Producer Jason Blum Talks 'Sinister' & The 'Paranormal Activity' Recipe For Success
Jason Blum had produced a dozen projects before he hit upon 2007's sleeper phenomenon Paranormal Activity, a micro-indie horror pic with no stars that in turn became the model for Blumhouse Productions, his own genre-leaning multimedia label. Fast forward just five years and Paranormal Activity 4 is set to continue the series' low-budget thrills (with webcam technology!) next week, while the Blum-produced Sinister, about a writer (Ethan Hawke) contending with a house haunted by insidious forces, opens today. (For a third new venture, The Blumhouse of Horrors, Blum & Co. take over a historic theater in downtown Los Angeles. More info here.)
Movieline caught up with the man behind many of the most profitable — and cost-effective — horror hits in recent memory for a peek behind the curtain: What's the Blum secret to success?
What was it that first interested you in Sinister, these filmmakers, and this story – and given your past horror projects, how do you think it fits into your portfolio?
I’m super happy with the movie. I think it works because very simply [writer C. Robert] Cargill and [director Scott Derrickson] did a terrific job on it. They first pitched it to me a year and a half ago and the movie they first described to me in my office and the movie you’ll see are very close, they’re virtually the same thing. All I did was give these guys the creative freedom to make what they wanted to make.
Your name has been so closely associated with the Paranormal Activity franchise and its success – how do you feel about being known for these particular films?
I love genre movies. I’ve made a handful of other ones in addition to the Paranormal movies, and my favorite thing about what Paranormal allowed our company to do is that the company is based on this idea of betting on yourself. That’s what Oren Peli did on Paranormal Activity, that’s what James Wan did on Insidious, and that’s what Scott and Cargill did on Sinister. It’s given birth to all these movies and I’m really pleased that our company is associated with them. I’m really interested in genre, but I’m also doing TV shows and a haunted house in L.A. Having Paranormal and it allowing my company to expand in all things genre, I feel really lucky.
Has the Paranormal franchise gotten a bad rap, a reputation it doesn’t deserve? It’s been so successful and the more these sequels charge on the more complaints you hear about found footage, or sequel fever, and all that.
I’m sort of proud of the way the franchise has evolved. We’ve taken directors with very specific visions – Kip Williams was a real art house director and Henry and Rel who did 3 and 4 did Catfish. All the directors of the sequels of Paranormal, none of them had ever done genre movies before. And not that we would do that or not do that specifically going forward, but I feel that’s kept it fresh.
The way each sequel has built on what’s come before and evolved the mythology has been fresh, but how much can you keep innovating? How much more difficult does it then become to find a new angle for the next one?
The cool thing about Paranormal is now we have a real built-in mythology, of the demon and the family that the demon has upset, so it allows for a lot of places to go. And obviously technology changes so fast, so found footage can shift.
Paranormal Activity 4 uses Skype webchat technology, which is new to movies – but it was also used recently in V/H/S.
I did see that in V/H/S.
It’s an interesting coincidence, that both of these films picked up on that same emerging technology at the same time.
Sure. And I think I’ve seen it in some other movies too. I think because Skype is becoming so much more prevalent and you’re looking at someone else on a screen it’s going to work its way into movies and TV shows in all different ways, which I think is really cool.
Where do you go from there? In this franchise alone you’ve gone through film, video, home movies, now Skype – are cell phone cameras and iPads and the rearview camera on my Prius next?
I hope so! I think surveillance, and cameras are so prevalent everywhere that it allows for different possibilities for found footage. I wish I could see the future but I can’t, but I do think that cameras are everywhere now, and they’re so inexpensive. That’s a great thing. I read an interview where someone said “It’s a shame that anyone can make a movie now” and I feel the exact opposite. It’s much less cost-prohibitive… and to answer your question, that will allow Paranormal hopefully to grow and be different each time out.
You came across Paranormal Activity early on, and that was a case in which the film was almost curated and then brought into the mainstream consciousness. The idea of discovering a micro-budget independent film and having that platform to bring it to audiences, is that a formula that’s easy to replicate — and is that even your plan at this stage?
A hundred percent. I saw Paranormal as a rough cut, but I felt my job on Paranormal and my job on Sinister weren’t wildly different. I’m proud of Sinister because Scott and Cargill did a great job on the movie and I set up a framework for them to make what they wanted to make. They gave me the idea and I figured out how to get it out into the world. Oren did the same thing. I don’t have any aspirations to be a writer or director; I really like identifying a story or a pitch, whether it’s a script or a rough cut of a movie that resonates with me, and trying to get it out into the world. That’s what our company does and that’s what, personally, I’m passionate about. That’s kind of our mission.
This is a big question, but: What is the state of horror cinema now, in your eyes? The realm of independent horror and studio-released mainstream horror are divided, with independent original stories balancing against studio-released sequels and remakes. Where do you feel you stand in the grand scheme of it all?
I feel the state of horror cinema is the same as it’s been for the last ten or 20 years. When there’s a great horror movie, people are like, “Horror’s back!” And when there’s a series of not so good ones, “Horror’s dead.” I think it’s all about the quality. When there are one or two good horror movies in a row, people come out interested again. I think our company’s specific role is that we straddle both of those worlds. We make all of our movies independently - with the exception of the sequels of Paranormal – but Sinister, Insidious, and the first Paranormal Activity were made completely outside of the studio system but then distribution is through the studio system. Paranormal Activity was the model for what my company does, from that experience. For me, and I can’t speak to other people, it’s the best of both worlds. We get to make these movies with the director’s vision and a singular vision, and to me that’s the definition of an independently made film – it’s one person’s vision. The movies that our company is involved with have the director’s vision, and then we get the great benefit of studio distribution – which no one has figured out a way to compete with. Maybe in five years someone will but at the moment it’s virtually impossible to compete with the studios in terms of distribution.
You've used the word "independent" to describe your films, but when I think of indie horror I think of the You’re Next and V/H/S filmmakers. They seem to be in a separate camp within the world of indie horror, while you tend to bring in directors from outside the genre community and work with studios. Do you see that as a distinct separation?
From a consumer’s point of view I don’t think there’s a separation. You’re Next is going to come out wide from Lionsgate. I loved the movie, I think it’s a terrific movie. I think it’s a very commercial movie. It’s going to be released by a studio and was made independently, so I don’t think from a consumer’s perspective it’s radically different from the movies we’re doing. You have identified something; we tend to work with directors who have a few movies under their belt.
You’re opening a haunted house attraction in L.A. – The Blumhouse of Horrors. Where did that concept come from?
It’s a great extension of what we’re doing in movies and TV – almost all of our movies shoot in L.A. and we work with the same crews, so we approached the haunted house as if it was a movie production. We got a big crew of people who’ve been prepping for about as long as it takes to prep a movie and we took over a building in downtown L.A. It’s going to be a really cool live experience that’s scary, and hopefully great.
That sounds like a clever extension of horror culture, taking it off the screen. But horror cinema has been going increasingly meta in recent years – look at Cabin in the Woods, for example – and it already feels like the serpent is eating its tail. What happens after horror comes all the way full circle ?
Boy, I wish I had the answer to that. I just love that people are into it and I’m just really passionate about exploring all different media to scare people, whether it’s a haunted house or a reality show or a scripted show or a movie, it’s a really fun, creative place to be playing in. But what eventually happens… your guess is as good as mine.