Tom Jolliffe looks at Blumhouse Productions and the success and sustainability of its business model…
When it comes to box office discussion, it seems to revolve around the success or failure of the huge tentpole films. Was Birds of Prey a flop? Did The Rise of Skywalker flop? Can Avengers: Endgame be matched again in the MCU? Marvel/Disney have almost monopolised the box office with their films. Anything with Marvel before it seems to all but guarantee a hefty return. Every analyst seems to have an opinion over what a film needs to make in order to be profitable. Some of course, smash all expectations and there can thus never be an argument over its success (Joker).
Birds of Prey cost 80-97 million dollars to make (at the lower rumoured budget). ‘But you need to account for the marketing costs associated with distributing this around the world…’ It seemed the magic number, depending on your expert, for the film to turn a profit, was somewhere between $250-300 million worldwide. Now in comparison to the biggest tentpole films, the budget for Birds, or whatever they’re calling the film this week, was relatively low. Did they overestimate? Did a title that didn’t prominently state, ‘Harley Quinn’ make a difference? (No). The reality is, it comes down to the most base audience tastes. It’s as simple as saying that it’s a genre that mostly appeals to the male demographic, in a film that was trying to market more toward a female audience, and further, just because Joker made a massive amount, and John Wick was hugely successful, does not mean that the R rating film is now a guarantee of wide appeal. Likewise, it can be hard pulling audience members away from their homes in the opening months of the year anyway.
Here’s the thing though. The way cinema is being approached by Disney/Marvel, and every other studio who try as best they can to mimic that formula (DC tried and failed to be more individual, regressed into pilfering Marvel formula, and then seem to have had an about turn again…) isn’t sustainable. No, even the almighty Disney are not producing films in a sustainable way. Too few companies are investing in lower budget productions or mid-range budget. Everyone is chasing the billion dollar picture and spending upwards of $200 million to achieve it. With almost innumerable streaming platforms, as well as (I’m sad to say) a massive and uncontrollable piracy problem, people are happier than ever to stay at home. The big studios try and outdo themselves in making the biggest film we’ve ever seen. Marvel do it better than anyone, without question, but they won’t hit homers forever, and what happens if they strike out a few times? A monopoly isn’t that great for the industry as a whole, but by the same token, if Disney continue to break records for their takings each year, they’re almost single-handedly keeping the lights on.
The house of cards will fall. Cinemas in general need successful films. Your local multiplex doesn’t care who brings in the punters, as long as they come in, but if they’re predominantly showing films costing obscene amounts, and some of the studios become losing money rather than turning profit, we could have problems.
There’s something important to note though. It’s not the size that counts…(umm…). Average Joe could happily watch a film that costs $30 million to make, just as much as he’d watch one costing 5 times that to make. It’s about capturing what audiences will watch and having realistic expectations for those films. One studio is currently doing this exceptionally well: Blumhouse. From The Purge, Happy Death Day, Get Out, Insidious, to the recent Halloween reboot, they’re spending sensible amounts of money on films they know will have an audience. Blumhouse theatrical releases have had budgets as low as a few million dollars too. They don’t over extend.
We need more films budgeted at sensible levels. Two final Avengers films were almost 6 hours combined, with absolutely enormous set pieces. That’s all well and good, if utterly exhausting too, but some films try and compete, without the tools necessary and still spend huge amounts (only to come away with nothing). I’ve seen films costing ludicrous amounts, yet the quality of CGI would suggest they cost a lot less. Yeah, if you’re ruling the roost, you can also cherry pick the best VFX houses and keep them busy. We need less films this big, and more in the Blumhouse range, because it’s a more sustainable model. It also means in the unlikely event a film doesn’t make money in its theatrical run, it can fall back on home video to bring a film into the black.
Plus Blumhouse cater very well to what audiences enjoy and still keep up with modern fascinations with reboots/remakes. The Invisible Man is out now, a classic story retold once more, with a long enough gap since the last. It’s not going to make a billion dollars no…but it didn’t cost a quarter bill to release. It’s tracking well and looks set to be another success for Jason Blum and his company. Here’s the thing, we’ve seen two over-estimated misfires for Terminator reboots in recent years in Terminator: Genisys and Dark Fate which sorely misjudged just how much demand people wanted a new version of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The real grand plan would have been to Blumhouse it. A smaller budget and taking a turn back to the grittier, horror/nightmare infused origins from the first film and cut rose tinted ties with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Likewise, among their penchant for reboots and adaptations, there have been some engaging original and prescient works. Upgrade was fantastic, and whilst it certainly owed nods to a few classic genre films, was fresh, vibrant, remarkably assured for its budget, and has still remained ‘underground’ enough to slowly garner a cult following in years to come. Blumhouse has the formula that will keep cinema going, because it’s sustainable, and their quality level is more consistent than a lot of other smaller genre studios (like Millennium say). Even so, even a few odd misfires like Ma, have still tended to turn a profit, even if they put critics into defensive position. They’ve blended the recognisable property nicely with the fresh, and occasionally even managed to say something telling (Get Out). That’s the way to do it.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch) and Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.