In the last decade, horror has exploded as a film genre. A genre that used to be relegated to October releases or buried in dump months is now one that is ubiquitous and profitable year-round. More recently, auteur filmmakers with unique visions and something to say have newly laid a veneer of prestige over a genre that hasn’t always been taken seriously by modern mainstream audiences.

This shift in the perception of the horror genre – from one that was only watched by a niche counterculture or teenagers looking for a fix – can be largely attributed to one production company: Blumhouse Productions, led by Jason Blum. In so many ways, Blumhouse has done for the horror genre what Marvel has done for the comic book genre.

The Comic Book Genre Was Hit-Or-Miss For Decades…Until Marvel Studios Came Along

Tony Stark (Credit: Marvel Studios)

Tony Stark (Credit: Marvel Studios)

Consider that, prior to 2008, comic book movies had been hit-or-miss with critics and audiences for decades. Richard Donner with Superman in the 1970s and Tim Burton with Batman in the 1980s popularized the genre, but the Batman franchise infamously deteriorated in the 90s. Through the 90s and early 2000s, there were a few successful superhero franchises: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy; the X-Men franchise, the R-rated Blade. But there were far more movies meant to be franchise starters and spinoffs that flopped: Daredevil, Elektra, Catwoman, and others that were too before their time, like Spawn. Still others were one-offs that failed to make a big impact and were quickly forgotten, like The Rocketeer or The Shadow.

Outside of a few exceptions, most hits seemed to happen by luck or the character breaking out rather than a real love of the subject material or studios having figured out a system for regularly and successfully tapping into the world of comic books. Even the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy of movies was explained away with, “Well, they’re not really comic book movies,” even though they were about Batman. Audiences still found a way to spin their love of a genre that was still seen as niche and only for kids by mainstream audiences.

And then something miraculous happened in 2008: Iron Man was released and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born. Seemingly overnight, a new kind of comic book movie was in the zeitgeist. More importantly, Marvel Studios, with its clear-cut system of production and marketing and deep understanding of the stories it wanted to tell, created a model that became near bulletproof as trust in the brand grew. Since then, comic book movies have grown to be a viable genre for mainstream audiences, with certain directors becoming trusted names in the fanbase. More recently, filmmakers coming in and putting their own distinct spin on superheroes outside of capes and cowls with movies like Logan, Deadpool and Joker have evolved it further. Comic book movies are no longer niche; they’re everywhere and they find success all throughout the year, not just in the span of time from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

The Horror Genre Was Also Experiencing An Evolution

The unsettling creepiness of 'Paranormal Activity'

The unsettling creepiness of ‘Paranormal Activity’

Yet, a seismic shift wasn’t happening in the comic book genre alone. In 2009, one year after the launch of the MCU, a little-known production company by the name of Blumhouse released an insanely low-budget horror movie by the name of Paranormal Activity. The found footage movie, made for a mere $15,000, blew up and ended up making $193.4 million, with a sequel coming out the next year. In 2011, the Insidious franchise, created by James Wan and Leigh Whannell of Saw fame, was launched to great success. One year later, rising horror filmmaker Scott Derrickson jumped to Blumhouse to release Sinister. And in 2013, The Purge was released to launch a wildly profitable franchise. In just five years, from 2009-2013, Blumhouse had launched four successful horror franchises. Compare that to what Marvel Studios accomplished in the first five years that put it on the map from 2008-2012: It also launched four successful franchises in Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and The Avengers.

Just as Marvel was doing with the comic book genre, so Blumhouse was doing with horror: It seemed like everyone, everywhere, was talking about Paranormal Activity and The Purge when they came out and suddenly, horror wasn’t just the thing that teenagers and weirdos watched, but movies that you needed to see if you wanted to be part of the broader conversation. Horror was no longer just the genre that got released in October, when audiences were already primed for Halloween scares, or buried in slow months, but released year-round, even in the middle of summer blockbuster season.

