As I was glancing through the upcoming horror releases this year, I was struck by two things. First, the major studio output looks like real trash this year, not that this distinguishes this year from last. The second is that horror is really no different from any other genre in terms of quality of the products being released. Sure, I wish that some studio was putting out horror films that matched the arguable quality of the Marvel films, but the larger problem is one of changing technologies.
If you look at the numbers, ticket sales have been trending steadily downward since roughly 2003, which corresponds with the growth of broadband technologies. Essentially, movie fans are consuming movies in different ways, moving away from the traditional cinematic experience. You may rail against the loss of the theater experience all you like, but facts is facts, and movie theaters as the cathedral of cinema is rapidly being replaced by iPads and home theaters that can replicate the visual and sound quality of theaters without all those pesky other patrons. So, movie producers are pushed to make movies intended for the theater that have the widest possible appeal. Gone are the heady days of the 1970s when producers worked outside of corporate environments and seemed intent on making revolutionary films. Now, producers are employees of companies like Sony and Comcast, and their goal, as with any company, is to create a product that will sell to as many people as possible.
So, if the imperative behind most big-ticket productions is profit, how do you maximize that? Easy. You see what worked before and you do that again and again until the profits have diminished until all the blood has been squeezed from the stone and you move on to the next thing. You mimic the success of others, essentially. Look at the laughingly bad I, Frankenstein. Here’s a horror property that takes the hot superhero route to success, ignoring of course the fun and personality that makes some of those movies work, but you fill it with end-of-the-world stakes and CGI action and you cross your fingers and hope the kids who saw Guardians of the Galaxy want to see this, too. They didn’t, but it’s not hard to do the math on how a movie like I, Frankenstein happens.
And then there are the sequels and remakes. This year alone we have a new entry into the Paranormal Activity franchise, another Insidious film, yet another remake of Friday the 13th, another Sinister movie, a remake of Poltergeist, and Goosebumps, a film based on a series of successful YA novels. All known properties with either a track record behind them or a potential for a built-in fan base. There are some original titles coming, too, of course, but Crimson Peak and The Lazarus Effect are outliers in a genre most characterized by the familiar. You can argue this is a bad thing, which I would tend to agree with, but we’re not here to judge (yet), we’re here to explain why it is you see so little original horror coming from the studios.
To put in its simplest terms, producers are funding the projects that have the most potential to provide a return on investment. Blumhouse, Jason Blum’s very successful production company, has seen some original material outside of the remakes and adaptations, but that’s because he has fostered a business model that other companies have come to emulate. Jason Blum and his company fund movies for $5 million or less, and they produce a lot of films. For every movie that flops, there’s a movie or two that will more than make up for the failures of another. As a result, original horror is being relegated to the world of the small budget. No one in this climate is going to make a $50 million horror film, unless it’s leaning heavily on a familiar premise or it can cross genre borders to be an action-horror hybrid like I, Frankenstein, or comes from a director who has earned his or her right to roll the dice, like Del Toro with Crimson Peak.
Now, let’s point some fingers. The other problem is us, the fans of horror. The flawed-but-good film Oculus, budgeted at around $5 million (see what I mean) took in a likewise modest $27 million in box office receipts. Compare that to The Purge: Anarchy the same year, which made almost $72 million from a $9 million budget. If you’re a producer, which do you fund? A sequel to Oculus or another unknown property entirely, or a third Purge film? Yep, me, too. Turns out, people like to make money. So, if we’re not going to the theaters to see original content, why would producers continue to make it? The feedback we’re providing by buying our tickets is to tell them we want these remakes more than original films. The conversation between horror fans and financiers is all about currency. If we do not pay to see something, they assume we don’t want to see it, and that seems a reasonable assumption to make.
Which leads to the other issue at stake here. Remember when we talked about emerging technologies about 800 words ago? That. We can now find almost any film, lots of times for free, on the internet, and by consuming it in this manner, in the shadows, if you will, we are silencing our voice. The most pirated movie in the world may be the most popular in our hearts, but the financiers behind the movie don’t see that money. Again, their language is dolla dolla bills, ya’ll, and we need to learn to speak it. This doesn’t just hurt the bigger producers on the Hollywood stage, it hurts smaller filmmakers, too. Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner, the brothers responsible for the movie Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, paid everyone involved with the film on a deferred basis, meaning no one gets paid until the picture turns a profit. Because of some stupid rules regarding release windows, the movie is available digitally in the United States, but not in the brothers’ home country of Australia, contributing to the movie being one of the most highly-pirated movies on the web, thanks to some good internet buzz about the movie. Yes, it is ironic that the very medium responsible for the film’s notoriety is also the same medium contributing to the potential financial failure of the film. For these guys to do another movie, and I hope they do get the chance, Wyrmwood has to make money. That means you need to pay to see it. If you can’t afford the $4 to watch it on Amazon or Vudu or whatever, get a paper route if it means that much to you to see it. If you pirate films, you have no say in the debate over film quality. Period. You are part of the problem. You have given away the power of your voting dollar and made it more difficult for the rest of us to support original horror.
The independent scene is going to be the real stalwart of cutting edge horror cinema. For that to thrive, you have to be more adamant about financially supporting these films. If you want the studios to make more original horror, get out and buy a ticket for new ideas, even if they’re not great. In so doing, you’re telling the studios, “Yes, I want something original and different.” If you want more independent horror, rent it online or buy a DVD or Blu-ray. That’s how you make your voice heard, not by Tweeting and blogging and podcasting, though I certainly encourage those activities. Producers don’t give a shit about how many “Likes” a movie gets. They care about how many tickets it sells. Make yourself heard and we really can change how studio horror films are made.