Producer Jason Blum and his Blumhouse Productions are no longer Hollywood outsiders, no longer practitioners of mysterious alchemy that creates hits from unproven directors and tiny budgets. The company has been around awhile, producing sequels and prequels to its big franchises like The Purge and The Conjuring, minting filmmaker stars like James Wan and Jordan Peele, and taking in over a billion dollars at the box office. Its low-risk, high-reward formula is very much public knowledge; Blum himself has been very open about evangelizing his approach to filmmaking.
And yet, the company’s established methods remain unconventional, in part because the industry is so bloated with TV streaming shows and blockbuster movies. Blumhouse, too, is getting into the prestige TV business and pre-existing franchise movie game, with this weekend’s new Halloween sequel its first real entry into Hollywood legend. So the question is whether Blum is changing Hollywood, Hollywood is changing Blum… or a little bit of both.
SYFY WIRE spoke with the super-producer earlier this month to ask exactly that — along with a few other things.
You’ve made a lot of sequels, but never to a property that you didn’t originate. What was the difference?
Jason Blum: It's obviously much more complicated, but I think I like the challenge of it. It felt more like the muscle we exercise when we're making sequels to our movies: Insidious, Paranormal [Activity], and The Purge. There was some familiarity in it, but clearly the fact that there have been so many movies, the fact that a lot of movies haven't been good — some of them have, the first one is the most iconic horror movie of all time. But I was attracted to the challenge of it for sure.
How’d the decision to cast aside all the sequels and start years after the original come about?
I didn't make the decision, it was made by David Gordon Green and Danny [McBride]. I was very passionate about having David and Danny do this. A part of my belief in them as artists was thinking that their best work would come from giving them creative freedom. So when I pitched them the idea of Halloween, all I said was we want to do a Halloween movie, if you could do anything, what would you do? And I'm very glad I did, 'cause this is the idea that they came up with.
If you were to hold a TED Talk about it, what would you say are the keys to making a great horror movie in 2018?
I think first and foremost, make it low budget. I think it’s not true of a Marvel movie. Not true of an animated movie. Not true of an action movie, not even true of a comedy. But a horror movie benefits from a low budget, I think.
The second is that we kind of apply the auteur theory of filmmaking to commercial movies. Typically, auteur theory is equated with art films, but this idea of taking an artist, or a team as with David and Danny, and really betting on them and empowering them and give them freedom to do what they want. Now as soon as you give them freedom, the creative passion becomes much more collaborative because as soon as they aren't worried that they're not gonna get their way, they want the best idea to win. And I think we as a company create an atmosphere where it’s very easy to let the best idea win. A lot of people say that, but it doesn't happen that often.
So what kind of notes do you usually give?
We give an enormous amount. Most production companies don't have their own casting department, we have our own casting department. Usually, a director goes to make a movie, they choose their casting director. When we make a movie director we use our casting department. So what I found over the years is that when you give up control there is much more collaboration.
There's collaboration over casting, there's a ton of script work that we do, and then there's a ton of work during the putting together of the physical production: where we're gonna shoot, locations, all that. And then during the production all the way through the process there is an enormous amount of back and forth, but the feeling is a lot better than you have to do this with fighting.
There are a couple times that — there are two times specifically — that it backfired on me. That it didn't work. That the director chose a way to do it that we disagreed with. I don't think the movies were very good and I don't think the directors ultimately were that happy, but I have to be comfortable with the idea that at the end of the day we let the director do what they want to do. That's inextricably linked to low-budget. Movies worth $25 or $50 or $150 million, we couldn't do that, but since the budgets are so low, we're able to say, "Look, even if we totally disagree we're gonna let you do what you wanna do."
What were the two movies?
I'm not telling you that. I knew you were gonna ask that. But that was a good try.
You make so many horror movies — what scares you the most?
That’s universal. What about in your movies?
The actual things that are scary are not things that have been done 100 times. The deer hitting the windshield in Get Out. There are 5,000 movies where something hits the windshield in a car. 4,999 of them aren't as scary as when it happens in Get Out because you're on the edge of your seat because of the conversation that Daniel and Allison are having in that car. So that's one of the scariest moments in any of our movies. It's not because of the deer hitting the window, it's because of what happens beforehand.
Your method of doing things differently, on a budget, reminds me of Moneyball. The Oakland A's in the early 2000s were able to do things differently and be successful. But then everyone started doing what they were doing, so they had to shift. Have you found that people are starting to pick up the Blumhouse equation? Have you had to shift it a different way to stay ahead?
I think about that all the time. I love the book and I also really like the movie. And our approach to moviemaking is very similar. Luckily for us, it's much harder to replicate movies than in baseball. And that's because studios, unlike coaches, studios are really built to distribute movies and really built to produce big budget movies. So, what's become clear to me over time is our model, I was more worried about it two or three years ago, our model is more difficult to replicate than I had anticipated simply because of that; it's just hard for studios to do movies in the budget range that we operate in.
At the same time, you ask people to take lower upfront fees at first, but after the first movie is a success, how do you continue to keep costs down?
The third or fourth movies are kind of capped. Originals are $5 million, our sequels are about $10 million. So they are more expensive going in. I keep them to ten and I keep them to ten for all the same reasons that the originals are five, which is that at ten you can try weird stuff. When you're making a sequel for an enormous amount of money it's not like there are rules, but creatively you're de-incentivized to take risks because you're risking so much money.
So the way to incentive creative people to try crazy s**t and take risks, you know we have a movie called Happy Death Day 2 that we just finished it's gonna come out next year, and I love it. It's bats**t crazy and it's the best. It simply couldn't have been made for what a traditional Hollywood sequel would be made for, and so the same rules apply, it's just like you said. The budgets are a little higher, but they're still by Hollywood standards very low even for sequels.
As you move further into TV, not just with The Purge but also prestige shows like your Roger Ailes drama at Showtime, have you found the formula works in TV?
The model doesn't translate to TV at all. I tried doing low budget TV, it doesn't work. Why doesn't it work? The movie business is ailing. So the low budget nature of our movies is extraordinarily attractive because the movie business is not terribly healthy. The television business is not this way. It's extraordinarily healthy. There's enormous amounts of capital in it. So they don't care what the shows cost as long as they make noise. You can say to a showrunner, “Work for a cut-rate and I'll let you do whatever you want to do," the showrunner says back, "I can get my full rate to do whatever I want to do."
If they make a series on Netflix they have total creative freedom and they have a huge budget. So, what we're doing in TV is expanding what to me the Blumhouse brand is, which is gaudy, edgy entertainment. But we're not doing the financial model that we used in the movies. It doesn't apply to TV at all.
But that financial bubble will burst at some point, right? Do you keep the low-budget model as your backup plan?
A thousand percent the current television business is not sustainable. And there will be retrench. I don't know if that means making low budget TV, but it certainly means making much more responsibly budgeted television, but more importantly, I think we'll be well positioned because then quality will be more important than ever. Now, all different kinds of shows get made, some are good and some aren't good. I think a lot of what you're gonna see when the television business comes down to earth is that the shows that may or may not get a green light right now that do will not get a green light. There'll be a real move towards much more quality and much more specialty on television.
Somewhat adjacent to the subject of your Ailes show, you met with Steve Bannon not too long ago. What was that experience like?
It was scary. It was enlightening, it was scary. I just saw the Errol Morris documentary and I think what was scary I think Bannon really believed what he was saying. Clearly I don't believe almost anything that he says but you always wonder, does he really believe it? And I came out of that meeting thinking that yes he does, and in a funny way that made it worse.