Blumhouse Productions has given the world Oscar winning films like Whiplash and acclaimed television dramas like A Normal Heart, but the company’s claim to fame is, of course, the seemingly endless string of hit horror films produced on insanely low budgets, usually a strictly adhered-to range between $3 and $5 million. But as company CEO and founder Jason Blum explained today during the 360 Profile: Blumhouse Productions panel at the end of the Produced By conference’s first day, those low budgets aren’t just cheap for the sake of cheap.
“The three-to-five million dollar figure is not a random picked number,” Blum said near the end of the panel. “That amount is about what we are able to recoup on the movies if we don’t get a wide release. In a worst case scenario, we break even and maybe lose a little money but not very much, and everyone gets paid scale… That budget is reverse-engineered to thinking that if the movie isn’t in wide release, at least we get our money back and can keep our doors open.”
The panel, moderated by Eli Roth, featured four Blumhouse bigwigs: Jason Blum, Head of Production Jeanette Volturno-Brill, Head of Post Production Phillip Dawe, and Head of Television Jessica Rhoades. The quartet stuck around for a lengthy discussion – running nearly an hour and a half – of the politics, logistics, and challenges running a low budget studio that regularly sees hundreds of millions in returns on their investments.
The secret, of course, is that costs are kept very, very low. This is achieved not just by making sure their budgets never exceed what can be recouped in limited or online release, or by giving name actors a large cut on the back end in exchange for smaller upfront pay. Every aspect of Blumhouse productions are carefully managed, right down to, as the panelists described it, the amount of time they’re willing to work during a given week. “We try to rarely shoot six days a week and we try to rarely do all nighters,” Volturno-Brill said. “Because both of those things are really hard on the crew, we like to take care of the crew and you get better creative when everyone feels rested and taken care of.”
Further, Dawe and Blum described how Blumhouse has begun using storyboarding and animated spec films based on movie scripts to make shoots even more efficient. “There’s a lot that can need changing that isn’t apparent on the Page,” Blum said, noting that actually seeing the words performed with limited animation by voice actors can help them identify things that might not have been noticeable until well into a shoot.
This gets even to how Blumhouse approaches distribution. “Every movie we make, we think they’ll be widely released,” Blum said. “[But] part of the deal of working for low budget is you gotta depend on yourself. So there’s no distribution commitment ever, and every director knows this and it’s the same for every movie.” Once a film is completed, Blumhouse tests the it with senior staff first, without including financiers or studios.
“We kind of see what we have on our hands, and nine times out of ten, we agree with the director, we’re all kind of on the same page, we either say “wow we got a wide release movie, we’re gonna go for it,” and if we say that usually we get it,” Blum continued. “Or, we say “we tried to make a wide release movie, it doesn’t really feel like it is, let’s not make someone spend $30 million and have the movie open to $7 million, let’s go to Netflix or iTunes and have a little theatrical or no theatrical,” and that’s basically how the process works. Occasionally, the director and us disagree, and it’s a sh-t-show, it doesn’t happen to often.”
The panel was, naturally, full of advice for aspiring producers, but also considerable optimism. Advising novice producers to keep working “even if it’s your friend’s movie with a $5,000 budget,” Blum noted that there’s a lot of potential capital available. “[W]here I’m sitting, the fact that we’re talking about the traditional windows are being messed with and people aren’t watching TV like they used to, it’s driving people bananas, especially brands. Where you could just rely on television advertising in a way you just can’t anymore. There’s a lot of people financing content. Not expensive content, but there’s so much more money out there than there used to be five years ago for filmed stories, 100,000, 200,000, which is good news for people here in this room.”