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JASON BLUM - The Reigning King Of Horror Is Coming Up With New Stuff To Be Scared Of

Posted By Chris Green, Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Jason Blum is not a sit-still-for-the-interview type of guy. He’ll hang out on his couch for a bit, but it’s never too long before he’s up again, grabbing a glass of water, playing with some of the eclectically macabre knickknacks (e.g. a giant glass eye; a prop severed leg) scattered around his office, even just absently stalking around, as though being on his feet makes it easier to answer questions. There’s nothing jittery or frenetic about him, more like a steady slow burn, some kind of internal furnace that never quite shuts off.

That energy has plenty of outlets. At the time of this interview, the producer was preparing for the release of Halloween—at a rough count the seventh theatrically released feature film of 2018 to carry his “Produced By” credit. Add to that his six TV series or mini-series, three true docu-series, a 10-part scripted podcast and two documentary features, and you can see why the guy might be inclined to stay on his feet. From this vantage, it looks fair to call 2018 Blum’s busiest year as a producer—but not by a lot. Ever since his 2009 breakout hit Paranormal Activity, a furious pace of production has been the norm for the producer and his eponymous production company Blumhouse.

Blumhouse itself, a labyrinthine warren of offices situated on a decidedly non-gentrified stretch of Beverly Blvd, suggests some explanation for how the company is able to churn out so much product. Making one’s way through the building means passing through room after room teeming with young staffers, each space bigger and busier than the last; the layout is a disorienting puzzle box that wouldn’t be out of place in the company’s own eerie cinematic output. The other essential element is scale; Blum has a model that works, powered by the twin engines of low budgets and creative freedom. In his ability to crank out low-cost genre pictures beloved by young audiences, he recalls no one so much as 20th century impresario Roger Corman.

Unlike that progenitor, Blum has developed what one might call a modest sideline in producing Oscar-level independent films. Tucked into Blumhouse’s scare-heavy slates of the last few years, you’ll find contemporary indie landmarks like Whiplash, Get Out and this year’s BlackkKlansman. Imagine if Corman took a moment out from producing movies like The Wild Angels and Blood Bath to release The Graduate and Five Easy Pieces, and you get some idea of what Jason Blum has managed to pull off. The final product of all that work has been the emergence of that rarity of rarities: a legitimate name-brand producer. Only a handful of producers can claim a true popular following, and Blum is part of that select group. The man may have built Blumhouse for himself, but it turns out there’s room for a few million other movie freaks inside. Maybe you’re one of them.

So, how did you find your way into the industry?

My parents were both in the art world. I was always interested in art and drawn towards art. But even when I was very young, I always thought the art world was kind of … elitist. And it is. To fully appreciate art—certainly modern and contemporary art—you have to be somewhat versed in the history of art. That always bothered me a little.

Movies are art for the masses. So I wanted to be in movies. I didn’t know what aspect, but I was interested in movies and TV, from a young age. The first movie I did, when I was right out of college, was Noah Baumbach’s first movie, Kicking and Screaming.


How did you come across Noah’s script?

We were roommates at Vassar and then we were roommates again in Chicago. Initially it was called Fifth Year. We had always made jokes about how we could either fail or come up with some other scheme so we could put off adulthood an extra year. It was about trying to squeeze another year out of college.


So how did you put together the money for that? Did Noah just give you the script, like, “here, you do it”?

We didn’t know what we were doing. Linklater had just done Slacker and Spike Lee had just done She’s Gotta Have It. Metropolitan had just come out. It was this rebirth of these low-budget independent movies. And we were naïve enough to think, “If they made theirs, why can’t we make ours?” We had a list on the wall of basically every single person we’d ever come in contact with who was in entertainment. Over the course of two or three years, we sent them the script in an envelope. We’d get a little traction, here or there, and three years later, Trimark Pictures gave us the money for the movie.


Clearly, Kicking and Screaming was satisfying enough for you to keep trying to make movies. But the types of movies that you’ve gone on to do are not a whole lot like Kicking and Screaming. Noah’s trajectory is a little clearer from that origin point.

It makes sense, yeah. [laughs]


But you took a pretty sharp left turn.

