Horror & the Low-Budget Breakthrough
by Matt Rose
Before having made a name in the industry, it can be difficult if not impossible for filmmakers to secure large budgets for their projects. But the biggest names had to start somewhere, and one starting point that’s proven to be promising on a tight budget is horror. With Halloween and yet another addition to the homonymous film series just around the corner, let’s take a look at how the iconic franchise launched producer Debra Hill’s career and now rests in the hands of Jason Blum, who also found breakthrough success producing horror on a shoestring budget. Between Hill’s legacy and the current powerhouse of horror that is Blumhouse Productions, their stories show that low-budget horror can be more than campy B-movies and are one way to break into the industry.
Debra Hill climbed the ranks of the entertainment industry from production assistant to editor and script supervisor before meeting director and long-time collaborator John Carpenter. According to The New York Times, Hill and Carpenter became friends, and briefly a couple, while she worked as a script supervisor on one of his early films. She considered herself a creative storyteller, though had little room to show this professionally at the time. When Carpenter accepted a deal to write and direct film financier Irwin Yablans’ simple slasher flick idea, Hill joined as a co-writer and producer. In order to work within the limited budget of $300,000, Hill took on both roles for no salary at all, instead accepting a percentage of potential profits. Luckily for Hill, this deal paid off.
According to an article in Vulture, the two finished the script that would become Halloween in around just two weeks. Production lasted 22 days in the spring, and the film was released that fall to be met with remarkable commercial and critical success. Halloween would eventually profit Hill nicely as well as launch a legendary career. While Hill worked on a number of the film’s sequels, her career as a producer took off and expanded after the success of Halloween. In a time when women behind the scenes were relatively scarce, she launched one of the industry’s first female production duos with Lynda Obst. Together the two produced hits like Clue and Adventures in Babysitting. While producing low-budget horror gave Hill her start, she certainly branched out afterwards. She was even set to make her directorial debut with a romantic thriller before her unfortunate passing in 2005. Jason Blum, on the other hand, struck success in the genre and ran with it, eventually taking over Carpenter and Hill’s iconic franchise in 2018 for its most recent reboot.
Similarly to Hill, Blum’s success was not instantaneous or overnight. As written in an LA Times feature on the producer, Blum studied film at Vassar College and roomed with director Noah Baumbach, whose independent debut Kicking and Screaming would give Blum his first producer credit. This, however, would not be his breakthrough success as a producer. Rather, it kicked off his career climbing the ranks of the business side of entertainment, leading to jobs in acquisitions first at Arrow Films and then at Miramax. According to Hollywood Insider, Blum founded his independent production company Blumhouse Productions in 2000, but would not see notable success for some time. In 2007, amidst jading attempts at both independent and studio production, Blum was sent a copy of Paranormal Activity, a found footage horror film made for roughly $15,000 and at the time heading for a DVD release. Blum took on the two year project of convincing Paramount Pictures to distribute the film to theaters. Once they finally did, it quickly became a success, earning more than $193 million as well as spawning numerous profitable Paranormal sequels and an upcoming reboot.
With Paranormal Activity, Blum had found his company’s angle. Blumhouse became a powerhouse of horror, pumping out films like Insidious, The Purge, and Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning Get Out. For years, Jason Blum mostly stuck to the low-budget, big profit horror strategy that had worked for Paranormal Activity. Quite like Debra Hill forgoing a salary, Blum convinces big name filmmakers and actors (ex: Jordan Peele; Ethan Hawke) to accept a percentage of profits rather than upfront payment. This pay-by-percentage arrangement means that Blumhouse takes on minimal risk in producing its films, allowing it to continue making movie after movie each with a roughly $5 million budget. By the mid 2010s, Blum had more than made a name for himself, especially in horror.
When Miramax set out to make a direct sequel Halloween (1978) (starting yet another timeline for the franchise), they reached out to Malek Akkad, son Moustapha Akkad — executive producer of the original 8 films. According to Deadline, Malek requested that if another Halloween reboot is made, that it be done by the masters of modern horror: Blumhouse Productions. Blum took on the project, conditional upon John Carpenter’s involvement since Blumhouse has a policy of not creating sequels without the original filmmaker(s) attached. Luckily, Carpenter agreed to come on as a producer and score composer. While franchises often replace the masterminds behind the original film to keep expenses down, Blumhouse’s model of low upfront payment and a percentage of profits allowed the company to bring Carpenter on board within budget. The result in 2018 was the best reviewed Halloween sequel to date and the highest grossing opening weekend for the franchise. The following two films in this latest trilogy, Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends, are releasing this and next October respectively.
While a persistently important player in the horror film scene, Jason Blum has, like Debra Hill, since expanded Blumhouse Productions beyond the fixed-budget horror model. The company has branched out into the world of television as Blumhouse TV, and the low-budget tactic does not translate to TV according to Blum. In an interview with Variety, Blum explained that TV networks are “not really interested” in doing “a series for half the price.” The reasoning being that TV is “so capital rich” and that success is measured in ratings and syndication rather than box office sales. Furthermore, Blum’s TV ventures also stray in genre from his typical model, remaining mostly dark in theme but branching from horror to true crime, thriller, and drama. So, while Blum’s big break and initial successes followed a similar pattern due to its profitable recreatability, he’s certainly in no rut as his production company continues to expand in varying directions.
For both Debra Hill and Jason Blum, low-budget horror proved to be a useful launching ground for their production careers. Proving themselves on these high profit successes, they were able to take their careers in the directions of their choice. While their paths then diverged, their following business moves were made possible by their breakthroughs in Halloween and Paranormal Activity respectively. As we settle into fall, be sure to catch up on both franchises before their latest installments!