The Hollywood Reporter's Producer of the Year defied every norm on his path to $3.8 billion at the box office, two Oscar noms and two Emmys, sticking to microbudgets even for blockbuster franchises. Now he talks his "oddball" lifestyle and the time Weinstein threw a lit cigarette at him.
Step into Jason Blum's offices on the fringe of L.A.'s Filipinotown — just a few yards from a homeless shelter and light-years from the epicenters of Hollywood power — and you know something about this producer is different. It's not just the bland bungalow that houses his company, Blumhouse (one of three buildings that hold his staff of 80), or the Ford cargo van (a souped-up mobile office) waiting for him in the parking lot; it's the wall of fame that greets you in the lobby, with photos of several dozen directors covering one wall and showrunners another. Giving these creators green-light power has helped generate an unparalleled slew of hits, including such movies as 2013's The Purge and 2016's Split (both with Universal, where Blum inked a 10-year deal in 2014) and miniseries including 2014's The Normal Heart and this year's Sharp Objects (both with HBO).
"Most of my anecdotes of Jason aren't fit for print," says Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley. "But what I can say about him as a producer is that, from the likes of Jordan Peele to Chris Landon, his platform supports fresh filmmaking talent in a way that is consistently successful. He's created a company where filmmakers can show what they can do — and he has built a business model where a big studio gets behind it."
Blum's mega-success was relatively slow in coming. In 2007, at the very moment when he should have been celebrating his first blockbuster, Paranormal Activity (the $15,000 film earned $193 million worldwide) — half a dozen years after stepping away from a post in acquisitions at Miramax Films — he got the shock of his life when Paramount dropped his deal, and nobody even called to tell him.
It was a lesson for Blum, 49, in the dangers of depending on the system. Since then, he's flouted its rules, making only movies with budgets of no more than $5 million (for sequels and films based on existing IP, he'll go as high as $15 million).
This policy has earned Blum, a married father of two, $3.8 billion in box-office revenue and brought him two Oscar nominations for best picture, for Get Out and Whiplash (he also won Emmys for Normal Heart and The Jinx). The horror master has branched out into TV drama (there's an upcoming miniseries about Roger Ailes with Russell Crowe) and socially conscious films like August's BlacKkKlansman. But this month, Blum is back to the genre that built him with a Halloween sequel that's tracking for an opening of up to $65 million — which would mark the highest horror bow since 2017's It and another big win for The Hollywood Reporter's producer of the year.
Let's start with BlacKkKlansman and how it came to you.
When we were shooting Get Out, we were working closely with QC Entertainment and Sean McKittrick, and they optioned the book and invited us in. [Get Out director] Jordan Peele was already involved, and the three of us reached out to Spike Lee and had a meeting in my office. Spike hired one of his own writers and worked on three or four drafts of the script — and from the time of that meeting, we were shooting about 12 months after that.
What changed in the script?
The tone of the movie. There's a lot that's funny, but it's clearly a very serious topic and I don't think anyone could've gotten away with that. People say, "What's the movie about?" The Ku Klux Klan are fucking idiots, that's what the movie is about, and it shines a light on how stupid they are. And part of the way it shines a light is making fun of them. There are 99 ways it could have gone wrong and there was one way it could have gone right, and he got it right.
You and Lee disagreed about the coda to the film, the use of footage from the rioting at Charlottesville?
I disagreed because I thought the movie he made was so good and [the footage] spoke very clearly and I thought it put too fine a point on it. But I think audiences and critics have proven me wrong.
Would you have made that movie before Charlottesville?
I don't think it would've been any less relevant. Get Out came before Charlottesville. But Charlottesville reminded everyone that racism is still a massive problem in this country. Unfortunately, I don't think Charlottesville was an anomaly. It’s a reflection of America at the moment.
Do films change anything?
I have to hope so. It bothers me when Hollywood is so — what's the word, sanctimonious? Self-righteous. "We're changing the world!" That bothers me. But maybe adding some good to the world. I don't think a racist is going to see BlacKkKlansman and not be a racist anymore, right? But reminding people what the Ku Klux Klan is and was and how evil and dumb it is, in a clever way, can't be done enough until there is no Ku Klux Klan.
