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Working Through Fear: An Interview with Blumhouse’s Jason Blum

Jason Blum (photo by Matt Sundin)

Driving down Beverly, you head opposite Hollywood, away from Studio City, toward the nondescript, single-level, brown-bricked building that’s the literal Blumhouse — the offices of horror movie maestro Jason Blum. Since founding the company, Blum has produced dozens of films that have made varying degrees of impact on the zeitgeist: the found-footage scares of the Paranormal Activity films, the reinvented haunted house of the Insidious pictures, the social violence of The Purge series. And then, of course, there’s megahit Get Out, Jordan Peele’s ferociously intelligent satire on racism that, despite its share of lobotomies and knifings and violently applied white privilege, is up for Best Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes. Added to the above are more components of a burgeoning empire, from a television division (Hellevator, Cold Case Files, Sharp Objects) to live events to nongenre titles like Whiplash.

What makes Blum’s story particularly fascinating to Filmmaker readers is how he developed — and is sticking to — a low-budget production model. While Hollywood is increasingly in the mega-budget tentpole business, Blum makes films at budgets mostly hovering around $5 million. Through a first-look production agreement with Universal, some go out in wide release while others go straight to Netflix or other ancillary platforms. And with studio P&A budgets rising, Blum is continually fascinated with new models for the promotion of his films, as we discuss below.

When I arrive at Blumhouse Productions, it’s the end of the day, and the lights in Blum’s dark-paneled office are surprisingly dim. There’s his famous office decor — a severed leg amongst a pile of logs — in the corner. It’s an almost comically foreboding atmosphere, immediately leavened when Blum enters the room. I first met Blum years ago, when he worked as an acquisitions executive, a job requiring bucketfuls of energy and positivity. Decades later, Blum has the same boundless enthusiasm, eager to tell me where Blumhouse aligns with the independent cinema of Filmmaker’s early days.

Filmmaker: This is the 25th anniversary year of Filmmaker, so we’ve been thinking about how this community has grown and changed since the early 1990s, when we launched. And I’m remembering the first time that we met, before your Miramax years, when you were working at a small company called Arrow Releasing.

Blum: Arrow Releasing!

Filmmaker: Tell me about those years, how you started and how those early ’90s days of New York independent film shaped your career going forward.

Blum: Well, in 1992, I moved back to New York from Chicago, where I had been selling cable TV and been roommates with Noah [Baumbach]. He and I moved to New York, to 116 Waverly Place, where I had four roommates. I got a real estate license and worked for Croman Real Estate, just north of Houston Street on Broadway. I would work at Croman and then work [producing] Noah’s movie [Kicking and Screaming]. I had done real estate for about a year when I applied to USC’s Peter Stark program and the producer’s program at UCLA. I got into them both, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to pay [to go to film school]. Dennis Friedland, the guy who ran Arrow Entertainment, was one of the many, many people we sent Kicking and Screaming to. We met with him over a three-month period, and at the end of the three months, he called and said, “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is, I’m not going to make Kicking and Screaming. But the good news is, I will offer you a job.” It was 1994, and the salary was $37,500.

Filmmaker: Which is pretty good!

Blum: It was a great salary. And I didn’t have to be an assistant. So, I blew off Peter Stark and UCLA and went to go work for Arrow Entertainment doing acquisitions. I started the job in August, and Dennis said, “You’re going to go to MIFED and buy movies,” and I didn’t have the faintest idea what that meant. I was 24 years old, and I would color code all the different [screenings] in Variety, and then I would go to every single booth and find out what was available for North American rights. But there were 7,000 titles! I went to New Line [International] — I remember this like it was yesterday. I asked if domestic rights were available for The Mask, the Jim Carrey movie. I didn’t know what the fuck New Line was, and I was there trying to buy domestic rights! I was like, “Jim Carrey, it looks funny.”

