Making Films *Cheap* & Appreciating Them: Possible or Taboo? ‘Get Out’ Producer Embraces the Idea

Get-Out-Moonlight

 

I watched the below awesome interview with Jason Blum (head of Blumhouse Productions, the company behind the massive box office success that is called “Get Out,” the just as profitable “Paranormal Activity” franchise of films, the recent “Split,” and more), in which Blum exalts comparatively low-budget Hollywood movie-making, which he’s found enormous success with.

The formula: thrilling genre films made very cheap (compared to studio averages). Although this doesn’t have to only apply to genre films; after all, this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, a gritty drama, was made for $1.5M. Also the director of that film, Barry Jenkins, made his feature film debut 9 years ago, the much-loved “Medicine for Melancholy,” for just $15K. It went on to gross about 10 times its budget; and it’s become something of a cult classic since its 2008 premiere, meaning it’s likely performed well on the home video market, as it experiences a resurgence thanks to the critical and commercial success of “Moonlight.”

But Blumhouse Production’s resume is quite incredible; “Get Out” cost $4.5M, has grossed $119M domestic so far (it hasn’t even really begun its international run); “Split” cost $9M, grossed $240M global so far; the first “Paranormal Activity” had a $15K budget and a $193M global gross. And they milked the “Paranormal Activity” franchise successfully with 6 films so far, and a $900M global gross from all 6 films, with an average budget of about $4.6M.

Incredible profit margins that your typical Hollywood studio just does not see. The budget figures don’t include P&A costs, but even if we added those in, these are still mostly still ridiculously profitable films.

In the interview below, Blum says that Universal (the distributor of most of Blumhouse Production’s films so far) spends anywhere from $25-$30M to market them; a figure I was actually surprised by. It’s not typical that a movie’s marketing budget (especially at the studio level) is more than what it cost to make – especially not 5 or 6 times the film’s budget. So if we say “Get Out’s” total cost (budget, marketing) was around $30M, again, at almost $120M in domestic grosses alone, it’s already made 4 times its roughly total cost, and it’s far from done.

But it’s a good, informative conversation with Blum presented by Recode’s Code Media conference. If you’re a Hollywood business wonk like I am, I think you’ll appreciate how much he shares, and his general enthusiasm for what he does. It’s rare that we get this kind of behind-the-scenes look at how a successful film production company works.

One interesting item I learned from the chat is that women under 25 are the biggest audience for horror movies. I don’t think I was aware of that; or maybe I just hadn’t given it any thought and instead made assumptions.

Also, as you might be asking (as I was, while watching the interview), why isn’t Blumhouse’s “movies don’t have to be expensive” philosophy more popular in Hollywood? Specifically among the so-called Big 6 studios (Sony, NBCUniversal, Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, 20th Century Fox) who spend billions of dollars annually to produce content? Blum answers that question, sharing what he thinks is at the root of it all. But you’ll have to watch the conversation to hear what he says.

I shared it with a filmmaker friend of mine who’s currently in pre-production on a no-budget/lo-budget feature film he plans to shoot in the late summer. Our exchange prompted the question in the title of this post.

First, after getting his permission to do so, here’s a snip of a longer email he sent me this afternoon, which I thought was at the heart of the matter: “… A problem here is that there are a lot of filmmakers who do have these ideas about films not capable of being made for less than certain amounts, like 6 figures. There are those who’ve bought into a system of how a film should be made and for how much that’s dominant right now, and who won’t even consider the possibility that you really can make a film for very little money. You just have to be savvy with your scripting. I’m working on a feature right now and when I tell some people how much I’m going to make it for, they turn their noses up and don’t want to be any part of it, because in their heads, if it’s not a 6 or 7 figure budget, then it must not be good or worth their time. There’s this mindset that a lot of us have which we need to shake.”

The budget for this filmmaker’s feature film is around $75,000.

In the past, I’ve brought up for discussion the idea that making a film doesn’t necessarily have to be a super-expensive endeavor, ultimately hoping to encourage those starry-eyed filmmakers (certainly not all) to rethink their allegiance to Hollywood’s conspicuous spending model.