Was there one movie that really made you want to go into film?
I wanted to go into film because when I was young, I loved the arts. Growing up, I was made fun of [because of that]. I went to boarding school when I was 13 and everyone had pictures of Christie Brinkley; I had a Lichtenstein show in Paris. But I remember very distinctly the thing that bothered me about contemporary art was its elitist nature. You can't fully appreciate contemporary art unless you have a knowledge of art history. And one of the reasons I was drawn to movies and TV was that I wanted to be in the arts for everybody.
Your upbringing was full of art. Tell me about your family.
My mom is retired but she was a professor of art history, and my dad is retired also but he had an art gallery, multiple art galleries for many, many years. And he is still very active in the art world. We used to go to [Ellsworth Kelly's] studio in upstate New York. Roy Lichtenstein taught me how to play chess in his house in Southampton! It was weird because when you're a little kid, you're not aware they're famous — they're just your dad's friends. In retrospect, they were odd. They were artists. They were kind of unique and eccentric. But my dad is odd and I'm odd, you know?
In what way?
There is almost no way that I'm normal. I mean, I live in an apartment in downtown L.A., I drive around in a van. My office is next to a homeless health care center. I collected my fingernails. (Laughs.) What else can I tell you? I'm a weird guy. I make unusual lifestyle choices, but I don't make them because they're unusual; I make them because that's what I'm drawn to. I'm a little bit of an oddball.
What stayed with you from that time in your childhood?
What my father taught me was to listen. My father is kind of a famous raconteur; he was a great talker, but he was also a very good listener. And more than anything else, artists need and want to be listened to — and I mean that in a positive way. They're not always going to volunteer that. But, clearly, they are artists because there's something bursting out of them that they need to express. I love that. But most artists are not very articulate about their work. The best person to talk about Lichtenstein or Kelly's work is not Lichtenstein or Kelly. Shockingly true. And of directors, too. Probably the best person to talk about a Paul Thomas Anderson movie is not Paul Thomas Anderson, my favorite director.
Why is he your favorite director?
His movies are so precise. He can make a movie about pretty much anything and the movies seem flawless to me: the performance, the production, every aspect of the filmmaking is so good. There Will Be Blood is probably my favorite movie in the last 20 years.
After college, you went to work for Harvey Weinstein as a Miramax acquisitions executive. What did you learn from that?
The good was that the company was the number one company of independent film and I learned 90 percent of the movie business. It was an incredible place to learn. And the bad was that obviously the environment was pretty tough. He ruled with an iron fist. But I am very loath to say that, because no one was forcing me to work there, you know? I chose to work there. And so I don't say that as a victim; I was not a victim when I worked there at all.
The iron fist means what?
The whole idea now that takes into account how your employees feel about things, which I think is mostly positive — mostly positive, not all positive — that just wasn't an idea when I was coming up in the business. You did what you were told to do and if you didn't, you heard about it in not a pleasant way. (Laughs.)
Harvey threw a lit cigarette at you. Did it hit you?
No, it didn't. The worst was the psychological pressure. He was very clever at getting people to kill themselves for him. Manipulating the carrot and the stick. Alternately taking you up and bringing you down. That took a toll psychologically. When he threw the cigarette it's because we lost [1998's] Run Lola Run [as an acquisition]. It was a very complicated negotiation but it was definitely 51 percent my fault. And I felt very badly about it. It actually still bothers me. Because I felt that there was injustice in the way that the negotiation transpired.
Did you have any idea what was going on with Harvey and women?
You once said you questioned your moral compass in staying there so long. What did you mean by that?
What I question is my tolerance. Why did I tolerate that environment as long as I did? I know why: because I was ambitious. But when all this came out [the allegations about Weinstein's sexual behavior], it made me question that. I don't want to use the word abuse, but I definitely was under an enormous amount of pressure and being treated in a very, very tough way. Knowing now that all this other stuff was going on, it wasn't just tough, right? There was a lot more happening.
Do you still feel pressure now that you're your own boss?
