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Scare Tactics

Blumhouse has box office success, Oscar nominations, and a plan for the future. Here’s how the horror masters behind ‘The Purge’ and ‘Paranormal Activity’ cracked Hollywood’s cheat code.

Blumhouse Productions/Ringer illustration
Blumhouse Productions/Ringer illustration

Welcome to Future of Movies Week. Too often this year we’ve been left baffled at the multiplex. It’s been 10 months, and we’re struggling to come up with a viable top-10 list. Streaming platforms are encroaching on Hollywood’s share of our collective attention, preexisting intellectual property is providing diminishing returns, and moviegoers largely skipped Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Wild days.

November will be different. It’s packed with interesting releases — Oscar contenders like Loving and Arrival and Manchester by the Sea, blockbusters from Marvel (Doctor Strange) and J.K. Rowling (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), a Disney movie with Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Rock (Moana), and old-fashioned fare from big-name directors like Robert Zemeckis (Allied) and Warren Beatty (Rules Don’t Apply).

This week, we’re looking at the future — of film school, horror, the Marvel Universe, movie stars, and the medium itself.

Here’s the pitch: a single mother. A grieving family. Los Angeles, 1967. A city on the precipice of social revolution, as the tragedies of the 20th century echo through everyday life. Two young sisters, coming of age in the shadow of their father’s death. Small, battered lives, caught up in something bigger than they can possibly understand.

How does this get made in 2016? It’s nearly impossible without the gravitational pull of a bona fide movie star, the clout of a powerful director, or the deep pockets of a Medici-like figure financing the project. It really helps to have all three. American dramas have largely migrated to the small screen, where audiences are content to spend hours watching characters fall in and out of love, change their lives, or stay the same. Family dramas litter network television, basic and premium cable, and streaming serves. They could eventually become extinct on the big screen.

Unless. Unless the filmmakers are willing to work fast and cheap, the actors are willing to work at scale, and all involved are willing to add one little embellishment to their lifelike story.

Blumhouse/Universal
Blumhouse/Universal

At one point a demon is going to shove itself down the throat of the younger sister, and she will become possessed by an unspeakable evil.

This is Ouija: Origin of Evil. Released in October, it’s a prequel to the utterly forgettable 2014 feature that "adapted" the popular board game for the big screen. And it is the small-miracle movie of the year. On first glance, it looks like an almost comical effort to defibrillate a piece of intellectual property. Did we really need a movie based on a board game? Did that movie really need a prequel? Is there really that much more material to be mined from an inanimate object? Turns out, the answer is a resounding yes. For all the corporate attachments, Origin of Evil feels like the work of a singular vision. And that’s exactly what it is: cowritten, directed, and edited by one person — Mike Flanagan.

According to Blumhouse Productions’ Couper Samuelson, Flanagan is "a guy who figures out how to use limitations to help the film rather than hamstring it." Which makes him the perfect director for Blumhouse, producers of the wildly successful Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and Purge franchises, and one of the most fascinating production companies making movies today.

When they say they don’t make them like they used to in Hollywood, they’re sort of right, and they’re sort of wrong. They do still make nuanced dramas about families, class, and morality — but instead of divorce or dysfunction, they’re typically dealing with possessed children, haunted houses, and manhunting mobs. And if you happen to like both drama and scares, you’re in luck. It’s practically your Golden Age.

To understand what Blumhouse is doing, it helps to know how it got started. The company began releasing movies in 2007, and it’s still run by Jason Blum, who got his start in the industry working for Bob and Harvey Weinstein, rising to copresident of acquisitions at Miramax. He saw how the Weinsteins satisfy the desire for both awards fare and populist entertainment with their company Miramax (run largely by Harvey), and its genre label Dimension Films (Bob’s horror and thriller playground). Miramax made The English Patient; Dimension made Scream. What Blum began to imagine was, What if you could do both at once?

Jason Blum (Getty Images)
Jason Blum (Getty Images)

Samuelson, the president of feature films at Blumhouse, says the lessons Blum learned from the Weinsteins stuck, even as the movie landscape has changed over the past decade.

"He developed a love for getting those challenging, interesting stories — whether it’s The Others or Shakespeare in Love — to wide audiences," says Samuelson. "People forget, Shakespeare in Love grossed over $100 million. That was an era when A Beautiful Mind could gross $185 million in the U.S.

