Why So Many Horror Movies This Time of Year? Surprise: It's Not Just Because of Halloween

Lions Gate

Genre-pic distributors gravitate toward early fall partly because they don't have to face major tentpole releases, and horror is 'one of the few genres you can sell on the cheap.'

At the box office, where blood has been flowing freely this month, a final showdown looms for Halloween weekend.

Lionsgate's "Saw" franchise, whose previous installment "Saw VI" was pretty anemic, will look for a fresh transfusion by promising moviegoers that this time around the sadism will jump from the screen in 3D. But it faces formidable competition from the second weekend of Paramount's "Paranormal Activity 2," which has bewitched crowds with its low-tech approach to scares that are more suggestive and atmospheric than graphically violent.

Hollywood's seasonal, fall flirtation with relatively low-budget blood-and-gore movies might look as if it's simply an appeal to moviegoers' baser instincts, but audiences can be discerning and the competition brutal.

Starting just before Labor Day, studios annually trot out a frightfest of slasher pics and other horror films. This year's ghoulish conga line was particularly crowded. A few movies, like Universal's "Devil," with a domestic gross of $32.4 million, posted modest returns, while others, such as Paramount Vantage's "Case 39" ($12.7 million) and Relativity/Overture's "Let Me In" ($11.6 million), were left bleeding at the side of the road.

Why do the studios force so many horror pics into such a narrow window? The answer has as much to do with economics as it does Halloween tie-ins.

Genre-pic distributors gravitate toward early fall partly because they don't have to face major tentpole releases, giving movies with more modest ambitions space to operate. That's literally true in multiplexes, where screens are more available than during most other times of year, but the absence of major titles also makes prospective patrons more likely to focus on the marketing messages for less star-driven fare.

Because horror pics tend to boast skimpy marketing budgets, they need to find a setting where they can maximize their dollars.

"This is one of the few genres you can sell on the cheap," said Robert Marich, editor of MarketingMovies.net. "A good YouTube trailer with some gory scenes is a cheap and effective way to go. That mechanism doesn't work for a lot of other genres, but all the youth-oriented media are highly engaged with horror films."

Horror pics toting modestly bigger negative costs -- like the Universal-distributed Rogue pic "My Soul to Take," a $30 million production including 3D conversion costs -- are more likely to augment cyber-campaigns with traditional TV advertising. But even there, marketers tread lightly and tend to lean on the less-costly basic-cable buys including Syfy, FearNet and Chiller. (Horror ads also show up occasionally on the somewhat pricier and youth-rich MTV.)

Even the most expensive horror campaigns seldom cost more than high-teen millions, and marketing on less ambitious pics generally is confined to the single-digit millions.

"Horror films tend to be low-budget and high-concept, with a rapid burn-off in the marketplace," Marich said. "They're in the fall because it's essentially a dumping ground as an off-peak period, and with Halloween you do have some topicality."

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