HEAT VISION

How Jason Blum and Jennifer Salke Brought the Blumhouse Experience to Amazon

Black Box with an inset of Jennifer Salke and Jason Blum
Patti Perret / Amazon Studios; Frazer Harrison/Getty Images; Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic
The Blumhouse chief and Amazon Studios boss pull back the curtain on 'Welcome to the Blumhouse.'

Two years and one global pandemic ago, Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke was less than a year into her tenure at the tech giant and Jason Blum had cemented his status as the go-to producer for genre features. Up until this point, Amazon’s original feature slate largely was made up of adult-skewing dramas of the awards season variety and Blumhouse movies found their success in crowded theaters.

“Jason and I very early on got together to take about what we could cook up for Amazon,” says Salke. What they cooked up would become Welcome to the Blumhouse, a series of eight feature films that would be thematically linked and available to stream.

This month, the first four films in the series — The Lie, Black Box, Evil Eye and Nocturne — debuted, with the next four due out in 2021. Salke and Blum talked to The Hollywood Reporter about how suspense and scares work on streaming, focusing on underrepresented filmmakers, and the possible future of the partnership.

How did you land on the number of movies in the series?

Jason Blum: One of the advantages of doing a block of eight movies — there were marketing advantages — but there were also production savings we could achieve by doing them in blocks of four. We had done a less successful series of movies, in my mind, for Hulu [Into the Dark] and I learned from my mistakes on that. One of the things I figured out is how many you can do in a row before you had diminishing returns, and four or five is about the limit. So, that is one of the reasons we came to that number.

Jennifer Salke: For us, it meant that more budget would be on the screen.

Jason, your genre movies have succeeded in the theatrical space. How do you do scares and suspense for streaming?

Blum: The Welcome to the Blumhouse movies are not straight horror movies — they are thrillers and unnerving. When you are doing theatrical, you have to be pretty straight-up horror. One of the reasons I was so excited to do this was [Blumhouse] sees every possible idea for every genre movie out there and there were a lot of them that we liked that we didn’t have an outlet for. And it is great that streaming allows for a little more creative risk-taking and to bend genre a little bit more than theatrical allows for.

Does knowing a movie is going to streaming affect the actual filmmaking?

Blum: It doesn’t affect how you make the movie. It doesn’t affect the team behind the movie. It absolutely affects the choice of script. There are certain beats you have to hit with a theatrical movie. The lane is very narrow that you have to travel down for a theatrical horror movie. The difference here is the material.

How has it been to release these features during the pandemic?

Salke: I know COVID has rendered most people stuck at home and they are spending a lot of time streaming, so for us it has been great to market these movies as a program. We are seeing so much engagement across the globe, in terms of what people’s favorites are from different countries and different places. It has been fun to see a global community of genre fans having conversations about the movies. It has been great seeing our marketing team set up a destination, rather than just one-off films that are hard to get discovered.

Blum: I make things and like to see them go out in the world, and that has been massively handicapped because of how challenged exhibition is. We have had three theatrical movies that have pushed, and I feel really lucky we get to exercise that muscle, we still get to put things out in the world. It is interesting that before streaming this just wouldn’t have happened. Obviously, cable TV existed, but this kind of series is specific to streaming.

How are you tracking audience engagement?

Salke: These films have been a destination for genre fans, but beyond that it was younger, multicultural customers signing up for Prime. For this effort, our goal was to create a social conversation with genre fans over this collection of films. If we weren’t in COVID, we would have done a lot more experiential promotion, like screenings and events. It would have been fun to create a big global marketing event for this suite of films, but I look forward to hopefully do that with the next batch. Hopefully, we aren’t all at home anymore by then.

Where are you monitoring that social engagement?

Salke: We monitor customer feedback, on Prime Video, we monitor social feedback on all of our social channels and we also do testing with audiences. I haven’t seen the full report yet but what I do know is the highlights of where the chatter was, and we would pivot marketing accordingly if we see a title spiking in a certain country.

Blum: Just to be clear, Jen has data. I have, like, feelings. (Laughs.) I said, “This one feels like people are liking it.” Jen has actually facts.

What was the impetus behind having all of Welcome to the Blumhouse movies made by underrepresented filmmakers?

Blum: I think I remember it was Jen’s idea. And I thought it was a spectacular idea because it put a framework around something that we definitely struggle with. Clearly, the makeup of the audience is not represented by our makeup of filmmakers. The audience is less than 50 percent Caucasian and for scary movies — genre movies — it actually skews more female than male. It is nice because it is the right thing to do, but it is great business. The movies and stories are better and more interesting when they are from people who look more like our audience.

Jason, you have talked about the need to work with more female directors. How is this experience going to shape Blumhouse’s search for filmmaking talent going forward?

Blum: I think it has made the work we are doing better. We have a movie coming out tomorrow, The Craft, directed by Zoe Lister-Jones and is a female empowerment movie, which would be hard to do with a man directing. I think what we are doing has improved. Instead of working with one or two women, [we are] working with a substantial group of women. Not just across Welcome to the Blumhouse but also our other businesses.

Amazon’s originals slate is largely made up of adult dramas and dramedies. Do you see the studio investing in more original genre features going forward?

Salke: Definitely, as we expand into really building our younger, multicultural audience, especially. I look forward to our next chapter with Blumhouse to uncover the relatable stories that are authentically told but have genre on top of it. It’s not just straight horror. We are more interested in the psychological, terrifying predicaments that we find characters in. That is the water cooler element for us, as opposed to straight more traditional horror.

Have there been talks about continuing the series? [Editor's note, after this interview was conducted, Amazon and Blumhouse announced four new titles in the series.]

Blum: I would say it is premature for that conversation, but Jen absolutely knows my phone number.

Salke I know Jason is being nice because he doesn’t want me to be on the spot, but it is the time to get into those conversations because we have the next grouping of movies. We really need to look, in the coming months, at what the plan is and how we want to move forward. But, hopefully, yes. I just have to get all of my feelings and data pulled together and take a look at it.

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