I feel pressure every day. But I think in a positive way. It’s what motivates me.
What's the most pressure you've been under as a producer?
One of the worst moments was getting thrown off the lot at Paramount after I did Paranormal Activity. It was 2007 and Paramount was at a tricky time and wanted all the credit for the movie, and they didn’t want anyone who had anything to do with it anywhere near Paramount. The Paranormal Activity experience was as bad as it was good. A lot of time, it looked like we weren't going to get it released. I remember thinking, if I couldn't get the movie out I was going move back to New York and maybe leave the business or not deal with Hollywood. I wasn't broke but I was conscious of money; I had a three-year deal at Paramount, I made quite good money from that. And then after Paranormal Activity came out, they never said anything. My deal was up June 1, 2007. No one would return my calls. And on May 1, I called a mover. The message was clear. The result of producing the biggest, most profitable movie of all time was: I was thrown off the lot at Paramount and I had nowhere to fucking go.
You're now four-plus years into a 10-year deal with Universal, your second there. Why Universal?
You make it sound like I had choices! Thank God, [Universal Pictures chairman] Donna Langley and [CAA's] Bryan Lourd had lunch and Donna said, "We really want to reinvigorate the legacy of horror at Universal." And Bryan said, "Have you met Jason Blum?" If they had not had that lunch I would not be at Universal. I credit Donna with a lot, but it's hard to put into words how different my business is than studio business. The first Universal deal, the budgets were $2.5 million or $3 million, and these movies were going to be released by this multibillion-dollar machine. But Donna understood that in a way no one else was able to. She was really able to embrace our process, which is very unique.
How is it different?
The artists get so much more power and so much more say. And when you give them power, they want your notes; it's not a fight. They get final cut. It's fundamentally a very different way to make commercial movies. And one of the reasons I really wanted to do Halloween was [to say]: "Let's put the Blumhouse system into a big, proven IP. Let's see if I can implement our creative system on a franchise and see what the result is going to be."
Miramax had the Halloween rights. Was it a complicated deal?
It was massively complicated. The franchise had been around for 40 years so the chain of title was extraordinarily complicated. Also, I didn't want to do the movie unless John Carpenter was going to do it [as an executive producer], so I had to get him involved. In Hollywood, there's a real tradition: You have a hit horror movie, you fire everyone involved who made the hit and then you hire new people who are much cheaper and continue the titles. That's why horror sequels suck mostly. So I had a 15-minute meeting with John and he was very skeptical. And at the end of the meeting I said: "John, I'm not going to do this movie without you. But this movie is definitely going to get made, whether either of us does it. So why don't we jump in together and try to make it good?"
Did you have a natural affinity for horror or was it that when Paranormal came to you, you became the guy?
Definitely the latter. I wasn't a crazy horror fanatic. But I now love horror movies more than any other kind of movie. The key to a successful horror film is not the horror, it's not the scares, it's not the blood. It's the story. It's the key to any good movie: the story and the drama. I always say to our filmmakers, "If you take out the genre moments, do you have a story that would play and win the Sundance Film Festival?" Because our movies are actually independent movies draped in genre. I don’t say, "Would it be a blockbuster at the Cineplex?" I say, "Does it feel like it's a great independent movie?"
Why was Get Out such a success?
Because of everything I'm saying. It was very Hitchcockian; the story telling was excellent. One of the great advantages of low budgets is, instead of saying, "In order for us to greenlight this movie it has to feel like these three other movies," it's the opposite. In order for us to greenlight a movie, it should feel like nothing we've ever seen before. That's why I do low budget, because it's low risk. I don't do low budgets because of big profits. I could actually make a lot of money making expensive movies. I choose not to because I think it stifles creativity. There are five movie makers where that doesn't apply — Jim Cameron, Spielberg. But if you're not in that anointed group, the way to do what you want to do is to lower your budget.
You changed the ending. In the original, the hero gets taken away by the police; in the final version, he emerges triumphant. As a producer, how did you bring that about?
