally.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: So what’s it like it ten years?

BLUM: In ten years, the gig is up. We’re not sitting around months for a movie that came out in theaters to be at home. That changes everything. Then it’s not $25 million to release a movie. Totally, game over. THIS game. I can’t wait. The distribution model is turning on its head and it’s about to fall over in a really great, productive way. We’re still hanging on to this antiquated model. If I were twelve years old and the amount of options I have at home, of course I’m not running out to the theater. But if there was a movie that was on at home that was brand new and felt like a shiny new object, I would see it.

The Purge
The Purge
Photo credit: Universal

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: It’s going to be mostly home distribution for movies in ten years?

BLUM: It’s going to be VOD. Day-and-date. It’s not going to change all movies. Big movies will go even bigger. “Transformers 4” will open on 10,000 screens. There will always be a theatrical experience but you’ll get to see ‘em other places already.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: It’s happening already.

BLUM: With smaller studios. With big studios, every time they make a move, the exhbitors say “We’re not showing your movies.”

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: What changes that? What’s the tipping point there?

BLUM: I don’t know the answer to that. Nobody does. But the tipping point is when the exhibition business gets lower and lower and lower until it’s at the point where they’re forced to change the model. Attendance is dropping.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: And maybe somebody taking a huge risk and releasing something like “The Purge” day and date and it going HUGE On Demand.

BLUM: Here’s what I want. Universal is forward-thinking about this and I’m not shilling for them. It’s true. I would love to do a sequel for one of my movies with Universal VOD-only. No theatrical. Big movie. Do a sequel that’s a guaranteed draw. Spend marketing money and you can only see it at home. For the first two weeks, it’s 30 bucks. For the next two weeks, it’s 15. And the next two weeks, it’s 10.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: You see more and more of those early VOD Blu-ray releases pre-street and they’re expensive but they must be working.

BLUM: Yeah. It’s still way cheaper than going out, babysitter, parking, etc. It’s $50 for two people to go out to the movies and everyone’s TV set is freaking awesome!

The Purge
The Purge
Photo credit: Universal

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: I could have this kind of conversation for hours but they probably want us to talk about “The Purge” so we should cycle back…

BLUM: Let’s do it.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: How fully formed was the script when you got it? Was it just a what-if?

BLUM: It was very formed. I had developed a script with him years ago. He initially told me of the big idea and it checked every box with us. We’re looking to do horror but we’re looking for “high concept, low budget.”

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: One location.

BLUM: One location, huge concept. Limited locations, limited speaking parts. The movie is very close to the first draft I read.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: When was that?

BLUM: Right around when we finished shooting “Sinister.” I gave Ethan the script right around then.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Did you worry at all about the political undertones? One side taking it as a pro- or anti- of a certain organization or movement or big government?

BLUM: I liked that aspect. I think there’s a lot of subsersive messages in it. The messages I get from it might different than what someone else gets from it. One message is universal — an anti-violent movie. It’s a very violent movie against violence. Very few people walk out of the movie thinking The Purge is a good idea. A few.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Stop talking to those people.

BLUM: Right. Right! A few of my Conservative friends saw the movie and said, “This backs up our theory. Obviously, The Purge is a terrible idea and it’s the ultimate example of government getting too big and too involved in our lives. Government needs to be smaller and less involved in our lives.” I honestly heard that and was worried I wouldn’t be able to repeat it to a journalist because they wouldn’t believe me! (Laughs.)

Jason Blum
Jason Blum
Photo credit: Universal

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Oh, I believe it. It’s kinda bullshit but I believe somebody said it.

BLUM: Right? (Laughs.)

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Running out of time. My first interview was with Brad Fuller [Producer at Platinum Dunes, who helped produce The Purge], by the way, and we’ve talked about remakes and financial concerns with horror so I want to try to tap into that a bit. Let’s start here — What makes a good horror movie?

BLUM: Story and character. Not the scares. Not the scares. I firmly believe that scares are the easy part. Am I emotionally involved in the story, the characters, the actors? If all of that stuff is good, I’m going to be scared by anything. If you’re not engaged, you’re not going to jump.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: I think something important that you’ve done for horror is helped damage the remake movement that so dominated the ’00s. Whatever people think of them, we’re getting original horror films like “Saw,” “Insidious,” and “The Purge” insted of more remakes of ’80s slasher pics. Brad was a big part of that movement.

BLUM: We exploded his business. [Laughs.]

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: It gets to the core of what you’re saying. The remake business was based on stories we already knew and so couldn’t be as engaged in. And we knew it was a business proposition and not a character one.

BLUM: I think the great thing about doing what we do is that we make movies that are not a business proposition first. We could totally tank and it still works. “The Bay” — ten theaters, VOD, no one lose money. And we get the budget back from the U.S. and international sales. We tried something different. It didn’t go wide. No one got hurt. And so that allows our filmmakers [creativity]. Our model allows for risks and doing weird stuff and things that you wouldn’t be allowed to do in studio movies.

The Purge
The Purge
Photo credit: Universal

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Or remakes because of audience expectation.

BLUM: OR remakes. Yeah.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Why didn’t “The River” work?

BLUM: “The River” didn’t work because it was a network show and it should have been on cable. I still don’t know what I’m doing in TV. I’m interested in it.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Are you doing more?

BLUM: I’m trying. I had a reality show on SyFy called “Stranded.” I still understand TV about 10% as well as I do the movie business.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: It’s a great place for horror right now.

BLUM: GREAT. If I knew then what I know now, I would have said, “No way is this a network show.” By the way, you CAN’T do found footage on a network schedule. It’s impossible. Found footage takes forever. As many problems as it solves budget-wise, it causes storytelling-wise. It has to feel even more real than a normally-shot movie. Now, I would say no to networks. Creative work in TV is better than film right now.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: TV is way more of a golden age.

BLUM: WAY more. Great storytelling in TV.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: The writers are there.

BLUM: The writers are there. And the model is there. Freaking people’s TV sets are better every day. So they don’t go to the movies. They stay home. The writers are there because people are watching it. If you’re going to ingest a story through a screen, you can’t compete with this. I’m on my soapboax. (Laughs.)

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: What’s next?

BLUM: “Insidious 2,” “Paranormal Activity 5,” “Ghosts.” Those are the next three.

Plan on those after you see “The Purge” this weekend.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

By BRIAN TALLERICO
Content Director
HollywoodChicago.com
brian@hollywoodchicago.com

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