"As the world changed … I think he was always disappointed that dramas couldn’t get wider audiences. And in a weird way, making movies independently, like they were dramas, except trying to make them for a mass audience, like Insidious or the first Paranormal Activity, was his way of scratching that itch."

https://art19.com/shows/the-bill-simmons-podcast/episodes/f0845b1d-8924-4cdb-9752-57d83dfe44a4

Samuelson joined Blumhouse in 2011. After doing an "obligatory year on a desk at CAA," a spell with Mark Cuban’s 2929 (where he helped produce dramas like Good Night and Good Luck and James Gray’s We Own the Night), and a stint at Paramount, he hitched up with Blum, who was riding high on the success of the first two Paranormal Activity films (which grossed nearly $200 million combined domestically, and were made with minuscule budgets) and the first Insidious ($54 million in domestic box).

In 2014, following the successful opening of Purge: Anarchy, the second film in James DeMonaco’s successful and chillingly plausible franchise, Blumhouse signed a 10-year first-look deal with Universal, building off a relationship that began in 2011. Blumhouse is everywhere, and delivery-agnostic: The company makes movies that are distributed in theaters and through VOD channels, produces prestige television (the true-crime doc The Jinx, an upcoming adaption of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, and a recently announced miniseries about Roger Ailes from Spotlight director Tom McCarthy), and creates experiential horror attractions. The only thing that matters is that people see what the company creates.

But for all this diversification, Blumhouse’s central mission and core business is telling scary stories. And it tells a lot of them. In the past three years alone, Blumhouse has produced sequels in the Paranormal Activity, Purge, Insidious, Ouija, and Sinister franchises; made teen screams like Unfriended and The Gallows; got in the Oscar race with Whiplash; been involved with two Mark Duplass movies (Creep and The Lazarus Effect); produced an insane Rob Zombie art film (The Lords of Salem); laid some eggs (Area 51 and Jem and the Holograms, anyone?); and had a hand in the M. Night Shyamalanaissance (the terrifying The Visit, the upcoming Split). And the company does nearly all of it on shoestring budgets.

"Linear, scripted, filmed entertainment is insanely expensive. Our process is really, Filmmaker, what do you want to tell this story? And then we figure out every way to split the nickel to get them that," says Samuelson.

What does that involve? Let me tell you about a weird little 2015 movie that was almost called Weirdo.

Samuelson is 37, from Massachusetts, and speaks with the cultural vocabulary of someone who grew up in movie theaters and video stores in the 1990s. He will casually call Joseph Ruben, director of the 1991 Julia Roberts thriller Sleeping With the Enemy, "Joe," betraying the intimacy that intense movie fans who grew up at that time had with the often-faceless directors of mass Hollywood entertainment. Samuelson is the kind of person who, in his youth, would audit film theory classes, work summer jobs as a ticket taker in a movie theater box office just to be able to watch The Hunt for Red October for the 16th time, and spend his free time in video stores arguing about the best Robert Aldrich titles. He delights in mixing high and low culture; in conversation, he references everything from Alain Robbe-Grillet to Curtis Hanson in the same sentence.

So you can imagine how delighted he was when Joel Edgerton’s agent contacted him in 2014 about a movie the Australian actor wanted to write and direct called Weirdo.

"Joel was really passionate about making an interesting movie, but getting it a wide theatrical release," says Samuelson of the film that would eventually be called The Gift, thanks to some "script title arbitrage" by Blum. "His goal was to get people to think they were going to go see Pacific Heights, then get smacked with Caché. He wouldn’t put it exactly in those terms, but that’s the idea. … That, to us, is kind of the holy grail: making an interesting, challenging movie without a lot of easy resolutions that nonetheless gets into multiplexes."

I would love to spin my wheels about The Gift, but Samuelson put it better than I ever could: Edgerton’s directorial debut perfectly captures the upwardly mobile paranoia of John Schlesinger’s dream-house nightmare Pacific Heights, and combines it with the psychological terror of Michael Haneke’s Caché. Starring Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, and Edgerton, the film was made for $5 million and grossed $44 million in U.S. box office. It was commercially successful and critically adored, racking up a 93 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. The Gift is, in many ways, the perfect Blumhouse movie: a director executing a unique vision, using the tricks of a company that knows how to make movies on the cheap.

"It’s closer to the auteurist model than the old Hollywood model," says Samuelson of the Blumhouse way. "The thing that’s challenging about being a movie director is you have to be a lot of things at once — you have to be an artist, you have to be a leader, you have to be a general, you have to be a small-business owner, and you have to be a populist. So what we try to do is give them these rails that these movies ride on."

