It's no surprise that the one-two punch atop this weekend's box office chart was the second weekend of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (with an estimated $41.4 million) and the debut of family cartoon "Rio 2" (estimated at $39.0 million), but the real drama lay in the fate of the No. 3 movie. That was horror film "Oculus," which rode a wave of positive buzz and even critical kudos to a third-place debut estimated at $12.0 million, enough to beat this weekend's other new wide release, Kevin Costner's sports-management dramedy "Draft Day" (No. 4 with an estimated $9.8 million).
Much of the credit for success of "Oculus" will go to producer Jason Blum (whether he deserves it or not), since Blum is by default the leading auteur in horror movies today, even though he doesn't write or direct them. As a producer, he's hit on a formula that turns micro-budgeted horror movies into profitable franchises, including "Paranormal Activity," "Insidious," and "The Purge."
Now, it's no surprise when a Blum-produced movie goes into the black its first weekend by opening with a take that's more than twice what it cost to make. Nor was it a surprise that "Oculus" debuted with an estimated $12.0 million, almost exactly what pundits had predicted.
Still, "Oculus" isn't a conventional Blumhouse Pictures movie, since Blum bought it after it was already made, rather than nurturing it from the script stage, as he usually does. That shift, along with some others that Blum is making, makes us wonder: Is Blum abandoning his successful formula? Has the model run out of gas? And can he succeed outside of his comfort zone?
Blum has become a success by doing something that ought to be easy but isn't. He allows his directors and writers near-complete creative freedom by keeping the budgets to a minimum. (An extreme minimum in the case of "Paranormal Activity," made with a cast of unknowns for just $15,000; the more typical Blum chillfest these days is made for up to $5 million and may contain a recognizable star or two.) He likes horror, he has said, because it's easier to make horror films on the cheap than action films or period dramas. He chooses writers who also direct, so their vision remains consistent from page to screen. His films tend to be high in jolts but low in gore, relying on the power of suggestiveness to make viewers' imaginations do much of the work that's only hinted at on screen. And he tends to make stories about families, creating characters that are easy to identify with so that viewers will be all the more frightened for them once they're placed in peril.
Even though Blum picked up "Oculus" rather than making it in-house, the movie still hews closely to Blum's own blueprint. The director is co-writer Mike Flanagan, a relative unknown who based "Oculus" on one of his own short films and has an ambitious plan for further installments. The stars are genre favorites from TV ("Doctor Who" actress Karen Gillan and "Battlestar Galactica"'s Katee Sackhoff) who are not household names to most moviegoers. The story centers on a family -- specifically, a brother and sister struggling against a supernatural force.
Blum's model sounds simple enough, so why don't more producers follow his lead? A couple reasons. One is that it requires the producer to put a lot of trust in the visions and storytelling skills of indie filmmakers, some of whom are relatively inexperienced. Few producers are willing to cede that much control and trust to untried writers and directors. Second, while his movies may boast a huge ratio of return on their initial investments, we're still talking about just tens of millions of dollars. Blum likes to work with the major Hollywood studios to get as wide a distribution pattern as he can, but those studios would rather be in the blockbuster business; they'd rather spend $150 million to make $450 million than spend $5 million to make $80 million.
Even though Blum's financial risk is always low, he doesn't always score giant profits. This past January's "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones" earned just $32.5 million domestically (though it did much better overseas), suggesting that the well is running dry after five installments of that franchise.
Plus, Blum has been trying to branch out beyond horror, without much success so far. He produced action-comedy "Stretch," which features a name cast (including Blum regular Patrick Wilson, Chris Pine, Ed Helms, and Jessica Alba) and a name director ("The Grey"'s Joe Carnahan), but Universal pulled it from its March 2014 release at the last minute, and no other distributor has picked it up, meaning the movie will probably go straight to video-on-demand or iTunes.
Coming up, in addition to a "Purge" sequel and more of the kind of horror movies that have been his bread and butter, Blum has in the works "The Boy Next Door," a conventional thriller starring an actual movie diva, Jennifer Lopez, and "Jem and the Holograms," a live-action version of the Hasbro-toy-inspired musical cartoon series of the 1980s. It's hard to imagine how Blum could make either of these movies for his customary $5 million or less.
It's not clear if Blum is trying to diversify his portfolio, stretch his creative muscles, or plan his exit strategy from the humbly-budgeted horror business. But the success of "Oculus" suggests that he has more tricks up his sleeve than his history of homemade horror might suggest.
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