Though Jason Blum’s company, Blumhouse Productions, made several earlier movies, it wasn’t until the smash success of Paranormal Activity that the producer discovered his ideal business model. Blum creates films independently, then releases them through the studio system, partnering with the major studios to effectively create wide-release campaigns. It allows him to retain the atmosphere of creative control appealing to many artists, while simultaneously keeping the mainstream qualities that help get movies into a large number of theaters, with the attendant promotional budgets. It’s been incredibly lucrative, while also making Blum one of the most influential people in contemporary horror cinema. The recent Blumhouse film The Lazarus Effect is out now on Blu-ray and DVD, and The A.V. Club took the opportunity to speak with the gifted producer about what he looks for in horror movies, and how producing is not unlike handing a director a list of menu options.
The A.V. Club: The Lazarus Effect feels very much in the Blumhouse vein because it’s a traditional horror story, but with a twist. You’ve said that the first thing you look for in a film is “scary,” not necessarily “original.” But it does seem clear that this deviation from what has come before is important to you on some level.
JB: Yeah, I think the first, and most important thing, is that it’s scary. If there’s one unifying principle of everything we do—and I say this a lot—the biggest benefit of doing low-budget movies is that you can do different things. And I think I said at one point that scary is the most important and original is the second-most, but original is really important. The Purge is a really great example of a movie that was kicking around for eight years or whatever and no one would ever make it, and a lot of the stuff that we’ve done is different. Really now, more than anything else, it’s got to feel different and, of course, it has to feel scary, but Lazarus had both of those things, which I was happy with. I was really happy with how that movie came out.
AVC: Once you sign on to produce a film like this, how involved do you tend to be?
JB: Every movie is different. Some movies we’re super involved in and some movies we’re much less involved in. The directors have much more freedom with us than with typical Hollywood jobs and also sometimes they have final cut. But when you give them that creative control, they’re very solicitous of advice, so we actually provide a lot of information all the way through the process, from the script to casting to shooting to editorial, distribution, and marketing. But I guess we offer it as a menu and we let the director choose rather than fighting and arguing about it endlessly. Not to say we don’t have fights—we certainly do sometimes—but they’re a lot less often than typical Hollywood movies.
AVC: Do you find it difficult to structure how many films you’re working on at a time, given that you don’t know in advance what you’re going to be needed for in each one?
JB: Yeah, it is, and they always come in waves. There will be times when we’re doing no movies and then, suddenly, we’re doing four or five. There’s not a lot we can do about that. We work with people that fit our movies in around big movies, so we have to go when they want, not when we want. So we have a pretty big organization of people, and we’ve learned air-traffic control pretty well, but it is hard how they come in waves.
AVC: Even with tighter schedules, a big advantage of the low-budget production model seems to be that it’s much easier to do re-shoots and rewrites. Is there a film that came together in the reworking process because you had more freedom with this model?
JB: You know, most of our movies we do re-shoots on. I guess Paranormal Activity is the best example; on that movie there were like 50 re-shoots. A re-shoot meant Katie [Featherston] and Micah [Sloat] would drive to San Diego and shoot for 20 minutes then go back to L.A. It was very homemade, it was just them and Oren [Peli, the director]. But we really tinkered with that movie forever, and I guess I drew on that. I think it really helps to watch the movie with an audience and then work with a director on shaping it. And we do that on most of the movies that we produce.
AVC: What are the major changes between now versus back when all the studios thought Paranormal Activity and Insidious were these flukes that you got lucky with?
JB: That’s a good question. I guess the biggest challenge now is that I try not to be too precious. We’re trying to maintain the same spirit that showed in Sinister and Insidious and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, which is to see the best in things and not fall into the trap of trying to repeat old success, but trying to find new success. I try and remind myself of that every day. We do that—in the Western we did, In The Valley Of Violence with Ti West, and Jem And The Holograms, and there are a few more. Always low budget, but they’re all different genres. The Boy Next Door was certainly like that. Lazarus Effect was more of a horror thriller and The Boy Next Door was more of an erotic thriller. So trying not to repeat the past but instead do things differently is the biggest challenge.
AVC: So to some extent, that suggests a natural broadening or shifting away from focusing solely on horror.
JB: No, the focus is always on scary—or particularly beyond that, what’s a low-budget, widespread release. We work with the studios so we’re working on movies that were essentially made independently and released through the studio system. The movies I love and the movies we’re going to continue to pursue are scary movies, but if something else fits those parameters but isn’t scary, we won’t necessarily say no. Maybe that’s the best way to put it.
AVC: In the past, you’ve mentioned that going through the studio experience of producing The Tooth Fairy was a turning point for you. Can you elaborate a bit on what you meant by that?
