Dialogue: Producer Jason Blum Explains How 'Sinister' and 'Paranormal Activity' Beat the Studio System

Dialogue: Producer Jason Blum Explains How 'Sinister' and 'Paranormal Activity' Beat the Studio System

Oct 11, 2012

Jason Blum is one of the biggest names in horror these days and yet most people probably wouldn't even know it. His Blumhouse Productions is responsible for a rising number of genre titles each year, but they're not just about churning out horror movies that come and go. Blum specializes in making great frightfare independently and then selling the films to distributors, and in the last few years alone, he's produced the entire Paranormal Activity franchise, Insidious and Sinister.

It's Sinister, opening in theaters on October 12 and scary as hell, which brings us here today, but we also wanted to chat with Blum about the future of the Paranormal franchise, his new haunted house venture, and his overall production philosophy. Apparently if you hire writers and directors specifically for their talents and then let them do their own thing, they tend to make pretty good movies. Someone should tell Hollywood that.

 

Movies.com: What do you think you're doing right independently that the Hollywood system is doing wrong?

Jason Blum: First, maybe my favorite question of all time. [Laughs] It is something I think about all the time. The first thing is it's not a complicated formula. It's that we do movies really inexpensively, which I learned from Paranormal [Activity], so if the movies work, everyone who works on them profits. And if they don't, everyone doesn't. And the result of that, by making movies inexpensively you can take risks that you can't take with a horror movie that costs $20 million. That's what James Wan did with Insidious, that's what Scott Derrickson did with Sinister, and the more that I've done these, the more I feel like keeping costs down has a bunch of benefits beside simply keeping costs down. That's the core of my business.

Movies.com: Do you think Blumhouse has done so well because you champion director's visions more than the studio system might?

Blum: The company is sort of like a European, auteur-based production company except we make commercial movies. Creatively, the reason Sinister, at least in my humble opinion, succeeds is because Scott and Cargill had a really distinct vision and all I did was let them tell it. All I did was clear the way. I did the same thing for James Wan. I pick out people who I think are really talented in this arena and I kind of fill the parameters they have to work in and let them do what they want to do. It's not super complicated, but that leads to interesting results.

Movies.com: What do you think is the current state of genre film? Is it in decline, is it coming back? And where do you think Blumhouse fits in?

Blum: I think there's a steady demand and a steady audience for good genre movies. It makes for a good story when people say, "Genre's exploding!" or "Genre's dying!" but I think one of the many fun things about horror movies is if you make a good one, chances are very good that people will see it. That's one of the reasons I like the genre. It's a genre that people like to see in a theater with other people. It's a theatrical genre. I don't think it's going one way or another. I think anytime a good one comes out, people go "Oh, man, genre is back!" and when a couple come out that don't hit, people say the opposite, but I think overall the demand for genre stays pretty steady. At least it has since the first Paranormal.

Movies.com: You have an interesting track record of premiering your films at geek-friendly film festivals despite not needing the exposure as they almost always have distributors ahead of time. What's the advantage there?

Blum: I can't comment on other folks, but I can say that I grew up in the '90s working for Bob and Harvey [Weinstein] going to film festivals and doing acquisitions for them. I went to Sundance and Cannes and Toronto and all the rest every year for almost 10 years. Movies are made for the fans. That's fun and exciting to me, and that to me is the greatest way to launch a movie, directly to the fans. So if it's an arthouse type movie, Sundance, or go to Fantastic Fest if it's more genre related. And that's important to our movies, because I sort of came of age through the film festival business.

I've seen that if people feel like if they've discovered the movie for themselves instead of having it pushed on them, the chance for success is much greater. I'm a big believer in that.

Movies.com: For Sinister, what was your first exposure to the film?

Blum: Cargill and Derrickson came into my office and they pitched me the movie, and literally six months later we were in production, and six months after that we were premiering. So pretty much a year from the time it was first pitched the movie was finished. And the movie they pitched, and the movie they wrote, and the movie you saw are pretty much the same. There's a couple scenes that we took out just for pacing issues, but the original vision and the finished movie are very, very close to one another.

Movies.com: What was the most unexpected note you got on the film?

Blum: Again, the budgets are so small that it's not like we shoot a ton and the first cut of the movie is three hours long. I don't think the first cut of the movie was even two hours, I think it might have been an hour forty-five. So we trimmed about 10 minutes out of it, I think. But we did test screen it, and the first time you screen it you never know how they're going to react, but the audience thought it was very scary and reacted very positively, so there were no big changes that we did. It came out of Cargill and Scott's mind and that's what was there. And Scott does have final cut.

Movies.com: Is Blumhouse actively trying to cultivate a stable of filmmakers?