A very sharp left turn. I never really found my place in entertainment until I was about 35, until we did Paranormal Activity. I was very unsure. I was unsure if I should be an executive or a producer. I was unsure if I should produce big movies or little movies. I felt very confident I had found the right field but much less confident in what my job would be in that field. So I did Noah’s movie, and then I was a distributor. I worked for this little company called Arrow. I worked for Miramax. I didn’t ever want to be an executive, long-term. Then I produced movies on my own. I produced eight indie-type movies. The best known was Hysterical Blindness, which Uma Thurman won a Golden Globe for. But the other ones were small and not very good.

I wasn’t satisfied. I couldn’t find the right job for me. What Paranormal Activity did was kind of coalesce 15 years of experience, half in the studio world and half in the independent world—because what I ultimately came to realize over the course of 15 years was I wanted to make independent movies and have studios release them. I didn’t like making studio movies, and I didn’t like independent film distribution.



I wanted to make movies that a lot of people saw, but I wanted to make the movies my way. Blumhouse is a lot more today, but it was all built off this idea of making independent movies that studios would release. That’s still the core of our movie business.

So were you always a horror fan from way back?

No I wasn’t. Growing up I really loved all kinds of movies. I didn’t specifically love horror, but I have the traits of a horror fan. I was always weird. I loved Halloween. I loved dressing up. I’m kind of an odd guy. [laughs] But I have an enormous amount in common with horror fans and horror filmmakers, despite the fact that I wasn’t a horror film fanatic. So when we did Paranormal, I discovered this whole world I didn’t know much about. And I loved it and I’ve never wanted to leave it.


So what was the nature of your introduction into that world?

My introduction into that world was a producer named Steven Schneider. My first deal after I became an independent producer was at HBO, and my second deal was at Paramount. A year into that Paramount deal, I met this producer, Steven Schneider, who had written a couple of books about horror and attacked the genre from an intellectual point of view. He’s an executive producer of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies with me, he’s an executive producer on Glass. And he’s the one who really taught me about horror and got me to appreciate it in a very different way.


Could you distill that in any way for me? Like, what are the intellectual underpinnings of that approach?

Well you think about what constitutes a scare. There’s an enormous amount of art that goes into it. I mean, there’s a certain amount of good horror movies and there are a lot of bad horror movies. I think people who don’t understand horror tend to think, “Aw, it’s just a quick way to make money.” And it isn’t. I could name 15 horror movies over the last 12 months that fell flat on their faces. It’s just as hard to make a good horror movie as it is to make a good comedy, as it is to make a good drama. It’s hard to make a good movie, period. Steven really helped me appreciate that. The horror community is very close. It’s a tight-knit group of people, and Steven was very tapped into it. He knew all the writers and the directors of horror movies at the time, and he opened up that world for me.


What, for you, creates the distinction between a good horror movie and a bad horror movie? Or a good scare and a …? Is there such thing as a bad scare?

There’s a lot of bad scares.


Yeah, like, break that down for me.

John Carpenter always talks about this. A good horror movie is not about the scares. It’s about the storytelling in between the scares. People who don’t know that much about horror tend to focus on scares. They say, “I need 10 good scares.” The truth is, there are only really about 30 basic kinds of scares—like a deer hitting the windshield. You’ve seen that a million times. But it’s super effective in Get Out, because of the conversation that Daniel and Allison are having before the deer hits the window. They’re having this very charged conversation about race. Watching it, you’re getting tense. Then when the deer hits the window, you jump. What I always tell our filmmakers is, “If you take out all the scares, would it work as a great drama?” That’s one of the ways that we look at our movies.

Jason Blum (right) with (from left) Get Out cast members Allison Williams and Daniel Kaluuya, and
writer/director Jordan Peele. Photo by Alex J. Berliner/ABImages


That’s really interesting. So Paranormal Activity is the movie that really launched the company, where everything came together in a way that felt satisfying and productive.

Yeah. But it took three years for Paranormal Activity to be released. And as I went through that process, it occurred to me even before we made Insidious, “Hey this makes sense. This is what I want to do.” Now after Paranormal, there was a lot of—I wouldn’t say “pressure”—but a lot of people gave me the advice that I should now go produce a big movie, I should try and make World War Z or something like that. Not that I had the opportunity to make World War Z, but you get the idea.



