Blumhouse of Horrors: masterclass on independent production

Blumhouse of Horrors was first published in a very different form by Little White Lies

Jason Blum is the sort of producer that other producers want to be. He founded the independent Blumhouse Productions in 2000, and the fourth title that he picked up – a no-budget found footage horror film called Paranormal Activity (2008) – would bring one of the biggest Returns On Investment in cinema history, grossing just short of $200 million from its original budget of $15,000. From then on, Blumhouse has become synonymous with quality horror made on a low to mid budget. Its hits have included Insidious, Sinister, The Purge, Oculus, The Gift, Whiplash, Split, and most recently Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Recently he went long with me on his career.

Anton Bitel: Let’s start at the beginning. When did you know you wanted to be a producer, and why?

Jason Blum: I think I wanted to be a producer at a really early age. My dad was an art dealer, my mum was a professor of art history – an art historian. So I grew up very much in a family filled with art from both sides – contemporary and also the history of art. I spent my young adult life touring cathedrals all over Europe with my mum, and in modern art with my dad – and I think I always wanted to be in the arts. I’m sure it’s because of them. But one of the things that always bothered me about contemporary art was that it was very elitist, and I was really fixated on this idea of art for the masses, and that is, I think, the root of how I got into the movie business.

AB: I suspect that most people associate Blumhouse Productions with genre cinema, but you have also produced non-genre films, from your very first production Griffin and Phoenix in 2006 right through to the Oscar Best Picture nominee Whiplash in 2014  –

Jason Blum: Did you ever see Griffin and Phoenix?

AB: I actually haven’t.

Jason Blum: I was going to say: you’d be the only person on the planet who did see it. I haven’t heard that title in a long time.

AB: You’ve also produced non-horror titles like The Babymakers, Plush, Stretch, Jem and the Holograms, In A Valley of Violence and Lowriders, as well as a bunch of TV series that have not all been genre either. What, if anything, gives the brand of Blumhouse its coherence? What is the Blumhouse philosophy?

Jason Blum: I define the Blumhouse philosophy as things that scare us. That probably holds in almost everything that we’ve done. We’re doing a series on Roger Ailes, by Tom McCarthy, who wrote and directed Spotlight. Well, Roger Ailes is very scary to me, so he certainly falls into that. Whiplash has got scary themes in it – it’s about an abusive teacher, so that’s scary. So I like the filter of things that scare us, and most of the things that we’ve done fit into that filter.

AB: Horror is obviously Blumhouse’s main bag, beginning with Paranormal Activity. Was horror something important for you personally before the success of Paranormal Activity? Or is that how you found genre?

Jason Blum: I wouldn’t say it’s either one of those things. Like I said, from a really young age I wanted to be in movies. I really love movies. But I’m not like Eli Roth or Quentin [Tarantino] where I was a horror movie fanatic. I was really an all-around movie fanatic. Why it made sense when it finally happened is, at the same time as that, I was always very odd. I mean, Halloween was my favourite holiday, I always liked weird, gross stuff. I collected my fingernails when I was little. So I didn’t like horror movies, but my life was a horror. And I think that one of the reasons that I love making genre movies is I love genre fans – I love that we’re all kinda oddballs, and kinda strange and left of centre, so I very much identify as a genre fan and with genre fans. And I knew I wanted to do movies, and everything kinda coalesced around the experience of doing Paranormal [Activity].

AB: What is it about horror that makes it such a good fit for the kind of low to mid budgets that Blumhouse offers?

Jason Blum: I think actually it’s better without movie stars. That’s probably the biggest thing in horror: you’re selling concepts more than actors. And then I think that genre movies really work all the more when they feel grounded, and if you take money away, you take special effects, you take CGI, you really have to focus on story, you have to make them feel real. I actually think that they benefit from pulling resources away, for those reasons.

AB: When someone comes to Blumhouse with a good pitch for a new film, what typically happens next? What is the Blumhouse process?

Jason Blum: We make an agreement, and then we make the film. I mean, it’s very fluid. We have very little in development, we make almost everything that we buy. I wish I could say that’s because I’m a genius – it’s not. First of all, for production, it’s a big company – there’s 60 people in the company, and we only make low-budget movies. So we’re not taking huge risk on the movies, and that allows us to make a lot, and that allows us to make movies that feel very different – and almost everything that we’ve been successful with has been things that have kicked around for a long time – that people have passed on. That’s true of Get Out, that’s true of The Visit, that’s true of Unfriended, that’s true of Paranormal Activity and it’s true of The Purge – and I could go on from there. The reason for that, I think, is because we’re focused on low-budget filmmaking.  

