The Horror Of Blind Faith

I’m in the demographic sweet spot where I actually remember the rash of films that hit big screens during the 1970s with the primary intention of scaring the bejeezus out of you,  I actually went to the movies to see the first iterations of what would eventually become massive franchises, such as HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY the 13TH and CARRIE.   Respectfully, horror isn’t my personal favorite genre, but I did find it to be remarkably effective in getting a girl to be scared enough to want to hug me as some gory event unfolded.  And any help I could get then at having actual human contact was also welcomed.

And yes, I saw THE EXORCIST when it hit theatres a half-century ago.  It was based on a best-selling novel by William Peter Blatty that I actually read from cover to cover. Its haunting piano-heavy theme TUBULAR BELLS became a hit, so much so that our junior high school orchestra demanded to include it in our graduation ceremony performance (we had a really good pianist in our midst; fortunately for a violinist like myself, the strings are largely muted).  And, of course, it redefined grossness, and one’s appetite for pea soup, in its own inimitable way.

But unlike many of the other titles I’ve referenced above, there was never an established appetite for more of THE EXORCIST.  Its own 1977 theatrical sequel was described by Wikipedia as one of the worst films ever made.  A third installment, with 13 years separation to remove some of the stench of the second, was modestly received.  A 2016-17 TV series came and went in one year.

So how the heck did this franchise find a way to convince Universal to pony up $400 million for a three-pronged resurrection in conjunction with its golden anniversary?

Because, once again, Jason Blum has an uncanny way of conning people into believing he’s worth it.

Jason Blum has built a brand and an industry around the celebration of horror movies.  As FORTUNE’s Devin Gordon detailed in a recent profile of him, he has created an entire system around his passion and, typically, his ability to produce with remarkable efficiency and admirable tenacity:

Blum founded Blumhouse Productions in 2000, and after a humbling decade before his first breakthrough success (2009’s PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, which he turned the $15,000 found-footage thriller from 2009 that everyone told him was worthless, into a $890 million global theatrical franchise) he spent the next decade making global box office hits (The Purge, Insidious, The Invisible Man, M3GAN) for little more than the catering costs on a Marvel movie. He mixes it up with tense thrillers (BlacKKKlansman, Whiplash) that collect Oscar nominations without even trying. 

In Hollywood, Blum’s company is renowned for its low-cost, high-reward “Blumhouse system” of moviemaking, the core of which is a simple proposition: To keep budgets down—which used to mean $5 million to $8 million back in the Insidious days and now means more like $10 million to $12 million—the creative principals work for the minimum required by union contracts (known in the industry as “scale”) in exchange for bonuses and back-end profits based on the film’s performance. The bigger the profits, the bigger the bonus.  

But in 2018 Blumhouse veered from that plan when he was able to breathe new life into HALLOWEEN.  He was able to convince the film’s most identifiable personality Jamie Lee Curtis to come back, and got the blessing of creator John Carpenter.  He also was being a good corporate soldier, as Blumhouse has been housed at Universal and they owned the IP.  The results were staggering:  In the case of THE EXORCIST, the rights needed to be purchased from Morgan Creek Entertainment, and a three-picture commitment was mandatory.  But since the HALLOWEEN reboot earned $259 million from a reported $10M budget, and spanwed two subsequent sequels with strong results, Blum’s sales pitch had some teeth.  Blum sold the promise of THE EXORCIST following a similarly reverent approach.  Ellen Burstyn was convinced to reprise her Chris MacNeil role for the first time since the original movie. (Linda Blair, who was part of the poorly received earlier sequels, has a cameo).  The same creative team behind HALLOWEEN was attached to THE EXORCIST, including well-liked director David Gordon Green, was attached.   With the support of now-chairperson Donna Langley behind him, he was able to convince Comcast to pony up the money.

Except all that was true about HALLOWEEN–which had spawned TEN prior sequels and a title that literally defines what is now a cottage industry for media in the month of October–is NOT true about THE EXORCIST.  And even when it moved its release date up a week from Friday the 13th to avoid a collision with the direct-to-theatre Taylor Swift concert film, giving them pretty much a clear runway, its receoption was, at best, tepid.  Per the ASSOCIATED PRESS’ Andrew Dalton:

The Exorcist: Believer” drove out all foes at the box office, but its numbers didn’t entirely make heads spin.

Facing competition from no major new releases, the latest resurrection of the demonic franchise brought in $27.2 million in North America in its opening weekend for Universal Pictures and Blumhouse Productions, according to studio estimates Sunday.

That was more than the weekend take of the next three films combined. But while it nearly earned back its reported budget of $30 million in just a few days, the take for “The Exorcist: Believer” was underwhelming after the two companies paid $400 million in 2021 for the rights to a new trilogy.