And I resisted that. Now I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my career. But one of the smarter things I did was I resisted that advice and said, “You know what? I finally got this movie that worked. I’m going to do another low-budget scary movie. Let’s see if I can turn this one movie into a business.” And so, rather than succumbing to ego and being tempted to do more expensive movies—which I think is one of the pitfalls of Hollywood—I was disciplined to stay the course and continue. We did Paranormal. We did Insidious. We did Sinister. We did The Purge. All very low-budget movies.

By the time we’d done The Purge, people began to suspect, “Maybe there’s something to this. Maybe he didn’t get lucky four times in a row.” But it wasn’t really until The Purge that people thought it was a real business and not just some sequence of magic tricks.


Blum shares a moment with cast member and horror icon
Lin Shaye at a special screening of
Insidious: The Last Key.
Photo by Alex J. Berliner/ABImages

So today, as a producer, as a guy who’s putting together a team to make this kind of movie, what are you looking for? What kind of script is going to work for you at what level? What kind of personnel are you looking for? What are the ingredients of the recipe?

One of the many advantages of doing low-budget movies is that we have the luxury of picking movies the opposite way studios pick movies. Studios have to look for comps. They have to look for three movies that feel like the movie that they’re greenlighting, that were released in the last five years, and that were successful. And then people ask, “Why do movies these days feel the same?” Blumhouse movies aren’t different because we’re smarter than everyone else. It’s just by the nature of taking smaller bets on movies, we can choose movies the opposite way.

First, obviously: Do we like it? Of course. I think that’s the same as at a studio. Everyone has got to like it. Second: Does it feel new? Does it feel nothing like any movie we’ve ever seen? We get to do that because it’s little. The budget is low. Get Out is the perfect example. No one had ever read anything like it. We like it. We greenlight it. That’s how we choose our movies. If I was working at a studio, I could never do that. I’d have to have comps. That’s why I’m not tempted by doing bigger-budget movies. I really love doing low-budget movies because of the risk-taking and the creative freedom it allows us.


And so in terms of executing a quality low-budget movie, when you’re looking for collaborators, who or what are you looking for?

Obviously it’s different with each project. We put enormous amount of emphasis on the directors. I know that sounds obvious, but I honestly don’t think that’s typical of Hollywood. Meaning, I think there’s a certain kind of studio movie where the directors feel … I wouldn’t go so far as to say “interchangeable,” but close. The practice of plucking a director from the great movie at Sundance and hiring them to steer an $80 million movie speaks to that a little bit. We almost never work with first-time directors. And we give our directors more creative control. I mean you can’t not pay someone upfront and then tell them what to do. We’re telling them, “Look, you’re going to bet on yourself.” But when I say “bet on yourself” I mean it. You get final cut. You get creative control. So I always say, “I can’t promise you a hit, but I can promise you’re going to live or die on your own work.”

I think one of the most frustrating things as a filmmaker is working for a studio and kind of having to do what the studio tells you to do. Then when the movie doesn’t work, you get blamed. Blumhouse is kind of an antidote to that.

So that’s one answer. We choose our directors … I wouldn’t say “carefully,” because I think everyone chooses their directors carefully. We choose our directors differently. We’re not as focused on the director’s last movie as the rest of Hollywood is. If your last movie wasn’t so good, I don’t care—if the one before that was great. I think there’s a lot of emphasis on your last movie in Hollywood. That’s never made a lot of sense to me. In fact if the director’s last movie wasn’t financially or critically as successful as he or she hoped it would be, they’re usually more open, they’re more collaborative, they’re hungrier.


They’ve got something
to prove.

Yeah, that’s a very attractive trait for me, personally. It also helps when your financial interests are aligned from the get-go. We don’t have a producing fee on our movies. The directors make scale. The actors make scale. It’s fully transparent. If the movie works, you’re participating in the profit of the movie, and you’re going to get paid or even paid very well. If the movie doesn’t work, you’re not. Or if the movie doesn’t get a wide release, you’re not going to. That’s a great asset in the collaborative process, to be able to tell the director, “Hey, you could make this creative choice. We think that’s going to make the movie less commercial. And if you want the movie to be less commercial, it can be. But we think the choice is less commercial, and here’s why.” If the director isn’t getting a big check up front, their ears perk up. That doesn’t always mean that they want to make it more commercial or want to make it less commercial. But it’s a very different thought process when you only get paid if it works commercially as opposed to getting paid up front.

