Whatever happened to horror film budgets?

Earlier this year, producer Brad Fuller gave an interview with Esquire about the upcoming Friday the 13th reboot, and he provided some fascinating insights into the current state of horror filmmaking. Fuller told a story about how in 2009 the latest Friday the 13th movie opened, costing Paramount Pictures $20 million. Later that year, Fuller was finishing up work on Platinum Dunes’ Nightmare on Elm Street remake when the industry began to change before his eyes. The independent film Paranormal Activity hit and instantly became the most successful horror film of all time, grossing $193 million on a budget of just $15,000. Holy crap, a movie some dude shot in his house made more than a Jason movie? Studios instantly realized the power of cheap, found footage horror, and as a direct result, a sequel to 2009’s Friday the 13th never happened; everyone in horror began to shift their gaze towards small-scale productions. Fuller told Esquire that he emailed Paranormal Activity producer Jason Blum to set up a meeting, writing, “We don’t know each other, but you stole our business, so the least you can do is buy me a cup of coffee.”

Fuller had a point; horror filmmaking has without a doubt shrunken in size over the past few years, and producers are more and more unwilling to spend anything on these genre movies. After all, why blow $30 million on a film when the numbers show audiences are just as willing to go see a $5 million one? Low budget horror isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, but when we track the numbers over the past decade or so, we get a pretty clear image of a dramatic change in the industry. So where the hell did all the money go?

YEAR BY YEAR

Let’s start by heading back to the year 2000 and look at the top five highest grossing horror movies.

Hollow Man – Gross: $190 million // Budget: $95 million
Scream 3 – Gross: $161 million // Budget: $40 million
Final Destination – Gross: $112 million // Budget: $23 million
Pitch Black – Gross: $53 million // Budget: $23 million
Blair Witch 2 – Gross: $47 million // Budget: $15 million
AVERAGE – Gross: $112 million // Budget: $39 million

One of the highest grossing of the year was Scream 3, which cost $40 million. This was a sequel with a big, diverse cast, plenty of stars, and high production value. Even though it was just slasher fare, the studio put just as many resources into this as they would a film of any other genre, and it paid off for them. So far so good.

Skipping ahead to #5, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 cost $15 million. Although that’s pretty low in comparison to the others, the studio was still willing to spend substantially more than would later be spent on a similar sequel like Paranormal Activity 2, which cost just $3 million in 2010.

This gives us an average budget for the year 2000 of $39 million, with the highest being $95 million. Considering where we are now with horror, that’s a pretty crazy amount of money. Though Blair Witch 2 continued the relatively low budget trend that its predecessor started the previous year, for the most part, studios were giving horror filmmakers plenty to work with.

Two years later, the average amount spent on the top five horror films went down to $29 million:

The Ring – Gross: $249 million // Budget: $48 million
Resident Evil – Gross: $102 million // Budget: $33 million
Ghost Ship – Gross: $68 million // Budget: $20 million
Queen of the Damned – Gross: $45 million // Budget: $35 million
Halloween: Resurrection – Gross: $37 million // Budget: $13 million
AVERAGE – Gross: $100 million // Budget: $29.8 million

The most expensive was The Ring, which cost $48 million. The other budgets ranged from $33 million down to $13 million, but never did they drop below $10 million, not even when we introduced the pretty cheap slasher franchise, Halloween. 

Two years later…

The Grudge – Gross: $187 million // Budget: $10 million
Resident Evil: Apocalypse – Gross: $129 million // Budget: $45 million
Saw – Gross: $103 million // Budget: $1.2 million
Dawn of the Dead – Gross: $102 million // Budget: $26 million
Exorcist: The Beginning – Gross: $78 million // Budget: $80 million
AVERAGE – Gross: $119 million // Budget: $32 million

In 2004, the average went up slightly to $32 million, with the most expensive being Exorcist: The Beginning at $80 million. But notice that now we have Saw entering the picture at an insanely low $1.2, substantially below anything we’ve seen before. Then two years later there was Hostel, a similar torture porn movie that cost just $5 million.  We can argue about the quality of these movies, but they definitely accomplished a lot with just a few people in a room, and the studio more than got their money’s worth.