So, I learned the nuts and bolts of the distribution business by being thrown into the fire. Arrow Entertainment was 15 people. We had domestic theatrical, television and domestic home video sales. We had one person in international. We had a marketing person and a PR person. And we had a lawyer and Dennis and a little bit of support. We had a trailer cutter in the office, and he had one of those old [Steenbecks]. I would buy either domestic or worldwide rights to movies for between zero and $100,000. Mostly, we’d buy them for nothing and guarantee an eight-city release. We’d spend $40,000 or $50,000 releasing a movie in eight cities — between $50,000 and $100,000 between the P&A and the purchase price — and we’d make maybe $150,000 on everything. I’d go to Blockbuster in Florida and Video Update in Minnesota and Hollywood Video in Oregon. They’d take meetings with all the independents. You’d show them your one-sheets, and they’d say, “I’ll take 1,000 cassettes.” Three or four thousand cassettes would be a homerun. I’d have lunch twice a year with Doris Casap at HBO and try to sell her movies for between $25,000 and $40,000.

Arrow did two kinds of movies: super low budget [genre titles] and then the occasional art movie, like Bandit Queen and Ponette. And the moves we produced were like My Life’s in Turnaround. I was there for three years, and by the end I was kind of like Dennis’s right hand — I was doing sales, some of the marketing and the acquisitions and production.

But this is very relevant: At the same time I quit real estate and went to work for Arrow, I had a falling out with Noah. There was a little social circle I had with my friends from college, and I kind of lost that. So, I was in New York City without much of a social life. I met Jon Sherman, the playwright, and through him I met Ethan Hawke, who is like my best friend. Ethan was the artistic director of the Malaparte Theater Company, and I became the producing director. It was Jon Sherman, Frank Whaley, Robert Sean Leonard, Isabel Gillies, Steve Zahn, Calista Flockhart, James Waterston and Josh Hamilton. Naked Angels was the big, fancy [company] and we were the young upstart. We were on 42nd Street at Theatre Row Theatres, and we sold tickets for $10. Every year, we’d do a play a month for three months, but to get those plays up was at least nine months of work.

So Arrow was at Rockefeller Center, and you could smoke in your office. I’d work all day in my office looking at the ice rink, and then walk to Malaparte and work there until late. It was a very formative experience for me — the two things were so different.

Filmmaker: And then, how did you end up moving to Miramax?

Blum: I had been going to all the film festivals, trying to buy movies for really, really cheap. I was like the last stop for the filmmakers. I became great friends with [acquisitions executive] Amy Israel, and she is the one who brought me into Miramax, which was very different. I mean, that was varsity. I had been in the bush leagues. I was in way over my head, and that’s a whole other story.

Filmmaker: To jump way ahead, how did you move into genre filmmaking? I know that Paranormal Activity was your first entrée into the genre world, and now you’re the preeminent genre producer of the moment. How did you make that happen, hailing not from genre filmmaking but from art film acquisitions and New York theater?

Blum: You know, it’s an interesting angle that you’re talking about. I am not a genre person, but I am an indie person. And what I loved about independent cinema is the independent production part. What I hated about it was distribution. Independent distribution is a disaster for a producer. It’s just broken. It’s a lot better now than it was because of the platforms. But when we were doing it [in the ’90s], it was just very hard, as you remember, to sell a movie. And what Paranormal did was combine the two best parts of the movie business — studio distribution and independent production. You’re right — I was a movie lover, but I wasn’t like Quentin [Tarantino] or Eli [Roth]. But Paranormal Activity [showed me] how you could marry independent filmmaking with studio distribution, and I’ve since fallen in love with scary movies.

Filmmaker: Was there some nascent genre film DNA in you, from the movies you watched when you were a teenager?

Blum: When I was a teenager, I watched a ton of Hitchcock. And I loved genre movies and thrillers — not necessarily horror. And I always loved studio movies. When we were in New York making movies, the studio business seemed so foreign. We were in a different world. You’d go see a movie that’s on 3,000 screens and not three, and think, how does that happen? I was fascinated by that.

