From 'American Horror Story' to 'Walking Dead,' How Horror Took Over Hollywood
What's the new fear in town? That terror is changing the game with record-breaking TV hits and bloody cheap films that are eventizing networks (says Ryan Murphy), elevating the genre with Oscar-nominated stars (like Julianne Moore and Jessica Chastain) and minting money: "We keep asking ourselves, 'Is the boom over?' "
Now nearly every studio is in the micro- and low-budget horror game. Paramount has Friday the 13th, Scouts vs. Zombies and a sixth Paranormal outing (titled Paranormal 5) in the works. Universal is sequelizing Purge and is ramping up the Blum-produced hitchhiker horror pic Curve, with Julianne Hough starring. New Line wants Wan for a Conjuring sequel, likely for a 2015 release. Fox recently wrapped Site 146, about an archeology expedition gone awry. Sony has a secret project called Dracula and Van Helsing, with Joe Roth producing and director Louis Leterrier circling. And its Screen Gems division has dated Scott Derrickson's (Sinister) next film, Beware the Night, for Jan. 16, 2015.
Although this October features only one horror release, MGM's Carrie remake (Oct. 18), 2014 already has eight scheduled -- including three in January: The Marked Ones (Jan. 3), Fox's found-footage pic Devil's Due (Jan. 17) and Lionsgate's I, Frankenstein (Jan. 24). Horror is now a year-round business in theaters, not just contained to Halloween (though next October brings two higher-budget plays, Universal's Dracula Untold and Fox's own Frankenstein). In fact, the genre has become one of the best defenses against piracy, given that most prefer to experience scary movies amid a crowd, feeding off of theatergoers' screams and shrieks rather than watching at home, alone and terrified. Says Joe Pichirallo, chair of NYU's film and TV department and former Fox Searchlight executive, "People want to have an unpredictable emotional experience when they see a movie in a theater, and horror is particularly adept at delivering that."
In addition, with the genre growing in key international markets -- the U.K., France, Russia and Latin America -- international sales agents are cashing in. "We keep asking ourselves, 'Is the boom over?' " says Stuart Ford of IM Global, which has produced or financed a dozen titles through its Octane label, including Blum's Paranormal, Insidious and Sinister.
Apparently not. Once considered low-rent or taboo, the horror genre is attracting stars. Jon Rubinstein, whose client Vera Farmiga (Taissa's sister) pulled off a film-TV horror double play with Conjuring and Bates Motel, says he was skeptical about his client's interest in the genre until he saw the quality of the scripts. Several talent reps point to Nicole Kidman's role in 2001's well-reviewed The Others as a turning point. Natalie Portman won a best actress Oscar for 2010's Black Swan, which owed much of its $329 million gross to being marketed as horror. Mama star Jessica Chastain, a two-time Oscar nominee, says she specifically chose the genre to avoid being typecast. Prestige actress Julianne Moore plays the mentally ill mother in Carrie.
"We are always hearing from agents, 'Is it elevated?' " says Good Universe/Ghost House partner Nathan Kahane, who is producing a Poltergeist remake with Oscar-nominated director Gil Kenan. "That's the new buzzword in horror."
Despite the upgraded material, part of the appeal, of course, is the potential payoff -- a throwback to backend windfalls in an era in which studios rarely dole them out. Wan, who is segueing from Conjuring to the megabudgeted Fast & Furious 7, for which he will earn $1.75 million, actually might be taking a pay cut. Says Wan, "Generally the [horror] films are the ones where you get a bigger slice of the pie."
Walking around the bustling American Horror Story set, it's hard to believe that until recently, horror pitches were laughed out of TV network meetings. When Fox chairman Kevin Reilly was at NBC, he famously passed on Walking Dead. Today the show airs in 133 countries including Yemen, Bolivia, Mexico and all over Europe. Universal Television's Grimm is No. 1 in its time period in Spain and Australia, and while Universal typically has licensed programs after their U.S. launch, Dracula already has been sold to more than 174 territories.
Ask executives and showrunners why horror has become so big, and they cite cultural shifts allowing shows like AHS and even network dramas such as Following and Hannibal to broaden the limits on acceptable violence. "The line is going to shift as we grow as a culture and build up a tolerance with more forms of horror on the air," notes Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller. "For me, it's always important if you're doing something horrific or mutilative to find some sort of beauty in it." Adds Following creator Kevin Williamson (Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer): "It's not like I set out to do a violent show. But I really wanted to make a scary show. I wanted it to be tense and I wanted you to be nervous and on the edge of your seat. I didn't think it was viable for television."
Watchdog groups might not like the new standards (the Parents Television Council gave Asylum its "worst cable TV show of the week award" for last year's Christmas-themed episode "Unholy Night"). But audiences, which first got a taste of violence via graphic crime dramas like CSI, are finding value in the movie-style jump-scare payoffs. "Everybody loves to be scared in the same way everybody hates to be scared," observes Julie Plec, who adapted The Vampire Diaries with Williamson and counts horror master Wes Craven as a mentor. "Wes used to say, 'It's about release.' Everybody wants a way to release what's pent up inside them, whether it's through laughter or a scream."
Adding to the viability are advances in technology and the gory verisimilitude afforded by prosthetic masters such as AHS' Eryn Krueger Mekash and Walking Dead's Greg Nicotero. "The turnaround for [CG] special effects is much more efficient now," notes Bela Bajaria, executive vp at Universal TV. "There's more available to us. And that was not the case seven, eight years ago."
CG effects can add $100,000 to $200,000 to a show's episode budget. Extensive prosthetics like those in Walking Dead and AHS typically cost much more -- and are more time-consuming. Coven costs close to $4 million an episode, while Walking Dead bowed with a first-season episode budget of $3.4 million; expense amortization has brought the current budget down to about $3 million. (A typical network drama costs about $3 million an episode.)
But the detailed gore and shock moments lend themselves to eventization and social media-enabled community viewing. The season-two premiere of Walking Dead notched 82,000 social media comments from 57,000 individuals, according to Bluefin Labs. "There is definitely a shared experience with these shows," notes Bajaria. "That, 'Oh shit, did you see that?!' moment. It's very prevalent in shows with a very dedicated core fan base."
It's after 1 a.m. on the Coven set, and the zombies mostly have been dispatched by Farmiga and her chain saw. A woman is sprawled on the ground with a green hood on her head; in postproduction she'll be rendered headless. A member of the prosthetic team places a model of her head on the ground and sprays with fake blood the jagged edges where it was separated from her body. "Can we get the head a little closer to the body?" director Podeswa calls out.
The horror genre tends to be cyclical, leading insiders to wonder when the current boom will bust. "If there is a trend afoot, it's that horror is getting away from graphic violence and more toward supernatural," says Blum. "Supernatural plays more broadly and is more relatable to Latin American and female audiences." But some wonder when the current tricks will get tired -- something of which Hollywood, unfortunately, is well too aware. "Kevin predicated an entire franchise [Scream] on that very premise," notes Plec. "If you say, 'I'll be right back,' you'll be the next one to bite the dust."
Pamela McClintock, Lesley Goldberg and Rebecca Sun contributed to this report.