I always thought that was a really tricky thing. It’s another one of the reasons why I’m uneasy with big-budget movies. I always feel like a hypocrite if I disagree with the studio, but we’ve already been paid “x amount” of millions of dollars and they’re already in the hole “x amount” of tens of millions of dollars. By its very nature, that financial situation sets up a weird dynamic in making creative decisions, since one person has already been paid and the other hasn’t. It really drives a wedge into the process, because if you’ve already been paid, all that’s at stake for you is critical success.



As a studio, if you’re $60 million, $80 million in the hole, you’re not thinking about critical success. You’re thinking about getting your $80 million back, first and foremost, and then making a profit. If you don’t keep doing that, you don’t stay in business. So that, again, is something I appreciate about doing low-budget movies, how it aligns financial interests.


Yeah. I never thought of it quite that way.

I mean, how can you feel good about collecting a check for $2 million if the movie didn’t work? I don’t have the hubris to say, “I think the movie should make this potentially controversial choice,” when I’ve been paid a million dollars. If we haven’t been paid, I’m much more comfortable saying, “Hey I really think this is the way to go.” That way if I’m wrong, I’m not getting paid either. So I’m aligned with my filmmaker, and I’m aligned with my financier. I think it leads to a healthier kind of conversation.

When the filmmakers know that they have greater control, the process becomes infinitely more collaborative. Because they’re not scared to ask for advice, or ask an opinion, or ask who we think they should cast, or what we think of the script, or what we think of the cut … because they don’t feel obligated to take our advice. So what I find is we have much, much more creative input into all of our movies, more than most companies, because the director isn’t scrambling for control or fighting for his or her way. The director knows they’re going to get their way. When you know you’re going to get your way, then the best idea really does win, because control is never at stake in the nature of the decision.


So thinking on the other side of the equation, in terms of navigating the studio system and being a good partner to your studio, how did that relationship evolve for you? It feels like between you and Universal, you have a very tight understanding. But that doesn’t just happen on its own. How did you nurture that?

Well Donna [Langley] really believed in us. She doesn’t like horror movies, but she really understood our business, and she allowed me early on to do my thing. That’s much easier said than done. It took an enormous amount of faith on her part. In the early days, it was just her. I remember when we were doing The Purge … it was before we even shot the movie, and Universal bought a script kind of like it. I was very nervous about it, and I called up Donna and she said, “Don’t worry. I’ve got my eye on you.” She set the tone and I guess she made me feel safe. She treated me like I treat our filmmakers.


Blum with cast member Anya Taylor-Joy at the screening of
Split at AFI Fest. Photo by Alex J. Berliner/ABImages. 

That’s a great analogy.

Yeah she made me feel free and safe. Once, about a year into the relationship, she called me up and she said, “I can tell you’re having trouble navigating the studio. You’re hearing different things from different people.” And she said, “I don’t want you to worry about it. You’re doing a great job. I’m aware that it’s a different situation than you’ve had before. But I’ve got my eye on you. Don’t worry. Keep doing your thing.”

That set a very, very strong foundation for the relationship, and here we are, 30 movies later. It’s the best example of what a business partnership can be. It really works. It doesn’t mean we don’t have arguments, but they’re very healthy. I see where they’re coming from, and they see where I’m coming from, and they always resolve them in the right way. A big part of the success of our business is based on Universal not just looking at one movie at a time from us, but looking at a longer corporate relationship between Blumhouse and the studio.

Think about The Purge. The Purge is now on TV. The franchise has grown with every movie. That could never happen unless there was a very long, trusting partnership between the two companies.


Can we talk a little bit about franchises? On some level, “the franchise” is kind of the brass ring that everyone is looking to grab. Blumhouse has developed a pretty enviable record for generating franchises. I want to ask, “How have you engineered that?” but I don’t even know if “engineered” is the right word.