The genre was headed away from big budgeted movies like Hollow Man, Scream and The Ring, stripping back as much as possible. In 2006, that became even clearer…

Saw III – Gross: $164 million // Budget: $10 million
The Omen- Gross: $119 million // Budget: $25 million
Final Destination 3 – Gross: $117 million // Budget: $25 million
Hostel – Gross: $80 million // Budget: $5 million
When A Stranger Calls – Gross: $66 million // Budget: $15 million
AVERAGE: Gross: $109 million // Budget: $16 million

The average gross for 2006 wasn’t that much lower than in 2004, yet the average budget was cut in half. The Saw approach was clearly becoming more and more appealing to studios. When we look at these numbers, it doesn’t seem like costing more actually affects the box office gross at all, so now spending very much money on a horror film was just becoming bad business.

Two years later…

Saw V – Gross: $113 million // Budget: $10 million
Mirrors – Gross: $77 million // Budget: $35 million
Prom Night – Gross: $57 million // Budget: $20 million
One Missed Call – Gross: $45 million // Budget: $20 million
Quarantine- Gross: $41 million // Budget: $12 million
AVERAGE: Gross: $67 million // Budget: $19 million

The biggest hit of 2008 was Saw V, the franchise that was now totally dominating at the box office every single year. That movie cost only $10 million, pretty standard for that series. We can see the studios taking note of this from the top five, with most of the other movies hovering around $15-20 million. The most a studio was willing to spend was $35 million with Mirrors, but did it pay off for them? Not really, as that film fell way behind Saw despite costing over three times as much.

In 2009, only one movie really mattered…

Paranormal Activity – Gross: $193 million // Budget: $15,000
The Final Destination – Gross: $186 million // Budget: $40 million
My Bloody Valentine – Gross: $100 million // Budget: $15 million
Friday the 13th- Gross: $91 million // Budget: $19 million
The Haunting in Connecticut – Gross: $77 million // Budget: $10 million
AVERAGE: Gross: $129 million // Budget: $16.8 million

If there were any producers unconvinced of the shift in the industry that had been occurring since Saw, Paranormal Activity was a huge wakeup call. It was nothing short of a game changer, even more so than The Blair Witch Project. Now, there was almost no excuse to spend very much on a horror film; look what these guys accomplished with just a few thousand! Audiences didn’t seem to care how cheap the production value was, and with that in mind, why wouldn’t studios cut budgets?

In 2010, 2011, and 2012, Paranormal Activity sequels were #1 every year, and the franchise had established itself as the new Saw. That streak was broken in 2013 only because the Paranormal Activity franchise didn’t have a sequel that year. Between 2009 and 2014, the average budget for the top five movies was between $9-$30 million. The only abnormality was in 2010 when The Wolfman threw off the numbers a bit, costing $150 million. That was something of a disaster, grossing only $61 million in the U.S. and $139 million worldwide. Ouch.

Meanwhile that same year, Saw 3D made roughly the same amount of money as The Wolfman while only spending $20 million, and Paranormal Activity 2 took home $177 million on a budget of only $3 million. Universal took a big risk with The Wolfman, giving a horror film a pretty large budget, and it failed miserably. The next major horror movie Universal would put out after that was Mama, which cost them only $15 million. They weren’t about to make the same mistake twice; they were now committed to the new, low budget world.

From 2010 until today, the cheap horror film has completely dominated the marketplace. In addition to Paranormal Activity, the Insidious movies have been hugely successful, yet the first movie and its two sequels cost just $1.5 million and $5 million and $10 million respectively. The Devil Inside was another big success in 2012, grossing over $100 million and spending only $1 million. This was another ultra low budget found footage movie starring no name actors, something that Paranormal Activity was bringing back to the forefront. Studios didn’t need tons of actors and special effects if they could use the found footage technique as an excuse to not actually show anything. Just have the character shake the camera around a lot and you’ll have guaranteed box office gold.

The Purge was also a hit, grossing $89 million on a $3 million budget, spawning a sequel and with a third installment on the way. That movie takes place all in one house and with a cast of just a few characters, clearly wanting to become the next Saw or Paranormal Activity. Audiences generally reacted poorly to The Purge, feeling ripped off because it alluded to these interesting global events but never allowed us to leave this one house. Of course, that was because the filmmakers simply couldn’t afford to do so. In this instance, the refusal of studios to spend any real amount of money was negatively affecting the storytelling. That same year even a bigger and more traditionally shot movie like The Conjuring still had its budget stripped back to $20 million. 10 years ago, as we saw earlier, movies similar in tone and style like The Ring were receiving between $50-70 million. Those days are now over.