Those "rails" include access to a "repertory company" of behind-the-scenes talent (such as production designers) that knows how to make movies on Blumhouse budgets and schedules. According to Samuelson, The Gift was "actually being released exactly the way it should have been released, so distribution really fits the movie, as opposed to trying to make a movie that fits a $30 million P&A [prints and advertising] commitment."

Couper Samuelson (Getty Images)
Couper Samuelson (Getty Images)

Beyond the infrastructural know-how, the company makes a very simple proposition to prospective filmmakers: "We offer this product: If you’re a filmmaker, you can make a big-budget studio movie, you can make a personal movie for Sundance, or you can make television. If you’re an experienced studio filmmaker, those are your three options. We’re just a separate bucket. … It’s the budget of TV, it’s the autonomy of Sundance, and, in a perfect world, it’s the commercial outcome of Doctor Strange."

Doctor Strange is, as of this writing, projected to make upward of $70 million in its opening weekend, and is already earning critical raves. The director of this new Marvel tentpole is Scott Derrickson, best known, prior to his foray onto the astral plane with Benedict Cumberbatch, as the director of the 2012 Ethan Hawke Blumhouse hit Sinister. If filmmakers like Derrickson or Edgerton or James Wan (who made the jump from Blumhouse to the Fast & Furious franchise) are willing to work within the financial parameters that the studio lays out, anything is possible.

"A movie like The Gift, which takes the idiom of thrillers like Fatal Attraction and Cape Fear … David Fincher does that really well for $120 million. And there’s a whole category of filmmakers that don’t have the profile that David Fincher has, and can’t get the creative control David Fincher has," Samuelson says. "But, for a price, we can give it to them."

The key for Blumhouse, as it is for most media companies in 2016, is scale. This is a business decision, sure: The more movies you get into circulation at a modest budget, the more chances those movies have to create a return. But there’s also an aesthetic logic behind the prolific release schedule: Directors need reps. Blumhouse is happy to provide the batting practice.

"If you’re a consumer of content now, you’re so much better off than when Alan Pakula was making movies," says Samuelson, in reference to the vaunted director of ’70s American classics like All the President’s Men and The Parallax View. "But the one thing that I think is less good about today is that you have filmmakers who are not Steven Spielberg and not Christopher Nolan who, if they were working 20 years ago, they would make a movie a year. Joe Ruben, Herb Ross, Robert Wise … 50 years ago, they cranked out a movie a year. One of the challenges of the new world, where there are fewer and bigger movies being made, is that all these filmmakers who would have a chance to make a movie a year, they’re making a movie every four years. … You’d make a bunch of different movies and people would be like, OK, he’s a technician. Then, quietly, like Michael Curtiz before him … there would be masterpieces that would come out."

In Mike Flanagan, Blumhouse might have its own Michael Curtiz.

Or its Andrew Miller. Flanagan is Blumhouse’s arm out of the bullpen. He made his feature debut in 2011, with Absentia, and he has since directed three films for Blumhouse: 2013’s Oculus, and this year’s Hush and Ouija: Origin of Evil.

Like Samuelson, he’s a movie obsessive from Massachusetts, and he counts The Thing and Halloween as two of his biggest influences. Hush, the second of Flanagan’s Blumhouse efforts, is a white-knuckle home-invasion tale — essentially a two-hander — set in the woods. A deaf woman (played by Flanagan’s wife, Kate Siegel) is terrorized by a mysterious intruder (The Newsroom’s John Gallagher Jr.). That’s it. It’s a high-concept, low-budget movie that soberly and terrifyingly explores all the nooks and crannies of its concept.

On the surface, Ouija: Origin of Evil doesn’t seem like great-leap-forward material, but that’s exactly what it is. It’s made by the kind of movie buff who would purposely add dust to the negative of the film just to trigger feelings of nostalgia within fellow midnight movie fans, or create an effect to simulate the sensation of the reel jumping the projector gate. And it’s a work that finds its director showing what he can do when given the right (albeit limited) resources. Hush was made for an estimated $1 million. Ouija: Origin of Evil had a reported budget of $9 million and was shot over 29 days. It looks like it cost three times as much and took months to produce. As of this writing, it has made nearly $26 million at the box office.

Flanagan cowrote, directed, and edited the picture, which stars Elizabeth Reaser and Henry Thomas. As soon as Origin of Evil starts, you can sense the filmmaker’s influences — nods to Roman Polanski and Brian De Palma are apparent in the framing, camera movement, and creepy, endless zoom shots — but those influences don’t overwhelm the story. This is more than classic horror pastiche.