AB: Are you personally a hands-on or hands-off producer?

Jason Blum: In Europe it’s common but in Hollywood it’s not common: our directors have final cut. Our directors have final say creatively. So I always say to the director: I can’t promise you a hit, but I promise you the movie’s going to be yours. That’s not very meaningful anywhere else in the world, but in Hollywood that’s very meaningful. The result, I’ve found – which everyone knows in Europe but which Hollywood hasn’t figured out – is when you give a director final cut, they’re much more likely to listen. So although they have creative control, we have an enormous amount of input. We do script development, we help with casting, we help with physical production – where you’re going to shoot. We help with department heads – the department heads that won the Oscar for Whiplash worked with Insidious, the mixer was from Insidious – they were horror movie makers. And we’re very involved in the marketing. So the answer to your question is: we’re hands-on, but with an approach where we give the director a bunch of choices, and then the director chooses and the director has final say. I always say to the director, if I’m on your set for more than a day, something is going very wrong. I hate being on set, and I really feel, if you need to be on the set every day, either you’re making an expensive movie – which we don’t make, so we don’t have that problem – or you’ve done something wrong prepping it. I don’t tell the director that the actress has to wear a different colour blouse, but we are involved in physical [production] if there’s, like, a location problem.  We’re on the hook financially for our movies – so if we go over, it’s our problem. So we’re very mindful of that.

AB: Blumhouse is an independent production house, but has a ‘first-look deal’ with the Universal Pictures for its features, and with Lionsgate for its TV series. How do these relationships work in practice?

Jason Blum: We have a first look with Universal for features, that’s correct. We’ve made 25 movies with them, most of our movies we do with them, and I just have a real shorthand with them, we have a great relationship, it’s a great partnership. The companies really understand one another, and so in practice it works very easily. On the TV side, we don’t have a deal with Lionsgate anymore, we did a deal with ITV [America] where they made an equity investment in our company, and we’re now a functioning television studio. So on the TV side we actually finance our own stuff. We finance our own development, and we deficit-finance our own shows, so we operate completely independently in TV, we have no network-first look. By structuring the television business that way, it brought the way that we make TV and the way that we make movies into sync, because when we produce a movie we really control all aspects of it ourselves, even though it usually isn’t our money – sometimes it is, usually it isn’t. With TV, we now do the same thing, and it usually is our money.

AB: How early in the production are the studios getting a look-in on your films? And how much influence do they have on the finished product?

Jason Blum: Generally the influence the studios have in the beginning is just a yes or a no, and even that is pretty fluid – they really listen to me in terms of what I want to make or don’t. We really are straddling independent and studio filmmaking. The movies are made independently, they’re released in a very traditional way by Hollywood studios, mostly by Universal. And the movie switches from being an independent to being a studio movie at the time we decide how it’s going to be distributed. Or sometimes switches. So when the movie’s going to get a wide release, the life of the movie is much more a studio movie. So that means, if I think the movie’s a wide release, I call up Universal, we show them, if they agree with me – and nine times out of ten they do – then we totally work on the movie together: I get their input, we’ll reshoot scenes, we’ll futz, we’ll improve the movie as much as we can, we’ll spend a little extra money, and the movie has a very traditional life then as a studio movie, it has a 25-30 million dollar spend. Until that point, it’s lived its life as an independent movie.

AB: Jordan Peele’s Get Out has been a great success, with audiences and with critics alike – I adored it personally – but the way that it engages so vividly with the fault lines of race relations in America must have made it seem, at least initially, quite a risky project. Similarly James DeMonaco’s Purge franchise enters all manner of political minefields. Do you, as a producer, blithely embrace controversial materials, or do they keep you up at night?

Jason Blum: Well we embrace it, but again, it’s all a function of budget, right. So if I was running a studio, and I got the script of The Purge, and The Purge was a normal low-budget studio movie at 15 or 20 million dollars, I would never do it, for all the reasons that you’re saying. Get Out, same thing. And the reason both of those movies didn’t get made [by others who had previously passed on them] was that they were actually budgeted at higher numbers. But to me, that’s where the budget has a direct correlation to the creative. So The Purge was an insane thing – I mean, you’re smart to pick up on that, because now people say, “Oh, The Purge, I want you to make more of The Purge.” Before The Purge existed it was totally a politically risky thing to do. But what takes the risk out of it is lowering the budget. The Purge was three million bucks. Get Out was four and a half million bucks. So even if somehow tonally those movies were wrong and they were offensive, you could take the movie straight to VOD or iTunes or whatever, and you might lose a little or break even, but you certainly wouldn’t lose a lot, and that’s the key to how we do movies that are politically subversive and risky and everything else.