Partly inspired by the above filmmaker’s comments, I’d like to conduct a filmmaker and audience survey: my question to all you filmmakers and audiences reading this is really to respond to what “John” said above. For filmmakers, how cheaply do you think you could make a feature-length film? Of course, it goes without saying that it’ll be a feature film you’re proud of, is technically and creatively sound, made by a skilled team – enough that you’ll enthusiastically submit it to film festivals, and also to distributors, for acquisition consideration; or that you’d even self-distribute. Take a look at all the feature-length scripts you’ve written (or all the ideas you have yet to put on paper) on your hard drive, that you’re hoping you can make into films some day, only if you are able to raise the necessary funds. Now, looking at all of them, how much cash would you need to get any one of them produced? What is the least amount of money you think you’d require to get this hypothetical film made? Is there a figure in your head that you believe is (or should be) an absolute minimum when it comes to feature film budgets, regardless of all other factors? And are you inspired by what Blumhouse has been able to accomplish, and are considering using their “cheap movies” formula, but on an even lower scale (it’s all relative after all)?

And for the audience, does a film’s budget (if you know it) affect how you react to it, before you even see it? Do you find yourself dismissing films when you discover how cheaply they were made for, assuming that, because of how low their budgets are, they must not be very good?

Yes, I know it’s not such a simple matter, and really you could make a film for as little or as much as you want. And with connections, relationships with above- or below-the-line talent, resources and smarts, you could reduce the costs of, or even eliminate several line items.

And obviously it depends on the script as well.

I can think of several films made for less than $100,000 that went on to do well, relative to budget. Barry Jenkins’ “Medicine for Melancholy” is just one of many examples. And he made this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner for just $1.5M. How could that not encourage and inspire you? You may not be able to raise $1.5M (like I said, it’s all relative), but maybe you can raise 1/10th of that, or $150K to make your feature.

Watch the 40-minute interview with Jason Blum below, which actually happened just before “Get Out” opened in USA theaters:

8 Comments

  1. As the old saying goes, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Or, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” Better yet, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” All of these sayings speak to the idea that there is a certain threshold, a bar that has to be reached to provide the quality that an audience will accept. The audience is conditioned when they turn on the TV or take a seat in a theater to expect certain levels of expertise, creativity, and production savvy to be displayed.
    Bad stories, bad scripts will always result in bad movies regardless of how small or how big the budget. And conversely terrible production values will turn what may be a decent story into a dog of a film.
    It takes more talent to make a modestly budgeted, or low budget film successful because there is less room for error than with your typical big budget tent pole..

  2. I’m not a filmmaker, and while I am an audience-member, I’m also a college professor who teaches low-budget films all the time. Last semester I taught “Medicine for Melancholy” and “Mississippi Damned”; this semester I’ve already taught “Young Soul Rebels,” and within the next few weeks I’ll be teaching “The Watermelon Woman” and “Tongues Untied.” I can’t wait to teach “Get Out” and “Moonlight.”

    These films are not just released for monetary gain; they’re important for the study of black culture in specific and American culture (and in the case of “Young Soul Rebels” British culture) more broadly. I don’t believe any of the above films had a large budget, but they are “large” in terms of what they SAY, in terms of the issues they are chewing on. I hope any filmmaker who has the ability to make an important film—regardless of how much it costs—will do so. Your work matters.

  3. I’m a filmmaker who made a short film a year ago and it cost me about $1,500. I had a DP, sound, make up, and a gaffer. I also hired an editor in that budget as well. With that said, Mark Duplass believes that feature films can be made for $1,000 with your friends who are highly skilled and will work for nothing I might add.

    I’ve been writing for ten years now and used to write with no budget in mind. Lately, I’ve scaled my scripts down so they can be shot on a lower budget. I think that I can make a good film with skilled talent for 10-15k. My higher concept screenplays could be shot for between 50k-250k

  4. Although this is a TV series, “Doctor Who” managed to go on when blockbuster films reigned supreme (to varying degrees of quality) in the 1980s. The new version is made to cater to those who would probably not watch the original’s style (half-film, half-video, wonky effects, etc). Still, it has to be said that one of the longest running shows in history was not created to be a success – it was originally meant to be a throwaway show for kids.

  5. Great read…and as to some of the other comments, story matters…if there is a good core story there, the possibilities can be great…we have seen in this African American Film Renaissance where there has been too much focus on celebrity, which can sometimes exhaust a budget…I good story, some strong little know actors with great technical elements can lead to a multitude of productions that can be made in the $15,000 – $50,000 range. We are working on that right now and are taking our time to do it well…as mentioned above…if we can do that all we need is one to be a game-changer for us…and that is our goal.

  6. Robert Rodriguez made his first film for $7000 in the 1990s(and he literally used film, not digital). I think you can make a good quality looking film for $20,000 these days.

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