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The overlooked and oft-maligned business of scary movies sprung out of the shadows and into the spotlight this year. While Hollywood can look back at a truly frightening summer — where domestic box office dropped 16 percent compared with 2016 — a series of low-budget, high-concept frighteners including Get Out, Split, Annabelle: Creation and Happy Death Day — delivered critical acclaim and, more importantly, box office.
Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day — a Scream-meets-Groundhog Day slasher film in which a college student gets stuck in a time loop that sees her murdered again and again — opened to $26.5 million (on a $5 million budget), beating out the megabudget Blade Runner 2049 (on a $155 million-plus budget).
Get Out, Jordan Peele’s frightening reckoning with the myth of a post-racial America, has earned $253.1 million worldwide, putting it in studio tentpole territory. The film, about a black college student kidnapped and enslaved by supposedly Obama-loving white liberals, has also a critical smash and is being seriously discussed as a best picture contender for the 2018 Academy Awards.
Elsewhere, David F. Sandberg’s Annabelle: Creation is unlikely to win an Oscar, but the supernatural drama about a scary doll has raked in more than $300 million worldwide.
Then there’s It. New Line and Warner Bros.’ ‘80s-style take on the Stephen King classic about a killer clown living in the sewers has grossed more than $667 million, making it the most successful horror title of all time.
In the corridors of the Loews hotel during AFM, sales companies, packed to the gills with slasher, zombie and found-footage pics, are hoping this horror boom will prove to be a boon for their business. “The market for horror is growing,” says Matteo Rolleri, director of sales and marketing at European-based horror specialist Devilworks. “It’s always been a big part of the business, but you’re seeing it across the market, here at AFM, at Cannes, in Berlin — more and more companies are focusing on horror.”
The appeal of frightening features isn’t hard to understand. For one, they’re cheap. “You can often shoot in one location with a handful of actors,” says Rolleri, whose AFM slate includes Jeremy Lutter’s supernatural horror The Hollow Child and the holiday-themed slasher Red Christmas. “Our movies start from $300,000 up to $1 million on the high end.” At that price point, even a film that only appeals to horror fanboys can make its money back selling directly to VOD. Those fanboys are slavishly devoted and, importantly, live all over the world.
Horror, unlike, say, comedy, translates well across national and linguistic borders. Note the recent success of Jennifer Kent’s Aussie haunted house tale The Babadook or the French cannibal thriller Raw from director Julia Ducournau. Indie filmmakers also can take advantage of the network of international horror and fantasy film fests, like the Fantastic Festival circuit, to raise awareness and build buzz.
Another advantage: The demographics of horror skew young. Those hard-to-please teens and young adults who are staying away from the multiplex can come out in strength for a scary movie. On its opening weekend, more than 60 percent of the audience for Happy Death Day was under 25 years old, compared with less than 20 percent for Blade Runner 2049, according to comScore.
“The young audience is a very strong moviegoing audience if you can get them, because they go to the theater in big groups and go out that first weekend,” says director John Leonetti, whose scary credits include Wish Upon and the first Annabelle. He is now shooting the high-concept feature The Silence starring Stanley Tucci, Kiernan Shipka and Miranda Otto.
Of course, we’ve been here before. The success of Wes Craven’s Scream in 1996 opened the floodgates for a series of self-aware slashers, from Urban Legend to I Know What You Did Last Summer to the Final Destination franchise. James Wan’s Saw (2004) triggered a bloodbath of so-called torture-porn titles, from Hostel to The Human Centipede. And Paranormal Activity and REC launched a thousand, mostly horrible, shaky-camera, found-footage frighteners. All these trends came and went, with a few innovative films followed by a flood of copycats that saturated the market and drove audiences away.
The difference this time, says Rolleri, is quality. “These new horror films are just much better movies, with better stories and stronger characters,” he says. “They set the bar higher for young filmmakers. You are seeing it now. The quality of scripts, of projects, coming in has increased dramatically.”
Horror, for the moment at least, isn’t just about the scares, it’s about the story. Jason Blum, whose company Blumhouse produced Get Out, Split and Happy Death Day, has put the story at the center of his business model by giving his horror directors full creative control as long as they stick to a tight budget (typically less than $5 million).
Blum also has led the way in embracing themes that frighten mainstream Hollywood, like racism (Get Out), politics (The Purge: Election Year) and sexuality (Mudbound director Dee Rees has signed on with Blumhouse to do a horror film about black lesbians in rural America). When these films work, they play both to critics, who embrace the boundary-crossing concepts, and to audiences just out for a good scare.
“The most avant-garde, the most transgressive work in cinema right now is being done in horror,” says Italian auteur Luca Guadagnino, explaining why he’s following up Call Me by Your Name, a critically acclaimed gay coming-of-age drama, with a remake of Dario Argento’s horror classic Suspiria starring Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Dakota Johnson and Chloe Grace Moretz. That cast points to another development in horror: It’s not just for no-names anymore. Split stars A-lister James McAvoy. Annabelle: Creation features acclaimed Australian actors Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto. Ethan Hawke and Game of Thrones actress Lena Headey headlined the first Purge movie. (Hawke also starred in Blumhouse’s 2012 thriller Sinister.)
“This new group of horror films are dramas first, and that’s what appeals to actors,” says Leonetti. “They know that they can do something that is classy enough — but will also be entertaining enough to reach a wide audience.”
One thing is certain: Horror, for better or worse, has gone mainstream. The phenomenal success of It has revealed a global appetite for fare usually reserved for Pixar animation and Marvel superheroes. “With the right project, you can appeal far beyond the fanboys,” says veteran producer Ed Pressman, who recently greenlighted a big-budget reboot of The Crow after decades in development. “Horror isn’t a niche genre anymore.”
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