If you look at our movies, they are totally born out of ’90s New York independent cinema. Sinister is a Sundance drama about a man struggling in his career who makes the terrible choice of choosing his career over the well-being of his family. But it’s in a genre skin. The Purge is a movie about gun control. If your response to people being shot is more guns, at one point you’re going to say, “Well, we’re fucked. You know what, let’s just make crime legal 24 hours a year.” Get Out is an independent movie about race. One of the things I always tell the filmmakers is, if you pull out the genre parts, does the movie stand on its own as a great dramatic story? Most horror movies don’t, but I like to think that our movies do. If you really dissect a lot of our movies, you’d see an indie movie in there. And I think that’s one of the reasons the audience responds to our movies — they feel different. You know, most people who are in Hollywood grew up in Hollywood. They were at the mailroom at an agency — there’s a system in Hollywood that you graduate through, the college of Hollywood. I went through the college of New York indie cinema, and I think that’s the main reason why the company feels kind of like Hollywood and kind of not.

Filmmaker: Tell me about development. How does this idea that there’s an independent film baked into the genre film play out when you are developing scripts?

Blum: Most of our stuff comes from directors. We don’t do a lot of early, early development. Almost every movie we’ve done has been brought to us by the director, and the development process is exactly what I just talked about. What’s the Sundance movie in there? I push the directors on story, story, story. Making things relatable. Writing about things they care about, that are important to them. I always say, “The scares are easy. Don’t talk about the scares.” If you’re focusing on the scares, you don’t like horror movies. People who don’t like horror movies [ask], “What are the 10 scares? Does the first one come at eight minutes?” That’s going to be a bad movie. I don’t want them to come in the first eight minutes. What makes a horror movie work is that you have to get the audience on the edge of its seat through storytelling. The first big jump scare in Get Out is when a deer hits the window. You know how many times there has been a deer hitting a window in a movie? 90 million. You know how much scarier it is in Get Out than every other movie? It’s terrifying — because you’re watching Allison and Daniel, and you’re like, “Is she racist? Is she not? There’s a cop, what’s going to happen?” Bam!

Filmmaker: What makes a Blumhouse director? Because you famously have this $5 million budget ceiling.

Blum: Yeah, that’s about right, except for sequels.

Filmmaker: You’re working with the young up-and-coming people in addition to veterans like Joe Johnston and Phil Joanou.

Blum: The latter is much more common, actually. Hollywood thinks low budget equals “first-time director,” but I almost never work with first-time directors. I would define a first-time director as the 23-year-old guy or woman who made the greatest short at Sundance, and they’re going to make their feature. Yes, Jordan Peele and Joel Edgerton are first-time directors, but they’re not that person, right? I think the directors who fit best at the company are ones who have a lot of experience and want to work at a place where they know they’re going to get final cut and total creative control. They’re willing to work for no upfront money and, in exchange, they get to do what they want to do. James Wan, Scott Derrickson, Rob Cohen, James DeMonaco, M. Night — almost all the directors that we’ve had big success with have done movies in the past. Some good, some bad, but they have come in with experience.

Filmmaker: Have there been people who have taken steps into the Blumhouse model but then been unable to work within it because of budget restrictions? Those for whom the idea is enticing in the abstract who then can’t adjust?

Blum: Well, you’re asking kind of an interesting question, and I don’t want to answer it the wrong way. The system is completely not foolproof. We’ve made a lot of movies that haven’t worked or haven’t been what we all hoped that they would be. But in terms of the director actually not working within the system, it’s very rare. I’m very careful to lay out what the experience is going to be: You get final cut, you get creative control, you get to do what you want, but this is the money you’re getting and that’s all you’re getting. Period. End of story. When you sign the budget, that’s it. And I don’t waiver from that.

Filmmaker: For that model to work, you need directors who can understand the budget.

Blum: Which is not first-time directors. We need directors who’ve made movies before, who know exactly what 21 days means.

Filmmaker: What about final cut? Because I know you are active in post, giving notes…

Blum: As soon as you give directors control, they want every idea. As soon as they are given comfort around the idea that they don’t have to argue to get what they want, that they’re going to get what they want, they solicit us for our input like crazy. We have more influence over our movies than I think most producers or production companies do, because we give our directors creative control.