JB: Yeah, well, what I always wanted to do was produce a really expensive movie, and by our standards, not by Hollywood standards, The Tooth Fairy fit into that category. And it was much more—and I think this goes along with expensive movies—it was much more of a committee making the creative choices. I found that much more frustrating than I thought I would, and went scampering back to low-budget movies after that.
What I loved about The Tooth Fairy was that it was the first movie I produced that had a real studio release, so it was the first time I got to see 150 people working on getting a movie out there. And the epiphany I had was: “I wonder if there’s a way to make a movie independently then get studios to release them.” And that was kind of what I got from The Tooth Fairy.
AVC: Did you have any experiences when Blumhouse was starting up that taught you, ‘Whoa, let’s not do that again’?
JB: I have that everyday. [Laughs.]
But I kind of had one foot in the independent world and one foot in the studio [world]. I did a bunch of independent movies that nobody ever saw. I got frustrated with the distribution of those movies and I saw how a studio movie was distributed and thought, “Wow, it’d be amazing if an independent movie distribution could compete with that at all.” And then Paranormal Activity happened right around the time of The Tooth Fairy, and those combined my independent life and my studio life and that’s what Blumhouse is now, really. It’s straddling two worlds; it’s straddling production in the independent world and distribution in the studio world.
AVC: It seems like you’ve positioned yourself in the tradition of low-budget, high-concept films, like a 21st-century Roger Corman or something.
JB: He’s definitely someone I think about. That’s super flattering, and I hope to be half as successful as Roger Corman, but his model was slightly different. He was doing even less expensive movies than we’re making, and he was working with first-time filmmakers, which we don’t do very often, so it’s a little tweak on that. But definitely the low-budget, high-concept tradition of him or William Castle, those are people whose careers I’ve studied up on.
AVC: When you look at the films that have worked creatively for you, are there common threads you can point to? Or is the success of a horror film for you so dependent on the specific project that drawing comparisons tends to be a mistake?
JB: I think the mistake people make with horror movies and what makes them successful is a lot of horror movies get made by people who don’t really like them, so they don’t respect them. And when you like horror and have admiration for it, that community knows that what’s important for a horror movie is important for every other kind of movie. Is the acting good? Is the story good? Are the characters good? That’s what makes things scary. When someone doesn’t know a whole lot about horror, the first question they ask is, “What are the scares?” and I think the scares aren’t scary if the other stuff isn’t working. So horror is great storytelling with scary elements on top of it, but if you don’t have great storytelling, you can have all the scares in the world, but the movie won’t work.
AVC: Does that frustrate you? You must come into contact with a ton of people who see horror as the best way to make a quick buck in the film business, but don’t know anything about it.
JB: It doesn’t frustrate me, because I think the audience can feel those movies. I think the audience has a sense of that, so I don’t have to have schadenfreude for those people because I think it takes care of itself.
AVC: Picking favorites for you is probably like making you choose your favorite child, but are there any specific Blumhouse films that you have a sentimental attachment to?
JB: It’s really hard. You can’t be a creative person and not fall in love with everything. Every movie I’ve made there’s a complicated, twisted love affair with. There are all these little moments that come to your memory from every movie’s highs and lows. I really don’t have favorites. I’ve been asked that question before and I’ve really thought about it, and I think, objectively, some movies have come out better than others. But I’m not going to tell you which ones.
AVC: You’ve done Whiplash, and you have the upcoming Jem And The Holograms movie. Is there a qualitative difference between when you’re producing horror films and when you’re producing other films?
JB: Yeah. Mostly, I like making horror movies better. That’s not true with Jem And The Holograms, but I really like the horror community. I like the filmmakers, I like the audience… I really like the scary-movie community a lot. So I guess that’s why we’re going to continue mostly to do those movies. I like making those movies.
AVC: There’s something about the horror-fan community, right? There’s not a similar group that rallies around, like, “We love comedies” or dramas or something. There really is that sense when you make horror or when you’re involved with horror that there’s a community of people that care about it as passionately as you do.
JB: Really, what drew me to it in the first place was learning about it from those people. I learned about it from [Sinister director] Scott Derrickson, from James Wan, from Lee Wannell. Those guys have really been in that community a lot longer than I have, they know more about it than I do. And I learned from those guys, and the more I learned, the more I’m into it.
AVC: You’ve started to release more movies directly to video on demand or streaming services as Blumhouse has gotten bigger—like Creep, for example. Do you think it’s going to be harder to stand out in places like Netflix and iTunes?
JB: I don’t know. We’ll see. You’ll have to ask me in a couple of years. We’ll try! [Laughs.]