From 'American Horror Story' to 'Walking Dead,' How Horror Took Over Hollywood
This story first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The makeup trailer on the New Orleans set of American Horror Story: Coven contains a whiteboard with instructions on how to achieve just the right look for the zombies dispatched by Marie Laveau, a real-life 19th century voodoo priestess played by Angela Bassett: "Aged blood/bruise tone around wounds. Black in rotted areas. Warm yellow to make oozing."
On this Friday in late September, 13 makeup artists will spend nearly five hours turning a clutch of actors into the grotesque undead for a climactic scene in "Burn Witch Burn," the fifth episode in the third season of FX's Emmy-winning gothic camp franchise (which was set to return Oct. 9). Taissa Farmiga, whose character was revealed in season one as a rafter-dwelling ghost, is rehearsing a scene in which she uses a chain saw to dispatch the zombies in a finely choreographed (and shockingly gory) dance of death. As she practices swinging a bladeless saw, a prop guy asks if it's time to swap in the real thing. "We definitely want a blade on the chain saw," answers director Jeremy Podeswa. "A bloody blade."
As the grunting zombies advance toward Farmiga, Podeswa checks the camera and cracks, "It's a nice family show."
Increasingly, it is. Horror, once a niche domain, is flourishing in film and television. Although the genre has a rich Hollywood history -- the late 1950s to early 1980s saw such classics as Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist and The Shining and TV series like The Twilight Zone -- horror never has played as broadly (and as profitably) as it does today. In film, it now slices like a cleaver through all four audience quadrants at a fraction of the cost of a typical tentpole and can be sequelized and exported around the globe. Studios are scrambling to greenlight new potential franchises, and marquee stars who once eschewed the genre are dipping their well-manicured toes in. "In many ways, [horror] is the hottest genre," says Jason Constantine, president of acquisitions and co-productions at Lionsgate. "It can be cost-effectively produced, attracts some of the most talented filmmakers and is popular with men and women regardless of age and also African-American and Hispanic audiences."
On TV, as in film, the genre is able to lure women and men, as well as more lucrative younger viewers -- and the gorier the better, it seems. AMC's The Walking Dead returns Oct. 13 as TV's top-rated show in the 18-to-49 demo (its third-season finale lured 12.4 million total viewers) despite a deluge of decapitations and impalements. The Ryan Murphy- and Brad Falchuk-produced AHS -- with boundary-pushing scenes featuring lobotomies and alien anal probes -- earned more 2013 Emmy nominations (17) than any other show. Fox's serial killer drama The Following -- where victims routinely have their eyes gouged out -- was last season's No. 1 new show. A&E has had success with Psycho prequel series Bates Motel. And NBC, which had a modest hit this spring with Hannibal, on Oct. 25 launches Dracula, which is said to be a high priority for chairman Bob Greenblatt and is being promoted as a broad drama. Showtime in 2014 will bow Penny Dreadful, a psychosexual horror thriller written and produced by Oscar nominee John Logan, with the first two episodes directed by Juan Antonio Bayona (The Impossible). Series versions of The Exorcist and American Psycho are in the works. Even teen-targeted ABC Family is circling the genre with The Final Girls, which would have Jamie Lee Curtis -- heroine of 1978's Halloween -- playing a den mother of sorts to a group of teen girls who survived their own horror stories. "There's a long pattern of young audiences flocking to horror movies," notes Nick Grad, president of original programming at FX Networks and FX Productions. "For us, [the genre] offers something noisy that has a lot of meat to be marketed."
Tellingly, AHS' highest-rated demo last season was advertiser-coveted women 18-to-34 (a 3.8 rating). "This season is designed to be a little more fun, and specifically to invite [even more] women to the party," says Murphy of the witch-themed Coven. But no demo is off-limits for horror. "Today, which I find a little disturbing, we know that 70-year-olds are watching [The Walking Dead] and 10-year-olds are watching it," says Sharon Tal Yguado, executive vp at Fox International Channels, which distributes Walking Dead globally.
At the same time, there have been more top-grossing horror films in 2013 than ever before. As studios are under increasing pressure to slash costs after a summer of big-budget misfires, many of these horror hits are made for less than the salaries of some tentpole stars. Warner Bros./New Line's The Conjuring, based on a true story about paranormal investigators hired to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse, cost just $19 million and grossed more than $300 million worldwide this summer. It trounced its opening-weekend competitor, R.I.P.D., a film with a $130 million budget starring Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges. Four other horror releases in the past 10 months made for less than $20 million have surpassed the $85 million mark worldwide: Universal's Mama and The Purge, TriStar's Evil Dead remake and FilmDistrict's Insidious: Chapter 2. January's horror hybrid Warm Bodies cost $35 million and took in $117 million worldwide. Brad Pitt's zombie pic World War Z, while pricey, exceeded expectations with $540 million worldwide, as did Seth Rogen's midbudget horror-comedy mashup This Is the End ($122 million). "It's hard to get to a number like $300 million with a teen-only audience," says New Line chief Toby Emmerich of Conjuring's success. "Movies can only hold like that when all four quadrants are showing up."
Indeed, in the past, horror films typically were made for and targeted at white teens. But now women and Latinos are fueling the surge. Females represented 56 percent of Purge's opening-weekend audience. For Mama, women and teenage girls accounted for a whopping 61 percent of the $32 million debut weekend, and Latinos made up an astounding 47 percent of the audience. Conjuring skewed older, as 60 percent of its opening-weekend audience was over age 25 and 53 percent were women. Without relying on fickle teens, the R-rated film played through July and August. "What's new is, it doesn't have to be about the opening-weekend audience anymore," says Simon Oakes, vice chairman of Exclusive Media and president and CEO of Hammer, who produced 2012's Daniel Radcliffe horror movie The Woman in Black ($128 million worldwide). Paramount's Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (Jan. 3), the fifth in the series, will target the Spanish-language audience with a Latino cast and a storyline about a Catholic inquiry into a suspected demonic possession. "We started to realize that that segment of the audience was the most loyal advocate for the movies," says Paramount Film Group president Adam Goodman.
The seeds of the film boom were planted in 2002, when Eli Roth's $1.5 million budget Cabin Fever earned $31 million worldwide for Lionsgate, becoming the first R-rated horror film to play on more than 2,000 screens. The indie studio then hit the jackpot with Conjuring director James Wan's microbudgeted Saw, which took in north of $100 million worldwide and spawned seven films in seven consecutive years -- a feat still unrivaled -- with a combined gross of $873 million. "Cabin Fever helped Saw, and Saw 2 helped Hostel," says Roth. "Hostel helped The Hills Have Eyes. Every success fed into the next and really helped the genre."
In 2009, Paranormal Activity ushered in a new and especially lucrative subgenre of handheld camera horror. The film, made for just $15,000, started a franchise that has grossed $719 million worldwide over four movies. In the process, it turned its producer, Jason Blum, into Hollywood's first microbudget mogul. "It isn't the sexiest part of the business, and that's what I love about it," says Blum, a former Miramax exec whose Universal-based Blumhouse Productions also is behind Purge, Insidious and last year's Sinister for Lionsgate. "You also have total creative freedom."
The Blum formula relies on stars willing to work for cheap to receive a hefty backend. On Purge, Ethan Hawke took almost no money up front, and sources say he ultimately scored a mid-seven-figure payday. Blum "has a high-quality assembly line and has figured out how to find stories that have either a universal theme or a very sellable concept," says FilmDistrict CEO and incoming Focus Features CEO Peter Schlessel, who worked with Blumhouse on Insidious.
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.
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