Filmmaker: Have you had situations where contractual final cut hasn’t worked out for you?

Blum: Final cut blew up in my face really badly only two times. But we’ve made 80 movies. So, two out of 80? It’s worth it.

Filmmaker: And what does that mean that it blew up in your face?

Blum: That means that in both cases, we would’ve had a wide-release movie if it weren’t for the director. It’s complicated. If either director was sitting here, he might say, “I don’t think this is true.” If you interviewed them, they’d probably say, “I didn’t care about a wide release. Jason said I could make any movie I wanted, and I made the movie I wanted to make.” But I always say to the directors, “If your goal is not a wide release, let’s not do this together. Don’t trick me into trying to make a movie that’s not a wide release by saying you want a wide release.” We’ve made plenty of movies where you see the movie and there’s no wide release — it’s not going to happen. But when it’s frustrating is when you make the movie and there’s a wide-release movie right there, and the director didn’t do it. Both times, they didn’t do it, and as you can see, I’m still very mad about it.

Filmmaker: And that’s because of pacing, a story point…

Blum: Because of the cut of the movie. There was a version of the movie that would’ve been a wide release, and the director chose the one that wasn’t. And that’s incredibly frustrating.

Filmmaker: So, your model is that you make the films for the $5 million budget and then it’s decided when they’re finished whether Universal spends the additional $25 million or so to go out wide or whether you just put them through your various ancillary output deals and onto the platforms?

Filmmaker: Yes, but we actually have different levels, and we make some movies for a lower cost. If we’re making a $5 million original, we 100 percent think it’s a wide release, and so does the director. It used to be 50 percent, and right now about two out of three go wide. And I’m very transparent with the director. I don’t want to work with directors unless they’re convinced their movie’s going to be a wide release. But the director knows there’s no guarantee until the movie’s finished.

Filmmaker: What are those meetings like, when you’re looking at the cut and you’re trying to decide whether the film is a wide release or not?

Blum: Generally, they’re not very contentious because you test the movie. If the movie doesn’t test well, it doesn’t behoove the director to have a movie that’s going to bomb on 3,000 screens.

Filmmaker: So, it basically comes down to testing?

Blum: Well, it’s more complicated than just testing, but I guess on the extremes, it’s just testing. If the movie’s testing 90, it’s getting a wide release. And if it’s testing below 40, it’s not. But the gray area, when we’re testing a 55, we have the conversation with the director. If it’s super marketable — the first Purge tested a 55, and we went for it. But I think more than the score, when you put up a movie in front of an audience, you can feel whether the audience is digging it. If they’re not digging it or if they’re kind of digging it, it doesn’t behoove the director or us to have a big public failure.

Filmmaker: How is that $5 million ceiling holding up?

Blum: Well, it used to be a million. Insidious was $1 million. Then, it was $3 million. The Purge and Sinister were about $3 million. Now, it’s $5 million. It’s really based on, if it doesn’t go wide, how much can we recoup? And we can recoup between $4 million and $5 million on a movie that doesn’t go wide, and that’s because of the platforms and because the ancillary market is better.

Filmmaker: I saw your keynote at SXSW a few years ago, and you outlined a few recommendations for low-budget production, like shooting in New York and L.A.

Blum: Well, the world is different. You can’t shoot in L.A. anymore. When I did that keynote, no one shot in L.A., so you could shoot everything in L.A. We got a great crew. Now, it’s too crowded, too busy, because of Amazon and Netflix. There’s too much production, and there’s no crew left.

Filmmaker: So, where are you shooting?

Blum: We’re back to Louisiana, Canada.

Filmmaker: Because of rebates, too?

Blum: No, not so much for the rebates. We’re really looking for a crew base because we’re Tier One union, and it’s hard to find crew. There’s a lot of Tier Three union crew. So we really chase [Tier One] crew.