Well I think one of the things I’m very specific about is not engineering it. Again I go back to low budgets. If you’re making a $100 million movie and it’s based on a book, you’d be fired if you weren’t thinking about what movies two and three were going to be. But at our level, when a filmmaker comes in and pitches and says, “I’ve got a great idea for a franchise,” I almost shut down. Because what I’m thinking is, “Do you have any idea how hard it is to make a $5 million movie that competes with $65 million movies head-to-head?” The constraints that the budget is going to put on you, that’s enough constraints. Don’t put storytelling constraints on top of that. Don’t think about the second movie. Make the first movie great. If the first one resonates, we’ll figure out a second one.

It’s a mistake people will make, particularly in horror, because again, people think horror movies are easy to make. The reason there are so many bad horror sequels is because people always fire the folks who wrote and directed the first movie. They hire cheaper people to do the next movie, and then they wonder why the franchise goes downhill.

The way that we attack a sequel, any movie with a “2” or more after it, is totally different than how we approach the original. We spend a little bit more money, because it’s proven IP. I’m adamant that you must involve the people who were involved in the original movie. We just did Halloween. This was the 11th Halloween, but it was the first Blumhouse Halloween. When we went out with Halloween, we went everywhere. We shopped everywhere, and we heard “Why do you want to make another movie out of this? This is the 11th one.” I mean people couldn’t have been less interested in it.

But I really wanted to see if we could impose our very unique system on IP that’s been around for 40 years and has churned out 10 movies. On Rotten Tomatoes, the only “fresh” rated Halloween is the first one. So in a funny way, that was the challenge: Can we make not only a commercial sequel, but can we make one that fans love, that critics like, that captures the uniqueness of the first movie? The only reason this franchise has gone on for so long is because of how resonant that first movie was. So I chased the rights. And when I finally made an agreement with Miramax to co-produce the movie with them, the one caveat I had is that I wasn’t going to do it without John Carpenter. Look, at some point, the 11th Halloween movie would have gotten made without us or John Carpenter. But I think the reason the movie did work with critics is because John was involved from the very beginning. That doesn’t mean he was involved in every decision day-to-day. But his presence loomed very large. David Gordon Green is not going to make a move that John Carpenter doesn’t think is good. So the premise of the sequel, everything about it, John blessed. And if he didn’t bless it, we weren’t going to do it.


so how do you balance giving the audience enough of what they’re expecting or find familiar, versus giving them something new, something extra, something different?

Well that’s the key question with every creative decision in a sequel: Are you retreading? Are you copying yourself? You don’t want to make it so similar that it feels like a rip-off. And you don’t want to make it so different that it feels like it has nothing to do with the previous movies. So you have to really walk a fine line there. Honestly I think the biggest way you do it is by keeping the first people involved so the sequels have their flavor. I mean the great creative concoction of Halloween was taking, as EPs, John and Jamie [Lee Curtis], who were the voice of the original Halloween and combining them with David Gordon Green and Danny McBride, who are the voice of something else, a younger generation.

The way that we were able to walk the line in Halloween was combining those four people. When you put those four people together, you’re going to get exactly what you described. You’re going to get something that feels totally new and something that feels like Halloween.

At the same time, you’ve developed a bit of a sideline in non-horror indie movies. Whiplash is maybe the prime example that comes to mind. How do those projects fit into the Blumhouse picture?

Yeah. Whiplash is one. For sure BlacKkKlansman for this year. With our TV company, we’re doing a show about Roger Ailes. We’re doing a show on Steve Bannon. The future of Blumhouse, to me, is expanding the process by which we determine what we’re going to do beyond just doing horror, but doing things that scare us or things that scare me. Roger Ailes is scary to me. Steve Bannon is scary to me. If you ask, “What’s the scariest thing to you?” as a guy making horror movies in the world right now, I would say Donald Trump. After all when you look at Whiplash, there’s an argument to be made that JK Simmons is a lot scarier than Michael Myers, right?



And there’s nothing scarier in the United States, I don’t think, than the Ku Klux Klan. That’s where BlacKkKlansman comes from. So it’s a matter of broadening that lens through which we look at material. Right now about 80% to 90% of what we do on the movie side is straight horror, but only about 20% of what we do on the television side is horror.


What’s behind that distinction?

There’s only so much real estate with horror movies. The market can only take 12 to 15 horror movies a year ... period, by everybody. I’m interested in doing other low-budget movies. I’m not particularly interested in doing bigger-budget movies. So if I want to expand, then clearly the way to expand is television. We started doing TV about seven years ago. I made a ton of mistakes. I was doing it all wrong. But I’ve learned an enormous amount. We started our in-house TV studio 18 months ago. Ever since we took that step, it’s felt like it’s been working much better. It’s been a lot more fun.


