Jason Blum and his company, Blumhouse Productions, have what can only be described as the modern day “Midas touch” when it comes to movies — particularly in the horror genre. Blum — who is the executive producer of Unfriended, out this week on Blu-ray, and the producer of both The Gift, out this week in theaters, and Sinister 2, out in two weeks — is a very busy man. So when he took time out to sit down to talk to us about producing movies, the unique presentation of Unfriended, and the one film that still haunts him, it was a pretty big deal.
Jason Blum first found great success with Paranormal Activity, which cost only $15,000 to make and went on to gross over $200 million at the box office. Since then, Blumhouse Productions has been churning out movie after movie, and Blum has also branched out of horror, as he won an Emmy for producing A Normal Heart for HBO, and was nominated last year for an Oscar for producing Whiplash. But even with the big wins, horror and the horror genre is still Blumhouse’s bread and butter, and Blum explains what he looks for in a new film project.
“We look for two things,” he explains, “both of them equally important. And in no particular order, we look for originality. I think a lot of Hollywood looks back at what was successful and tries to repeat it, and I feel like we try to do the opposite. Does it feel new? Does it feel different? Is it weird? Is it unique? I think Unfriended checks all those boxes, actually.
“The second thing is, is it scary? I think to me, those things are very linked together when you see something different, it’s much more likely to scare you than something you’ve kind of seen before. Those are our two criteria, at the moment anyway.”
Since Blum brought up Unfriended, we asked him about the unique presentation (the entire film takes place online via a Skype/Facebook chat/interface).
“We got involved with the movie after it was shot,” he explains. “We saw a rough cut of it, so we weren’t involved with it from the script stage. But I do have an answer to your question. Timur (producer Timur Bekmambetov) spends half of his time in Russia and so as a result, spends an enormous amount of time on Skype — I think like six or seven hours a day between the U.S. and Russia — and it was his original idea of doing a scary movie involving Skype or all taking place on a computer. That originally came from him.”
Unfriended was another successful film for Blumhouse productions, with a budget of around $1 million dollars, it has grossed over $31 million worldwide since it’s release earlier this year. This is yet another feather in Jason Blum’s already feather-stuffed cap. So, what is the secret to his success?
“Well, we don’t win always,” he explains. “We definitely have a good track record, which I’m proud of. I think one of the big advantages of doing low budget movies is that 31 (as in million, the gross of Unfriended) is a great result, normally for a typical Hollywood budget that would be a terrible result. So it helps when you lower the budget, you lower the bar of success, so that helps.
“And since our budgets are lower, we can take chances; take risks, and the audience responds to seeing things that are different and new. It’s not that our budgets are linked to that. If we didn’t do low budgets, we couldn’t try new things. Studios are under a lot of pressure to please a lot of people, to please much wider audiences, and they have to spend a lot more money to do that. And once they start spending more money, it’s harder to take storytelling risks.”
Unfriended is a success — one of many for Blum and Blumhouse Productions. But recent projects, like A Normal Heart and Whiplash were not in the horror genre. Does Blum see himself segueing out of horror for more mainstream projects in the future?
“I prefer making scary movies, or genre movies” he says. “The Gift is out now and it’s more of a thriller, but it fits into the genre. I like making genre movies better.”
Since horror and genre films are his preference, what scares Jason Blum?
“I think what scares me…,” he pauses. “I’m definitely numb to a lot, like I’ve been conditioned to a lot. Unfriended scared me a lot. I think when things deal with issues that we’re all thinking about, like Unfriended deals with bullying, and bullying is a topic the last couple of years that’s been in the news a lot. and I think that makes it very relatable, and when things are relatable, when they are original and the obvious things, the performance is good, the storytelling is good, I get scared like everybody else. But it’s hard to get all those things right, though.”
Obviously, Unfriended is a hot topic, as it hits Blu-ray and DVD this week, but we asked Blum which project has been his overall favorite to work on.