Sticking To A Clear Model Has Defined Each Studio

Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions and Kevin Feige of Marvel Studios

Blumhouse and Marvel have reinvented their respective genres and gotten to where they are by knowing exactly who they are and what they’re about. Though each has a very different approach, both have an intimate understanding of their systems and stick to them. Marvel’s approach is to go big or go home: It perfected and made successful the concept of the interconnected cinematic universe with its storytelling. With marketing, Marvel favors a blitzkrieg approach, spending hundreds of millions and trusting that that market saturation will come back to them in the form of solid net returns; their success relies on their overwhelmingly positive brand awareness.

Blumhouse’s approach, meanwhile, is to stay small and flexible: Make films for tiny budgets, let the filmmakers have full creative control then distribute through the studio system while remaining independent of it. Most movies are made on Hollywood minuscule budgets of $3-5 million and this is deliberate: Blum has explained in previous interviews that this is the break-even number for one of their movies if it doesn’t score wide release distribution. Marketing of Blumhouse movies varies depending on the studio that picks it up for distribution, but it relies heavily on solid reviews and positive word-of-mouth to spread the word.

And there are similarities between them. Both take cues from the old-school, traditional studio system: They each have hands-on producers at the top, Marvel with Kevin Feige and Blumhouse with Jason Blum, they have reached peak efficiency with their production schedule, and they bank on characters, not stars. Each gives filmmakers control as long as they work within that system; for Marvel, within the interconnected narrative, for Blumhouse, within the budgetary constraints.

Blumhouse Is Quietly The Most Profitable Studio In Hollywood

Though wildly different, the systems they’ve built have been hugely successful for each. Marvel movies basically print money at this point. Every single one of their 23 movies released to date has made money for the studio with the most moderately successful movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe still turning a profit of a few hundred million. Seven of them have made over a billion dollars at the box office and two have made over two billion. Altogether, the movies have cost $4.4 billion to make and generated $22.6 billion worldwide, turning that into an eye-popping profit of $18.2 billion for Marvel Studios.

Blumhouse has also been successful in terms of pure ROI. To date, its movies have generated almost $4.6 billion for Blumhouse, a paltry sum when you compare it to Marvel. But considering the fact the reported budgets for Blumhouse’s released films in total are a mere $385.5 million, it means Blumhouse has a higher ROI. That gap widens even further when we realize we have to add at least a few billion more onto Marvel’s $4.4 billion production budget estimate (if not double the production total) to account for marketing costs. In reality, Blumhouse is the most purely profitable studio in Hollywood.

The Future Of Horror Thanks To Blumhouse

Jordan Peele on the set of 'Get Out' (Credit: Universal Pictures)

Jordan Peele on the set of ‘Get Out’ (Credit: Universal Pictures)

In the years since, Marvel and Blumhouse’s respective rises, both the comic book and horror genre have evolved. Just as other studios scrambled to follow Marvel’s interconnected cinematic universe formula, other studios have cottoned on to the fact that horror can be extremely profitable if they embrace it and are clear about their approach. Once again, Blumhouse influenced what happened in horror: With the release of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, studios and mainstream audiences alike were suddenly sitting up and taking note of horror as a legitimate genre with something to say beyond blood and gore. The term “elevated horror” cropped up, and though it was a misleading and somewhat derisive term, all it really meant was that film snobs and mainstream audiences alike were starting to take the genre seriously.

And they’re still taking it seriously. Just recently, Blumhouse’s latest, The Invisible Man, opened to a $28 million domestic weekend. In two weeks of release, it’s made almost $100 million on a $7 million budget while also getting great critical reviews for how it balances genuine tension with sharp, relevant social commentary. With that and other intriguing projects in the pipeline, we can expect Blumhouse will continue to introduce a wider mainstream audience to horror while again evolving what’s possible for the genre.

  • Editorial
  • Horror