Film Fund-amentals: The Fear Factor

These days, we all have plenty of things out there to scare us (which may explain why election day comes right after Halloween). It may also explain the mysterious vanishing act that the horror genre has seemingly performed at the box office through most of 2010.

Sure, Paranormal Activity 2 has just opened strong during the past weekend. In fact, its $41.5 million opening was great (OK, it still didn’t top the previous weekend opening of Jackass 3D, but who can compete with the masters of disaster?). But undoubtedly the film has now peaked, and the real question is how Paramount intends to handle the DVD release.

The rest of the horror pack during 2010 has pretty much bombed. Sure, you expect an excessively expensive movie (budget of around $150 million) like The Wolfman to go howling alone into the night. But even a basic name brand like A Nightmare on Elm Street had to work hard to take in its $63 million US gross. This coming weekend will see the release of Saw 3D (or Saw VII or Saw 3D: The Traps Come Alive or whatever its final title will be), but most of the business buzz is a debate about whether or not the series has finally ran its course.

In many regards, the basic business model represented by horror movies has stayed remarkably unchanged. Most of the films come in at around $10 to $15 million in production budget and, with decent release, stand to make about $40 to $50 million in theatrical release. Not much more and not much less. A decent, steady return on a low investment. Occasionally a horror flick will do even better (such as the original Paranormal Activity or an international name brand like any of the Resident Evil films). But basically, the genre rolls along at a stable clip.

The only thing on the way out is originality. Most of the currently successful horror films are either sequels to established brands or retreads of various old series. As noted, the recent repackaging of Wes Craven’s old masterpiece A Nightmare on Elm Street did OK. But Craven’s own production of My Soul to Take barely crawled its way to $14 million in the US market, which is a grim reminder that the genre has never had much use for the director auteur theory (and Craven is about as close to a horror auteur as you can get). It is also proof that the genre has become very unforgiving toward anything resembling new ideas (unless you can attach Stephenie Meyer‘s name to the title).

In itself, the current odd predicament of the horror genre is of no major concern. Well, except maybe for the odd fact that the genre has long been the single most reliable money maker in the whole indie movie trade. As long as the budget was kept low and the gore achieved a perfectly respectable R rating, you could maintain a good, if basic, return at the box office. Nothing speculator but totally solid. Virtually no other genre provided that kind of easy financial security.

But now, who knows? The core financial model sort of still works, but it is also changing. For some titles, the profit level has actually shot through the roof. For many other horror movies, it has dropped to the low end of the model. Either way, the cozy days of reliability seem to be fading. Like everything else in the contemporary movie business, something is changing, and what that will mean is still extremely unclear.

The horror genre is still more stable than many other models. The porn industry – always the dark commercial side of the indie trade – is basically kaput due to the double whammy of AIDS and easy access via the internet to amateur material (despite the legacy of Radley Metzger, porn movies have never been into that auteur thing either). Romantic comedies remain a high-risk venture, and for every two dozen films made, only one stands a chance of actually doing any business (and most of 2010 has been a box office graveyard for the genre). Though the teenage sex comedy was once a business rival to the horror film (and actually the two forms were strangely related), it has pretty much vanished from the screen (both The Hangover and Hot Tub Time Machine could be more aptly described as aging slacker sex comedies).

The only other genre that equals (and even tops) the horror field is what can be best described as indie off-beat mystery/thrillers (e.g. Winter’s Bone and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). However, this type of movie actually requires some talent, whereas the basic horror film is a lot more flexible (yeah, I know, a good horror movie requires talent, but let’s be honest, a lot of them are not that well made, and traditionally that has rarely been a problem with the core box office). But the mystery/thriller genre has more of a high risk factor, especially since it is much more demanding both in terms of direction and script (and to be honest, you need some decent actors as well – people who can do more than run and scream).

So the horror film is still the safest bet in basic indie filmmaking. But the bet is no longer that safe.