“Hmm. That’s like saying which one is your favorite child,” he says, thinking. “They’re all… and there’s no … it’s not like I don’t know the answer to that; I’m not saying that. There’s really not an answer to that. There’s great moments in the moves that we do, and there are terrible moments. I don’t think we’ve ever worked on a movie that’s been instantly great all the time. I think the only time that would happen, the movie would be terrible. You kind of need conflict and strife to turn out something that is compelling.”
With such an excellent track record, there has to be a movie or two that “got away,” and for Jason Blum, that much is true. We asked him what films he had the opportunity to produce that he ended up passing on, and if those films went on to be successes elsewhere.
“Oh my God, a million times,” he reveals, laughing. “The movie that I… I didn’t pass on it, but the movie that I always really — and kills me that we didn’t make — is The Conjuring. Like that really — I really wish we had made that movie. That one keeps me up at night. And I’m trying to think of one, I want to think of one that really did well. Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.”
While he was thinking, we shifted gears and discussed the topic of sequels. Blumhouse Productions is a leader in churning out sequel after sequel. Is this the nature of the business, or is there really value in continuing stories for multiple films?
“I like sequels,” Blum proudly proclaims, “because I like giving the writer/director parameters to work in, I think it makes what they’re doing better. Our sequels also are a little bit more money, so we have a little bit more resources to play with when we make the movies, which is fun for us because we’re so used to working in really, really low budgets, and our sequels are just low budgets. And I think a lot of times, people come to sequels very cynically and the bar is low, and I like subverting expectations and surprising people. I think we did that successfully with The Purge. Most people liked the second Purge more than the first Purge, and the Purge — the concept of the Purge is such a cool, interesting concept and I hope to make a ton of them because I just feel like there is so much that we can do with that idea.
“I like doing sequels. I’m not anti-sequel, and when a movie is commercially successful, the first thing we talk about is doing a sequel. When we do a sequel, we look at the challenge of it. The proof is in the pudding on this. When we do a sequel, almost all of the sequels that we do involve the original filmmakers. James DeMonaco wrote and directed Purge one, two, and three, Scott Derrickson (Sinister) wrote/directed one and wrote the second, James Wan (Paranormal Activity) wrote one and two, and produced the third, and I think that the more cynical sequels, they take the first people and they throw them off the movie and they take the concept and hire a bunch of new people who are cheap and that bothers me. We don’t do that.”
With a finger on the pulse of what moviegoers want, where does Jason Blum see the horror genre going next? Is a slasher film renaissance coming?
“I don’t know about slasher, but I think more violent films are gonna come back,” he says. “The Purge is like that. I think that there have been a ton of supernatural movies in the last ten years and I do think there is going to be a shift. I don’t know what it’s going to shift to yet, but its gonna shift because it is cyclical, and I don’t know what it will be. I wish I knew. I do think we’re at the end of the long run of supernatural movies.”
So, as the interview drew to a close, we asked him one more question: what is the key to his success?
“Without being falsely modest, I do have a great group of people who’ve worked at the company for a long time,” Blum explains. “We have a low turnover rate of people at the company. Who, really, like — they’re a part of the DNA of the company.
“And people always ask us how we make so many movies and its not me, it’s 40 people a year working on all aspects, and we’re very singularly focused. I think that gives us a big advantage, which is really focused on making really great low budget genre movies, and I think that helps. Most people who dip their toes into genre do it, like, ‘Lets do that for second to make money, then we’ll go back to what we love.’ Well, we love making low budget scary movies. I love it. Everyone here loves it. And I think that helps and I think that shows in the moves that we make.”
Our time was up and as I was thanking Jason for taking the time, he interrupted me with the second part of his answer to the film that got away.
“Oh, yeah, Blair Witch was a movie that I passed on,” he says, the dejection evident in his voice. “A finished version of Blair Witch.”
The Blair Witch Project was made in 1999 on a budget of $60,000 and went on to gross $248 million worldwide. It was the most successful film in history — until Paranormal Activity, which Blumhouse did make.
You can’t win them all, even if you are Jason Blum.
Unfriended is out on DVD and Blu-ray now, The Gift is in theaters now nationwide, and Sinister 2 hits on August 21.