We test-screened the movie and I loved it. But I said to Jordan, "You know, you did too good a job to do this to the audience. Everyone is on Daniel Kaluuya’s side. You just beat the shit out of the audience, you can't then let him wind up in jail." This was me and him right outside the screening. And, of course, I pitched some end which was awful and then Jordan came up with the end that's in the movie. We as a company are kind of good at identifying problems and then we let the filmmakers solve them.
How involved are you with each of your projects?
There are multiple creative executives here, but we're all talking to each other all the time and then the [other executives] generally communicate with the filmmakers. I do it on the bigger picture, but on a daily basis the filmmakers are interacting with the people in our company. It's totally different than Netflix; it's not "Here's your money, bring us back the thing." It's "Here's your money; we are here, we specialize in this one thing," and as a result it's extraordinarily collaborative. Not to say there aren't arguments, and at times it can be pretty — I'm not shy. [Internally] I do have veto power, but I rarely exert it.
You're an unconventional figure in Hollywood, and yet you ran to be a governor of the Academy. Why?
It's the great counterbalance to money in entertainment, particularly in movies. It's Hollywood's best-kept secret that money is only a part of the decision-making. There is another part. There is a desire in executives and people who run studios — all of them, some admit it, some don't — [to make quality]. And one of the biggest forces driving that is the Academy Awards. The Academy keeps the businesspeople in Hollywood focused on art.
Given this, you must have been against the idea of creating a favorite-picture Oscar.
It's good for the Academy to be open to change. I'm not sure if that's the right change, but I think change for the Academy is good.
What makes a great producer?
The main thing is not to be a frustrated writer-director and not to feel that you have to meddle. The great producer of our time, I think, is Scott Rudin.
Unlike him, you've veered heavily into television. Why?
I'm trying to build a multimedia company that can service all the outlets that the artists we're partners with want to do. So when Leigh Whannell, who makes Insidious, or James DeMonaco, who makes The Purge, says he wants to make a TV show, I want the structure to be able to do that. But there are fundamental differences between our television and our movie companies. First and foremost, the movie company is built on inexpensive budgets, and the TV company is not. It's not this whole idea of low cost, low risk; it's a much more traditional mode. Sharp Objects, Roger Ailes [an untitled Showtime miniseries based on Gabriel Sherman's book The Loudest Voice in the Room], The Purge, these are all normally budgeted shows. And the lens that we are looking through to decide what we do in TV is definitely broader. The way I like to define it is "dark genre" or "things that scare you." Roger Ailes scares me, Steve Bannon scares me, Sharp Objects is creepy — it's not horror but it's very creepy. It's things that scare us — or anyway, things that scare me.
You’ve said that the movie business is broken but the TV business is the opposite, that it's almost too healthy. Explain.
Low-cost television is not terribly appealing because the television business is so healthy. There's a land grab going on in TV; clearly the way people are consuming television is rapidly changing, and there is a land grab to get as much real estate as possible to eventually feed shows through — a land grab between Netflix and Apple and Amazon and HBO and Showtime and all the networks. And the result is that there is an enormous amount of money being spent on television production, which isn't sustainable. The opposite is true in the movie business. The movie business: the margins are getting tighter and tighter. We keep raising ticket prices; it keeps the box office growing, but it's nothing like TV. In TV, they won't admit this but they're not that focused on how much the show costs; they're focused on how much noise the shows make.
I wonder if you agree with what Spielberg and Lucas said a couple years ago, that this number of tentpoles is not sustainable.
I actually disagree with that. The underpinning of the movie business right now is tentpole event movies and small genre movies. What's contracting is midlevel, from $10 million or $15 million to $80 million. And drama has migrated to TV. Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon and Baz Luhrmann — everyone who would only do theatrical drama 10 years ago, almost every one of them now is doing TV.
Describe the movie and TV business in 10 years.
The golden age that we're living now in TV will be back to movies; the windowing will have finally gotten settled. Windows on most movies will have collapsed or gotten much, much smaller, and as a result the delivery of movies will be much more efficient and I think we'll see a renaissance of the theatrical drama.
Will you then move into that and away from genre?
No. I've never had any luck following the market. That just never worked for me.
A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.