'Happy Death Day' and Why Horror Movies Are Terrifying Hollywood Studios

It's a bizarre turn of events when Hollywood studios get spooked and move the release of their high-profile movies to get out of the way of low-budget horror titles from power players such as Blumhouse or New Line. That sort of protective jockeying is generally reserved for moving out of the way of blockbuster franchises like Star Wars or Avatar.

But with the horror genre dominating the 2017 box office, that's exactly what happened when Universal and Jason Blum's Blumhouse announced in June that Happy Death Day would open Oct. 13 (appropriately enough, Friday the 13th). Paramount subsequently relocated Darren Aronfosky's mother!, starring Jennifer Lawrence, to September, while Universal pushed its Michael Fassbender starrer The Snowman to Oct. 20.

Over the weekend, Happy Death Day — described as Groundhog Day meets Scream — opened to No. 1 with a rousing $26.5 million against a $5 million production budget, the latest win for Blum and Universal following 2017 box-office hits Split and Get Out.

So far, 2017 has been Blumhouse's most successful year to date in terms of box-office grosses. Jordan Peele's microbudgeted Get Out, released in late February, earned $253.1 million worldwide. That includes $175.5 million domestically, more than such tentpoles as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales ($172.6 million) and Kong: Skull Island ($172.6 million). And the profits on low-budget horror can be enormous for any studio, since horror titles cost far less to produce than a film relying on big-name talent or special effects.

The other big winners in this space are New Line and Warner Bros., home of this year's It — the top-grossing horror title of all time at $602 million and counting — and Annabelle: Creation, which has just crossed the $300 million mark globally.

At a time when teens and younger adults often stay away from the multiplex, more than 60 percent of the audience turning out to see Happy Death Day — about a murdered college student who relives the day of her death over and over again until the case is solved — was under the age of 25, helping to explain the pic's success. Conversely, only 20 percent of the audience turning out to see the big-budget Blade Runner 2049 in its second weekend was under the age of 25, according to comScore.

"I think it's the one genre that's not as fun to watch on your phones. For people growing up watching entertainment on small screens, it's not satisfying to do so in this case," Blum said Sunday in an interview with THR.

Blum also said the date was a crucial aspect, and that younger consumers are still enthralled with the superstitions surrounding Friday the 13.

"Horror films have been the brightest spots on the roster in 2017," says box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of comScore. "There had been an insatiable appetite for movies that provide that scary movie experience in the communal environment of the multiplex, and audiences cannot get enough. This is music to the ears of producers who recognize the ongoing allure to moviegoers and, most important to the profit margin, the cost-effectiveness of these films. "

To be sure, the horror craze hasn't stopped some films from falling by the wayside. Sony's recent remake of Flatliners hasn't worked at the box office. Ditto for Aronfosky's mother!, billed as an upscale horror-thriller.

"Speaking to our movie, it's very important to have a high concept," says Blum. "Universal's marketing team really helped us. They got under the hood early on, including changing the title from Half to Death to Happy Death Day. As with any movie, it's about both playability and marketing. Both boxes were checked."

Box-office analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations says Blumhouse mimics other ultra-successful production houses like Pixar and Marvel by carefully crafting its stories and offering up originality.

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