Reaser plays the matriarch of a family trying to get by in late-’60s L.A. after the death of her husband. To make ends meet, she does some light con-artist work as a psychic, communing with the dead and employing her children to help her with the staging. As you might imagine, a Ouija board is introduced, some core rules of Ouija use are broken, and all hell, literally, breaks loose.

Every moment of demon children on the ceiling and Ghost Nazi doctors at work in the basement (yeah … Ghost Nazis) feels earned because of the time and care Flanagan puts into making the domestic drama that takes place for 45 minutes before the horror film starts.

"It’s an incredible achievement for Mike at any price, let alone the price that he made it," says Samuelson. "The germ of it, for Mike, was he’s just a fan of Poltergeist and he’s just a fan of those kinds of back-to-basic family chamber pieces that then would kind of unravel into horror. The challenge for him was he didn’t want to completely retcon Ouija I, so he just took those elements from Ouija that were like these little backstory nothing exposition dumps and built a movie about grief."

How do you get a talented filmmaker, even one you’ve worked with before, to take on a prequel to a movie about a board game that one critic called "the cinematic equivalent of a sleeping pill"? Start with throwing out the rulebook.

"We basically went to Mike and said, ‘Whatever you want. You can make whatever you want. It’s going to be called Ouija II, but you really have a complete blank slate,’" says Samuelson.

For Samuelson and Blumhouse, there is actually some value in a known asset, no matter how distressed, like the Ouija-verse, as long as it’s in the right hands. "For us, if it’s called Ouija, that means that we will 100 percent get the movie into multiplexes. That is a very bracing opportunity for us. We do not take for granted that our movies necessarily get into wide theatrical release. And so in a weird way, the Trojan horse is already built, and the Greeks are inside of it, and the Trojans are going to accept it into the gates. Whereas sometimes we have movies that, by the nature of being original movies, or being challenging movies, they have to scrap to get in."

Flanagan was the perfect soldier to push the horse through the gates. He took this tough assignment and made it feel like his own material. It’s a triumph not only of working within economic boundaries, but upending formal limitations. How good can a prequel horror movie about a board game be? Pretty damn good!

As usual, the slate is full — and evolving — at Blumhouse. Its television arm is ramping up with HBO’s Sharp Objects, starring Amy Adams, and Tom McCarthy’s adaptation of Gabriel Sherman’s Fox News saga The Loudest Voice in the Room arrives after that. February will see the release of Get Out, the directorial debut of Key & Peele’s Jordan Peele, which reportedly combines social commentary with horror. And the hype on Lowriders, a crime drama starring Demián Bichir, has already begun.

But no matter what direction their productions move in, there will be blood, unapologetically. Whenever you talk to someone at Blumhouse, you hear about the company’s deep attachment to the horror genre. It’s not just lowest-common-denominator popcorn fare that pays for prestige fare like Whiplash. It is part of the company’s DNA, an essential component of the creative vision. To that point, expect sequels to Insidious and Creep, and an Amityville sequel featuring Jennifer Jason Leigh; through its BH Tilt division, there’s The Belko Experiment, a new horror-thriller from Wolf Creek director Greg McLean, written by Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn.

It’s easy to look at the existence of something like Ouija: Origin of Evil and bemoan the state of originality in the film business. Why does there have to even be a Trojan horse? Why can’t Hollywood give us Ordinary People or Kramer vs. Kramer, rather than Ordinary People With Satan in the Drywall?

"Rosemary’s Baby is about women’s lib and Nightmare on Elm Street is about AIDS," Samuelson says, "so I don’t think that’s a new thing."

He doesn’t view the past with rose-tinted glasses, nor does he see the present or future with shattered lenses. What was once will always be. There will always be a way; the question is, How good is your horse?

Sure, there are problems with how movies are made, and which movies are made. But there’s a reason why Hollywood uses many of the same processes that made it a cultural monolith in the first place: they work.

"The question is, is there some system that, on average, makes better movies? Anyone who complains about the state of movies today, I’m like, there was no Inside Out in 1985. Put anything up against Inside Out. As vaunted as the ’70s are, it’s total selection bias. On average, movies are incredible. Can a system be invented to optimize the outcome?"

Blumhouse thinks so. But the model isn’t for everyone. Not every filmmaker who passes through its doors comes back for seconds. But in an industry that seems to be in constant flux, trying desperately to keep the attention of an increasingly distracted potential audience, Blumhouse has found its own way: Make it scary, make it good, make it cheap. It’s harder than it sounds.