AB: And with Get Out, when the idea was pitched to you, did you know, or even have an inkling, that it would prove to be the success that it has been?

Jason Blum: No. If I had an inkling that it was going to be that successful, it’s probably time to hang up my cleats. That’s the end. We never knew that the movie was going to be as successful as it was until its second weekend of release in the United States. So, no idea. We’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of them, but that doesn’t make me any less aware of what an anomaly a hit movie is. Boy, they’re very, very hard to create.

AB: You have helped create now well-established franchises (Paranormal ActivityInsidious, The Purge, Sinister, Ouija), you have also served as midwife to emerging filmmakers like Oren Peli, Joel Edgerton, Jordan Peele, Leigh Whannell, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, and you have in effect resurrected the filmmaking career of M. Night Shyamalan with The Visitor and Split. What has been your proudest achievement at Blumhouse?

Jason Blum: [pause] Boy, I don’t know. My opinion might change on that at any time. I’ll tell you the first thing that pops into my mind. We’d done Paranormal [Activity], everyone said it was a magic trick. We did Sinister and Insidious Insidious actually turned into a big success, it actually opened rather softly. Sinister did 45 or whatever – it raised people’s attention. But when we did The Purge, The Purge opened at 34. That’s when things got easier. When we did The Purge, it was like, wow, this Blumhouse company is really onto something. So the first thing that comes to my mind is the first Purge movie.

AB: How do you adapt production to fit into the ever-changing media landscape?

Jason Blum: Well, we’ve raised our budgets. Paranormal was nothing, Insidious was a million bucks, The Purge was three million, Get Out‘s four and a half, now we’re in the four-and-a-half/five zone, so we’ve changed that. I’ve changed my rules a little bit: I used to work with no first-time directors, now I say, ok, a first-time director if you’ve had a bunch of experience doing something else – Jordan [Peele, Get Out] and Joel [Edgerton, The Gift]. You can’t repeat success. You have to reinvent to continue to be successful. I’m very conscious and mindful of trying to do that all the time as we move forward.

AB: You said that up until recently you had been averse to new directors. Why is that?

Jason Blum: I don’t think Jordan and Joel fit into that category, but for me, a new or first-time director – they’ve made a short, the short goes viral, then they get a movie and they’re 24 – and Hollywood is quite attracted to that idea, they’re always looking for the next Tarantino, they’re gonna have ten hits in a row, the next genius. Hollywood is always looking for the next genius. Not to say that I don’t think a lot of directors who we work with aren’t geniuses, but I think Hollywood is addicted to that dream. I don’t like doing that, because, one of the reasons that we can be so efficient is that we’re not running a film school. I’m very loath to work with directors that are just starting out – that’s what I mean.

AB: What do you have in the pipeline that excites you?

Jason Blum: I’m very excited about this movie Half To Death. Chris Landon wrote it, he wrote Disturbia, he was a writer and producer of four of the six Paranormal Activity movies. He’s a totally undervalued talent, I’m very excited to be working with him, and hope to work with him for a very long time. He’s made this great movie Half to Death, which is a scary movie version of Groundhog Day. That’ll come out in the Fall. Very excited about Insidious 4, which comes out in January. I’m excited about [David Gordon Green’s] Halloween, and I’m excited about [M. Night Shyamalan’s] Glass, on the movie side. On the TV side we’ve got the Purge TV series, and the Roger Ailes series on Showtime which I mentioned, so those are the next up on TV.

AB: Would you yourself ever consider directing?

Jason Blum: Never. I think that’s the one of the things that makes me a good producer. I have no interest in directing. I’d be a terrible director. I don’t want to direct, and I think that really helps me at my job at producing. I think a lot of producers – particularly in Hollywood – are kind-of frustrated directors, and that doesn’t help them. For me, I think that one of our assets as a company is that I don’t have any aspirations to direct.

LWL: What is your favourite film?

Jason Blum: My favourite film changes all the time. The film I’ve seen the most times – how about that? – is The Wizard of Oz.

Get Out is on DVD and Blu-ray from 24 July, 2017.

© Anton Bitel