Langley said that one collaboration between the studio and Blum, Joe Johnston's thriller "Not Safe for Work" with Max Minghella, will in fact bypass theaters and instead debut on video-on-demand platforms at some unspecified date.

"Some of my movies work, and some of them don't," Blum said. "I want to be able to say to the studio, 'We missed, let's go to VOD.'"

PHOTOS: Billion-dollar movie club

To improve his odds, the 44-year-old Blum doesn't hire first-time directors; DeMonaco, 43, helmed the crime drama "Staten Island," which also starred Hawke, four years ago. DeMonaco was then teamed with experienced producers Andrew Form and Brad Fuller (2010's "A Nightmare on Elm Street"), a cinematographer (Jacques Jouffret, a camera operator on the "Transformer" movies) and an editor (Peter Gvozdas, an assistant editor on "Pain & Gain") from Michael Bay's production company, Platinum Dunes, which shares screen credit with Blum's Blumhouse Productions.

Despite the promise of creative autonomy, not everyone is initially thrilled working for wages a few steps up from pulling lattes at Starbucks. Yet because Blum operates independent of Universal, talent agents can't call Langley and ask for more money for their actors or other clients.

DeMonaco said that he originally thought he needed about $10 million to film "The Purge" and was hoping he might get as much as $15 million.

Told that his budget with Blum would be about $3 million, the director hesitated.

"I thought I needed a lot more money," said the director, who had developed a serial killer script with Blum years ago that was never made. "I didn't know if it was possible" to make the film at that price, he said. "But it forces you to get very creative and say, 'What do I really need' — you can't waste any time." Counting all credits, "The Purge" isn't even 90 minutes long.

Because the movies are intended to appeal to a definable audience and have so-called "sticky" marketing hooks — concepts that can be described in just a few words that are easily remembered — advertising budgets are a fraction of what they would be for other wide-release movies.

To support "The Purge," Blum screened the movie to a dozen college campuses over two weeks in early May, and at a certain point the online buzz started feeding on itself, with Facebook likes and Twitter mentions surging in recent days. Universal is also promoting the film through traditional means such as billboards, television spots and print ads.

"The concept is very arresting," said Blum. "People want to talk about it. The film gets under their skin."

john.horn@latimes.com