Blum himself was reportedly behind the last-minute pivot, though he initially was supportive of a potential EXORSWIFT alliance, especially on the heels of the surprising synergy that BARBENHEIMER achieved this past summer.  As he related to COLLIDER’s Chris McPherson:

“The one thing that scares me to death is Taylor Swift! We had this amazing Friday the 13th in October, which is the single best day to release a scary movie. Obviously, we moved off that [date] and we bowed our head to Taylor Swift,” Blum says. “It was too risky to see if ‘Exorswift’ was going to take or not. People will still have the Exorswift opportunity, so maybe we got to have our cake and eat it too.”

Well, perhaps not.  As DEADLINE’s Anthony D’Alessandro unloaded, the reaction that many who did see BELIEVER had was, well, right up there with Regan’s pea soup indigestion:

In the heat of the deal, what execs at Uni didn’t realize was that Exorcist isn’t Halloween. Sequels to the late 1973 William Friedkin directed-scariest movie ever in cinema never lived up to the original critically or commercially — this one at 23% with reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes.

Even with the potential of doing a day-and-day PVOD availability on Peacock, as D’Alessandro reminded helped the ultimate return for Universal on the HALLOWEEN sequels, it’s hard to foresee a similar strategy having much chance for acceptance given this tepid response.  Indeed, he further illustrated that the social media conversation, as measured by RelishMix, was particularly incendiary: “Why re-paint the Mona Lisa of Horror?”

To his credit, Blum is a student of research, a champion of Screen Engine’s Kevin Goetz and can spin data as well as anyone.  But in the hands of a master pitchman, data can also be weaponized to convince people willing to believe a good salesman that he can work miracles.  I know this personally.

In 2014 Blum personally came to Game Show Network to sell executives on the concept of a budget-friendly horror-themed reality competition called HELLEVATOR.  The original concept portended to have three contestants ride a haunted elevator through an abandoned slaughterhouse.  Blum’s mere presence in our offices caused a stir.  This is how Forman accurately describes him:

He’s a fit 54, an avid triathlete, and handsome in a rakish 1980s Michael Douglas kind of way, with blue-tinted glasses and thick, wavy salt-and-pepper hair combed straight back.  Blum appears to have it all. Three adorable kids, 8, 5, and 2. A screenwriter wife, Lauren Schuker Blum (whose own movie, the buzzy indie comedy Dumb Money, came out in September). An eponymous company clicking on all cylinders. He has built a reputation as a kind of Warren Buffett of horror flicks: He buys cheap upfront and cashes in spectacularly later.

He had my team at Hell-0.  Anywhere who dared question the genius of being in bed with Blumhouse was ostracized and castigated.  I know,  I wasn’t around for the production nor the premiere

But even Blumhouse System budgets were beyond the GSN budget.  There never WAS an elevator.  It was produced by dressing and redressing a soundstage and using a prop elevator, much like the ones used in sitcoms set in office buildings.  Yes, even that audience could tell the difference.  The premiere opened up to 503,000 viewer, roughly half the audience that THE AMERICAN BIBLE CHALLENGE had three years earlier, and went south after tbat,  It was actually renewed for what turned out to be a four-episode second season “event”, built, of course, around Halloween.  With what little restraint I am capable of, I’ll let you look up how it did.

So I, for one, am not surprised that Jason Blum wasn’t able to breathe appropriate life into a franchise that, frankly, fired its best shot with the original.  You can only promise so much before you begin to believe your own B.S.

But just when one may think Blum may be on the way to being humbled, think again.  He and Universal have a Plan B, as Forman continued:

The next Blumhouse/Universal production, and also very possibly its next billion-dollar franchise, opens in theaters on Oct. 27, just in time for Halloween: Five Nights at Freddy’s

Based on the cult video game of the same name, Five Nights at Freddy’s, or FNaF (“fnaff”), as fans call it, takes place in a dilapidated restaurant arcade for kids (think Chuck E. Cheese) where a quartet of creepy animatronic robots (think Teddy Ruxpin) come alive at night and slaughter anyone stupid enough to go inside. The video game title produced five sequels before its creator, Scott Cawthorn, pulled the plug.

Now THAT excites me.  Something never seen on the big screen, with a built-in fan base.  And, as Forman concluded, he may not even need someone like me, anyway:

The movie is expensive by Blumhouse standards, north of $20 million, a big chunk of which went to Jim Henson Studios for the animatronics. 

But Blum is already out way ahead before the movie even opens: He declines to share precise figures, but he says the film has more than made back its production costs just from the sale of its streaming and theatrical distribution rights. 

In other words, it almost doesn’t matter how good the film is. (It looks great.) Five Nights at Freddy’s is going to be a hit.

So, perhaps: FIVE NIGHTS AT ERAS?  Bring it on.  We’ve endured far more horrible things than that.

Until next time…





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