Blumhouse made its name turning tiny budgets into box office mega-hits – but the secret to its success might be the films it never widely released at all.
Jason Blum’s having a pretty good time of it right now, wouldn’t you say? Last year’s The Black Phone turned out to be one of the surprise hits of 2022. M3gan has soared past the $100 million mark at the US box office alone to make itself a tidy little profit. The era of ‘elevated,’ noggin-scratching horror like Hereditary and Midsommar appears to have subsided a little in favour of the kind of flat-out entertaining fare at which Blumhouse, Blum’s self-titled production company, excels.
But behind every Get Out and Sinister lies a smattering of less-successful siblings. And though you might not have heard of them, there’s a few gems hidden under the cinematic rubble.
By now, the Blumhouse production model has become pretty well-known in the industry. Blum gives directors a strict budget (originally one million dollars, now closer to five) and promises them final cut on the movie. Since 2014, Universal Pictures has had a first-look deal on distribution – before that, each film was shipped studio to studio. Combining indie filmmaking with studio distribution has turned out rather well. It’s even taught at Harvard Business School.
The benefits of this are pretty clear – by never messing around with huge production costs, it’s pretty hard for Blumhouse to break the bank on a feature. Mr Blum told Deadline as much in 2017:
“The whole point of the budget number is if it doesn’t get a wide release, you can come close to making it up on VOD and streaming. That’s why you can take risks and someone like Jordan [Peele] can make Get Out for $4.5 million.”
But that same approach means there’s plenty of films out there with Blumhouse’s logo in the credits that most folks have never heard of.
Stretch, the Patrick Wilson-fronted comedy about a limousine driver up to his shirt collar in criminal hijinks, is one such feature. Originally scheduled for release in 2014, Universal pulled it two weeks before its cinema debut, choosing to quietly drop it on streaming six months later – to mixed, but generally positive, reviews.
Then there’s Jem And The Holograms, John M. Chu’s ill-fated revival of the 1980s animated series which, though it did manage a cinema release, opened to just a $36/theatre average in 2015. The numbers were so scary that Universal took the drastic step of pulling the film from cinemas after just a couple of weeks – creating the worst pre-pandemic wide opening for a major studio in the process.
There’re even relatively high-profile, well-received fare like Ti West’s In A Valley Of Violence, a black comedy Western starring Blumhouse-staple Ethan Hawke which nonetheless only managed a limited release in 2016.
What’s interesting is it seems most of these projects are never left to die entirely. Unlike the recent Batgirl controversy from Warner Bros., which has seen a finished movie apparently canned and sunk to the bottom of a lake somewhere (and which Blum himself commented on here), completed Blumhouse projects usually surface somewhere or other.
Take The Darwin Awards, a 2006 adventure-comedy starring Winona Ryder (and every member of Metallica) about some morally-dubious insurance companies and a serial killer, which only had a limited release in the US before performing unexpectedly well in Italy, for some reason.
Or, for the Avatar 2 fans amongst us, you can hunt down Stephen Lang playing a clergyman in 2015’s Exeter (released in the UK as The Asylum, avoiding inevitable confusion on the A30 while also giving a bit more of a hint at what the film might be about).
In fact, looking at the un/under-released films in the Blumhouse canon, it seems reductive to call it a production company for only spooky pictures. Sure, there’s still plenty of what you’d expect (2014 Stephen King adaptation Mercy, anyone?) but for every found-footage/creaky door-fest there’s something like Not Safe For Work, a tight little action thriller which Universal bought, then stuck on VoD after an extended post-production process.
In recent years, though, it seems Blum and co have learnt their lesson, and the number of modest performers (from a studio perspective) seems to be heading ever-downward. “One of the fundamental things we came up with in the model, which I can’t imagine we would change, is that with low-budget originals, not sequels, we make the movie without a release date,” he told Deadline in 2017.
“We finish the movie, we screen it, and then we decide what lane the movie’s taking. Is it a Universal wide release, a BH Tilt [the in-house distributor founded in 2014] movie, CryptTV, Netflix? We dated that movie [Stretch] before we saw it […] We shouldn’t have done it, and we’ll never do it again. We were crucified for it by the media.”
That might explain the somewhat ruthless reputation Blumhouse has garnered in the years since. Of the 51 films the company has produced since 2016, just 11 of them have gone without a Netflix or cinematic release – not bad for a company built on taking big swings with small pictures.
But, with only four more films officially in the pipeline for 2023, it seems Blumhouse might have tightened its business model and purse strings in the process. While that might be a sound financial decision, for lost-gem hunters, it’s a bit of a shame. The road to every M3gan is littered with box office disappointments. And some of those are pretty great.
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