Blum: Yes. There are a lot of people I've worked with that I want to work with again. That is something I'd like to do. I'd like to create a home for genre-loving filmmakers. We don't have options on anyone or anything, each film is always by election.

Movies.com: Switching to the Paranormal franchise, the production window turnaround is very narrow, even by sequel standards. Is the driving force behind that creative or logistical?

Blum: It forces everyone to make gut decisions without a backstop. In TV you have to do the same thing. In movies, rarely do you have release dates rushing at you like that, but it's been the same every year for Paranormal 2, 3 and 4. We start thinking about them in November, December, and we have 10 months to put them together. The great advantage about having those deadlines is there are a lot of people involved in different aspects who are forced to make decisions quickly.

It's kind of like the money conversation we were having. When you have limited resources, it forces you to make certain kind of decisions. And resources can be time or money, so when your time is limited, it also forces you to make decisions. They may be the wrong ones, but at least they're made and they're done. Sometimes we go back and redo them, but I think it can be an advantage.

The first time that we did it, I too was skeptical of the process because it was such a tight schedule to try and get the second movie out within a year of the first movie. But once we did that we kind of developed a rhythm, which we have now, that seems less daunting. Though it is still a trick for sure.

Movies.com: For Paranormal Activity 3 there was a lot of material in the trailer that was never in the movie, almost as if you guys are combining scripting and filming to a degree, shooting experimental ideas, and then figuring it out in the edit. Is that the case?

Blum: Almost. It's not that we shoot a bunch of stuff and then cut, we shoot and cut at the same time. It's funny the reaction, because you are exactly right, however at the time of the trailer, all of those scenes were in the movie at that time. We shoot and cut simultaneously, so we'll look at an hour of the movie in June and say, "Okay, let's keep these seven things, lose these three, and reshoot these five," and that process goes on over the summer. Unlike Sinister, there is a ton of material on the Paranormal movies, and so the movie we have in June may be very different from the movie we have in July, which is very different from the movie we have in August. And that is a product of the process.

Movies.com: Do you have a spin-off plan of releasing, down the line, complete alternate cuts that do contain the lost material?

Blum: Well I think there's more footage on the DVDs of 2 and 3. There's definitely additional scenes, more than most, on the DVDs, so we just do it that way.

Movies.com: What's your endgame for the Paranormal franchise? Do you have a road map of where you want to take future entries?

Blum: No, no, no. We sometimes have the beginning idea by the time we've finished the one we're currently working on, but it's hard to make a good movie that you're working on and be thinking two movies past it. It negatively affects the movie you're working on, so we try not to think about the next, but maybe there will be scenes where we think, "Oh, that'll be good for another one," but there's not a plan for multiple movies beyond 4.

Movies.com: You guys sort of kickstarted the resurgence of found footage, and aside from the miniseries The River, have more or less stayed out of it. Is that a conscious effort?

Blum: No. In general, a found-footage movie is harder to do than a traditional movie. I think for found footage the idea has to be an idea that can't be told any other way. So if I'm talking to a director and they say, "I can do this found footage or I can do it traditional," I'll encourage them to do it traditionally. Shooting a movie found footage causes more problems than it solves. It's very practical, it's not a creative thing. It seems like it would be easier, but it's much harder to do it well. That's a whole other interview, but if it's even a question, you shouldn't do it found footage.

Movies.com: This is your first year doing Blumhouse of Horrors, right?

Blum: It is. Save for a few exceptions, we shoot almost all of our movies in L.A., and we use the same crews over and over, so a lot of the people who worked on Insidious are working on the haunted house. And the difference between our haunted houses and other haunted houses is that we attacked it like a movie. I get production schedule e-mails to me every morning. We built it entirely with movie people and movie crews, and I think it's going to be really cool.

Movies.com: Was it conceived wholly for the event or was this a movie idea at some point?

Blum: No, I always wanted to do a haunted house that told a story and wasn't just a bunch of jump scares. So the story wasn't a movie, but it was conceived when we found the space. It's this really cool building in downtown L.A., and it just inspired us. I knew we wanted a story, I just didn't know what story until we found the space.

Movies.com: Do you see these sort of unique exhibition events becoming something you want to get more involved in, or could even bring to other cities?

Blum: I really love the genre, and I like doing things in all mediums, so the haunted house is just an extension of that.

Movies.com: Do you have any other specific projects in the works?

Blum: The three I'm most focused on are the three that are immediately coming out: Sinister, Paranormal 4 and the haunted house. There are certainly more projects, some that will come together, some that might not, but those three have all my focus right now.

 

Follow along on Twitter: @PeterSHall and @Moviesdotcom.

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