Low-Budget Horror Rules Summer Box Office (Analysis)

Warner Bros. Pictures
"The Conjuring"

Costing a mere $20 million to make, "The Conjuring" debuts to $41.5 million -- more than $100 million-plus tentpoles "R.I.P.D.," "Pacific Rim," "The Lone Ranger," "White House Down" and "After Earth."

The horror genre is making unprecedented gains at the 2013 summer box office, a playtime historically ruled by all-audience tentpoles.

This past weekend, New Line and Warner Bros.' low-budget The Conjuring scared up a $41.5 million opening, far more than anyone anticipated and more than three times the dismal $12.8 million debut of Universal's big-budget tentpole R.I.P.D., which cost at least $130 million to make and stars Ryan Reynolds opposite Jeff Bridges. It also left Red 2, which opened to $18.5 million, in the dust.

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The Conjuring came in ahead of the openings for recent summer tentpoles Pacific Rim ($37.2 million), The Lone Ranger ($29.2 million), After Earth ($27.5 million) and White House Down ($24.0 million).

Directed by Saw maestro James Wan and costing only $20 million to produce, The Conjuring follows the success of Universal's The Purge, which opened to No. 1 over the June 7-9 weekend, grossing $34.1 million and besting big-studio comedy The Internship, which debuted to $17.4 million.

Generally speaking, horror pics avoid the heart of summer, preferring the August corridor and other times of the year, such as Halloween.

This unspoken rule could change with the success of The Conjuring and The Purge, which respectively boast the top openings of all time for an original R-rated horror movie and guarantee sizeable profits for their respective studios.

Based on a true story, The Conjuring stars Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as paranormal investigators who help a family terrorized by a dark force. Lily Taylor and Ron Livingston also star in the movie, which received an A- CinemaScore from moviegoers, a rarity for a horror film, and generally strong reviews.

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One reason for the success of horror this summer could be females turned off by action fare. Teenage girls and younger women are huge fans of the horror genre. Overall, females made up 53 percent of those buying tickets to see The Conjuring.

"It was a bold move for us to go right in the middle of summer. It's very significant," says Jeff Goldstein, WB's executive vp domestic distribution. "Its success shows that fresh material attracts the audience in a big way. The real-life aspect of this movie makes it look very cool, and it scares the stuffing out of you."

The Purge, produced by Jason Blum of Paranormal Activity and Insidious fame, cost just $3 million to make. It has earned $64.1 million domestically and $12.3 million so far internationally for a total $76.4 million.

While designed as an all-audience tentpole, Brad Pitt zombie epic World War Z also is benefiting from the heightened interest in horror. The summer title has grossed north of $456 million to date.

Earlier this year, Universal's horror pic Mama was another win for the genre, opening to $32.1 million and trouncing the favored front-runner, Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe action-thriller Broken City.