You say you made a lot of mistakes … anything you can bring yourself to share?

It’s easy to share. I was a non-writing EP for hire in TV. That, for me, was not a creatively and professionally satisfying role. I didn’t have any control. On our movies, we control everything. And if we go over budget, we pay for it. It’s our problem.



We have the physical production here. We have post-production. We have communications, business affairs and legal. We’re like a mini studio when it comes to movies.

With TV someone else was doing all that stuff. It felt like we were just kind of cheerleaders. I felt like I was being treated like an adult in movies and like a kid in TV.



So I made a choice two and a half years ago to go out and raise a bunch of money—well really a tiny bit of money, but a bunch for a little company like us—to get into TV on our own terms. We have no network affiliation. We have no first-look on TV. The capital we raised allows us to bring all that production activity inside.

So now, in TV, we run the shows ourselves. We run The Purge on USA. We run Into the Dark on Hulu. We run Sacred Lives, which we’re doing on Facebook. And all of these shows have been ordered for a second season. Right now, we’re running production on our Roger Ailes/Russell Crowe limited series for Showtime. I finally feel like I’m doing the same thing in TV that I’ve been doing in movies. I didn’t feel like I was doing that before.


Obviously you’re doing a lot of different things. There are very few companies that are as wildly prolific as you and Blumhouse are. Lots of producers would love to release that much content. How do you manage to find the time or the bandwidth to generate all that material?

Well I think one of the big advantages I have is that I’m not a frustrated writer or director, right? [laughs] I think a common stumbling block for younger producers is that they feel like they haven’t played an important role in a project if they’re not directly impacting or changing the creative direction.

I have many shortcomings, but that desire is not one of them. If something is working, I’m very happy to have helped put it together and stay out of the way and say, “You did a great job.” I don’t feel the need to tinker when I’ve got something that’s really working. On the other hand, I tinker a lot if something isn’t going right. But if something is going well, I leave it alone. So I think that helps me get a lot done.

We also have an amazing group of senior executives who’ve been here a long time. Four or five people have been here close to 10 years. And I believe in treating our executives like we treat our filmmakers. If they’re passionate about something, unless I think it’s the biggest mistake in the world, I’m supportive of letting them run with things. That’s how we did Whiplash. Whiplash was totally a passion project of Couper Samuelson. I didn’t get the script. I really didn’t get it. But Couper just believed in it so much. And I really believe in Couper. So I bet on people. I bet on the executives who work here like I bet on our directors. They would have ideas that I would think were outlandish, but I believe in their work, so I’d go along with them. And more often than not, they’re right and I’m wrong. So that helps us. We’re able to make a lot for those reasons.


Right. Just to wrap it up and go kind of “big picture”, since you’ve both implicitly and explicitly put politics into your work and you alluded to it here, I’m curious. in this unusual historical moment, what’s the responsibility, if anything, of the entertainment producer as a citizen?

I think that responsibility does exist. A producer has a louder megaphone than most. I think that if you believe in community, it doesn’t matter if you’re Republican or Democrat or whatever. Republicans think that a certain set of things makes the world a better place. I happen to think that there’s a different set of things that makes the world a better place. I think that you have a role, as a producer, to do what you think makes the world a better place. I personally think Trump is not making the world a better place, so I put a lot of energy into trying to make other people think that too. People might say that’s misguided. But I think that it’s important, if you’re a producer, to not just monetize content or push to win Oscars. I think you owe the world that’s allowing you to have this great, amazing job, to give back in some way. I do that with our storytelling. I do that through serving on boards of institutions I believe in. I’m on the board of The Public. I think that’s a really, really important organization to foster new, young talent. I’m on the board of the Academy Museum, because I think the Academy is the great counter-force to money in moviemaking. The Academy pushed Hollywood to veer towards more artistic, less commercial choices. I’m on the board of Vassar College because I believe in need-blind education. So I don’t think you have to be anti-Trump as a producer, but I think you should look beyond the pure storytelling role to try to use your platform to give back to the world.

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