If you're a movie studio with money to burn, summer is bonfire time.
Almost every week there's a new $200-million-plus production — Warner Bros.' "Man of Steel" and Paramount's "World War Z" are the next budget-busters — and it costs almost $100 million more to market such films. All of which makes Universal Pictures' "The Purge," a dystopian thriller costing a little more than $3 million — with an ad campaign just above $20 million — look like Jonah among so many whales.
Art-house studios typically sprinkle the season with low-budget titles that debut in a handful of cities, yet rarely does a major studio throw such a modest movie into wide release smack dab in the year's most competitive months. Next week's raunchy comedy "This Is the End," for example, cost $32.5 million — far less than the Superman reboot, for sure, but 10 times the price tag of "The Purge."
But Universal and "Purge" producer Jason Blum believe there's a financial and creative model for productions as inexpensive as theirs, and they hope the movie could become one of the season's more notable surprises. Social media traffic and audience tracking surveys suggest the film, opening late Thursday, could gross as much as $25 million in its debut weekend.
"We probably cost less than the catering budgets on every movie surrounding us. Seriously," said the film's writer and director, James DeMonaco, who has screenplay credits on "Assault on Precinct 13" and "The Negotiator." "I don't know what to feel — some of the time it's totally terrifying. But it's kind of cool that we're being released in the middle of the summer."
"The Purge" is an R-rated tale set in the near future; society has managed to eliminate crime 364 days per year by allowing the public one night of prosecution-free blood lust. Ethan Hawke stars as a suburban father whose security systems are designed to protect his family and neighbors from the government-sanctioned lawlessness, where everything — up to and including murder — is encouraged.
When his young son decides to shelter a homeless man being chased by some local residents, his pursuers lay siege to the home, quickly proving the fortifications somewhat less than reliable. The family must hold off the intruders until dawn, when the mayhem moratorium is reinstated.
"The Purge" is the first collaboration between Universal and Blum, who also was a producer on "Paranormal Activity," "Insidious" and "Sinister." Under a three-year deal announced in 2011, Blum has wide creative leeway to deliver genre movies costing $4 million or less.
Shot in 20 quick days in Chatsworth (with a couple of extra days for reshoots) last year, "The Purge" was made for a fraction of the typical Hollywood budget largely because almost everybody was paid the minimum amount allowed by Hollywood's unions. In return for working on the cheap, they will get a bigger payday if the film performs well. On the film's set, there were no cushy trailers for stars to cool their heels in — empty bedrooms doubled for dressing and makeup rooms — and no entourages or perks. "Your trailer looks like mine, and I don't get one," Blum tells the creative talent when they sign up.
"Everybody above the line basically works for free," said Blum, referring to the actors and top filmmaking talent. "And when you work for free, you get total creative control."
Universal had some input in casting and created the film's marketing materials, but Blum and DeMonaco weren't subjected to endless script notes and executives didn't scrutinize the film's daily footage, the way most studio productions are supervised. In a way, Blum said, that loose oversight creates a more collegial atmosphere because you're not afraid of the studio, or of losing control of the production.
When "The Purge" was completed, Blum screened it for test audiences before he showed it to the studio. The previews suggested that Hawke's character wasn't quite likable enough, so DeMonaco cut a few lines of dialogue about how some victims of violence deserved their fate. He also decided he needed to add back a scene he'd scrapped for budget reasons showing Hawke more forcefully defending his family.
Universal executives liked the finished film so much they decided to schedule "The Purge" opposite Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson's comedy "The Internship," a 20th Century Fox film that cost about $58 million.
Donna Langley, Universal's co-chairman, said the deal with Blum was launched because the studio wanted to get back in the genre business, and at a low cost. While the studio was behind classic horror titles such as "Frankenstein" and "Dracula," its more contemporary efforts within the realm were mostly unsuccessful, including flops with "The Wolfman" in 2010 and "The Thing" in 2011.
"We were looking for someone with a strong expertise in the thriller and horror genre," Langley said. She said the studio is so attentive to maintaining its franchises ("Fast & Furious 6"), comedies ("Ted 2" is in development), animated movies ("Despicable Me 2" arrives July 3) and new big-budget endeavors (at year's end, "47 Ronin") that the studio doesn't have the "bandwidth" to focus on low-budget fright flicks.
Some of Blum's most recent films have recorded huge returns on investment. Made for about $15,000, the first "Paranormal Activity" in 2009 grossed more than $193 million worldwide; 2011's "Insidious," produced for about $1.5 million, grossed $97 million globally; and last year's "Sinister," budgeted at $3 million, grossed more than $77 million (sequels to all three films are in the works).
Part of Blum's pitch to Universal is that because the movies are so cheap, the studio isn't obligated to release them theatrically — they can go straight to DVD or VOD if executives wish. That can save millions in marketing expenses if the studio isn't convinced the film will do well at the box office. Because Universal has guaranteed video and television distribution deals around the world, the studio can basically break even if the movie never makes it to the multiplex.