Filmmaker: You’ve experimented with different ways of doing marketing. What do you think of Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky experiment and his argument that wide-release marketing costs should come down?

Blum: I wish they’d come down. They can’t come down. I mean, it would be nice if they came down, but every time someone tries… The lowest marketing we spent was Unfriended, which was successful. But Universal is in charge of the marketing, the spend. They have final say. I just consult.

Filmmaker: I remember you once talking about doing all-digital marketing.

Blum: Yes, I wanted to do that, but that was a bad idea.

Filmmaker: Why?

Blum: For whatever reason, if you don’t have television advertising, consumers don’t think the movie’s a real movie, even though they don’t watch the ads on TV. It’s inexplicable, but you still have to have TV ads for movies. There’s no workaround to that.

Filmmaker: Now that Blumhouse has been in operation for several years, you’re developing franchises — Insidious, Sinister, The Purge. And then you’re taking over franchises like Halloween. How are you approaching franchises as opposed to single-picture development?

Blum: That’s a very different muscle to exercise. First, it’s more expensive. Second, you have to follow a kind of strict storytelling grammar. You have to make it original enough that it’s worth seeing, that it doesn’t feel like, you know, a repeat of the first movie. But it has to be connected enough to the first movie that it makes sense to be a sequel. The thing about our sequels is we almost always work with the same writer/director, which I’m very proud of. And we’re able to do that because I give up much more of the movie than is typical in Hollywood to keep them on the movie. So, Leigh Whannell has written all four of the Insidious movies. Leigh directed the third one, and James [Wan] directed the first two. An even better example is James DeMonaco, who wrote and directed Purge 1, Purge 2 and Purge 3. Every year for three years he has written and directed a Purge movie, which is kind of amazing.

I think this [approach] makes for much better, much, much better sequels. But, for us, it’s almost like making sequels is as different as making TV. We make originals, we make sequels and we make television, and all three of those things are very different. It makes my life much more interesting, getting to do the different styles of storytelling.

Filmmaker: How is your distribution company, Blumhouse Tilt, going?

Blum: We’ve just shifted it around. We had it all in-house, and now it’s a joint venture with Neon. I’m interested in the idea of doing very targeted marketing for a very specific audience for a very specific kind of movie. I’m interested in a 1,500 screen release and spending $8 to $10 million in P&A. Now, even with $8 to $10 million, we’re buying TV, but obviously, a lot less. I really believe in this model. We’ve done six or seven Tilt movies, and they’ve all been singles. We haven’t had a double yet, but every time we do it I learn more. We have an ownership in Operam, an ad tech company, and we use them for all our Tilt releases.

Filmmaker: That’s algorithms, A/B testing…

Blum: Yes. Super targeted advertising through social, which brings the cost down — [knowing] what movie tickets you buy on your phone, all that kind of 1984 stuff.

Filmmaker: I want to ask you about Stoner, which is one of my favorite books. It’s kind of an impossible adaptation.

Blum: That’s why I bought it. Because it’s impossible. That’s why it took 10 years to get done. I thought it was an impossible movie to make, but I loved it. We had gotten it to this incredible executive in England named Rose Garnett, who had a relationship with [screenwriter] Andrew Bovell, and he wrote a script and did what shouldn’t be possible — made the internal emotional feeling that you have when you read the book [be present] in the script, and without voiceover. It’s unbelievable. I just was so shocked. I had a meeting with Joe Wright two days after it came in. He and I have known each other for 20 years, and he had wanted to do Get Out. He’s like, “I want to do a genre movie.” I said, “All right, but in the meantime, I just got this script.” He’s said, “That’s so funny. I haven’t read the book, but it’s sitting by my bedside table. I’ve heard it’s great.” I said, “You probably should read the book first.” He goes, “You know, I’m not doing anything today. I’d rather just read the script. Most of the audience won’t have read the book.” It was 10 a.m. At four o’clock that afternoon, he called me. He said, “Everything that I said I’m working on, I’m not working on. I can’t do anything next but this movie.” And it has been like a freight train since.

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