Last year was the absolute peak of this stingy trend, with nearly every one of the top horror films costing less than $10 million.

Annabelle- Gross: $255 million // Budget: $6.5 million
Ouija – Gross: $99 million // Budget: $5 million
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones – Gross: $90 million // Budget: $5 million
Deliver Us From Evil – Gross: $87 million // Budget: $30 million
Oculus  – Gross: $44 million // Budget: $5 million
AVERAGE: Gross: $115 million // Budget: $10.3 million

All of these movies broke even and went far beyond that because when costing this little, there’s almost no way they could fail. The genre has officially moved from films like The Ring, with budgets and production value roughly equivalent to films of any other genre, to films that are stripped back to the absolute extreme.

Saw and Hostel helped popularize the horror film with only a few characters, and Paranormal Activity took this a step further and brought the found footage genre (initially popularized by The Blair Witch Project) into the mainstream. Studios realized that audiences don’t go to horror for the production value; they go for the shocks and gore, both of which could be accomplished even on a $1 million budget. In cases like The Purge, that was starting to affect the quality of these movies and forcing filmmakers to barely show anything, but why should the studios care? The films were making insane amounts of money. As Brad Fuller sadly realized, now spending $30 million on a Jason movie when you could easily spend $1 million on a Paranormal Activity movie to make the same box office gross didn’t make sense.

THE BLUMHOUSE EFFECT

That brings us back to Jason Blum, the man behind so many of these modern, cheap horror films. His studio, Blumhouse Productions, has quietly become one of the most profitable movie studios in Hollywood. They’ve only existed since 2004, not having their first big hit until Paranormal Activity in 2009, but the company has grossed $1.4 billion at the box office in their history. Their films have cost a collective $45 million as of January of this year. Yes, every single Blumhouse film combined gets us to a budget that’s still over three times less than what Universal spent on The Wolfman. Here are just a few of their movies:

Paranormal Activity, Paranormal Activity 2, Insidious, Paranormal Activity 3, Sinister, Paranormal Activity 4, The Bay, Dark Skies, The Lords of Salem, The Purge, Insidious: Chapter 2, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, Oculus, 13 Sins, The Purge: Anarchy, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Ouija, Unfriended, Insidious: Chapter 3, The Gallows. 

That’s all just since 2009. If you go see a horror film in theaters now, pay attention to how many of the trailers are for Blumhouse productions because it’s not uncommon for at least 80% of them to have that familiar BH on the front. Their upcoming films include The Gift, Sinister 2, The Visit, The Green Inferno, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, 6 Miranda Drive, Viral, Martyrs, Amityville: The Reawakening, The Purge 3, Ouija 2, and Unfriended 2. 

THE FUTURE

Is it possible that we could one day see the resurgence of the larger budget horror film? At the moment, that’s not totally clear. The two most popular horror films in 2015 so far have been It Follows and Unfriended, costing $2 million and $1 million respectively, which certainly doesn’t bode well. But there might still be some hope, and we can thank Marvel for it.

Universal Studios is currently planning an expanded universe of monster movies, clearly hoping to emulate the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They’ll be releasing reboots of their classic monsters like the Mummy, The Wolfman, Frankenstein, etc. All of these movies will be connected, with the idea being that they can cross over with each other much like the classic movies did with films like Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. Universal actually got started on this last year with Dracula Untold, which cost $70 million. That’s a pretty large budget, and the movie did relatively well, earning $215 million.

It’s too far out from the release of the next one, with The Mummy scheduled for 2016, but we can presume Universal will plan to invest around this same amount of money into all of these movies. Could Universal, the studio who lost so much on The Wolfman years agoactually be the one to bring big budget horror back into the mainstream? Will they be the first studio finally willing to spend an appropriate amount of money on horror again? In 2016, we’ll get our answers.

For now, the state of horror budgets is definitely not great. There has always been low budget horror, but it was never this mainstream and this large a percentage of the marketplace. The “Blumhouse effect” has taken over, and it’s not clear if it can ever be stopped. Will we ever get another $30 million Friday the 13th like we did in 2009That remains to be seen, but there’s one thing for sure: Jason Blum owes Brad Fuller a cup of coffee.

One thought on “Whatever happened to horror film budgets?

  1. Pingback: Dead Silence blankets the cinema; can still hear the ‘meh’ « 100 Films in 100 Days

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