A couple years ago the agent-turned-producer Gavin Polone ("Zombieland") detailed just how excessive movie star perks can be. Not only are actors paid a salary, he noted in a piece for Vulture, but add-ons often include private jet travel and luxury cars provided for the actor and his or her family, elaborate trailers on set, $2,000 monthly cellphone reimbursement (someone needs to get a better mobile plan) plus fees and first-class accommodations for assistants, personal trainers, chefs, security and any other friends of the actor lucky enough to get folded into the deal.
"I've heard of perk packages exceeding $2 million for one actor on one film," Polone wrote. "That may be a small percentage of the $20 million that that actor was probably paid to do the movie, but none of that money is translated into what the audience sees."
Actress Zoe Saldana confirmed as much to the International Herald Tribune recently: "When it comes to certain blockbuster movies, the budget is healthier, so there are a lot of perks."
"We don't have any of that," Jason Blum said when I sat down with him last month in Chicago. Blum is the producer who got "Paranormal Activity" into theaters in 2009 after seeing an early rough cut of the film — headed straight for DVD at the time — and decided it had big potential. Shot for roughly $15,000, the movie grossed nearly $200 million worldwide. Its success and its formula — low-budget; mass appeal — radically changed the way Blum approached moviemaking.
"The Purge" is his latest project, set in the near future when murder and mayhem is permitted one day a year, starring Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey ("Game of Thrones") and 15-year-old Max Burkholder ("Parenthood").
"You know how on movie sets there are specific chairs for each person?" he said. "I hate that. We don't have names on our chairs. We have five chairs. Anyone can sit on them. I think the idea of names on chairs on a set is terrible. It's so dumb. So we got rid of that."
He got rid of a lot of other things, too — like actor salaries — and in the process has devised a model he said is far more likely to be personally satisfying and financially rewarding.
He has the track record to prove it. "Insidious" (released in 2010, with Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) made close to $100 million. "Sinister" (from 2012, also starring Hawke) grossed about $78 million. And the subsequent "Paranormal Activity" sequels (the fifth of which is currently in pre-production) have all made between $140 million and $207 million at the box office. Blum is putting his money where his mouth is.
The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: OK, explain how this works.
A: Most people who've had a big hit movie like "Paranormal Activity," the next thing they say is, "I want to make a $100 million movie." I have no interest in making more expensive movies.
We're probably the only company in Hollywood (Blumhouse Productions) that is 50 percent independent, 50 percent studio. Our movies are all low budget — they're all made for under $5 million — but they are very commercial. For me, that's a great challenge to get a movie like that released on 3,000 screens.
But the great thing about continuing to do movies at this budget is that we get total creative freedom. So (writer/director) Scott Derrickson had final cut on "Sinister" —
Q: In a way he might not on a $20 million film?
A: Not might not, definitely would not. So it's a very European, auteur filmmaker system that we have. Except they're not movies for Sundance. We make movies for the cineplex. They're designed for wide release. They're designed to be seen by a lot of people and eventually make money.
Look, I could make more money producing $100 million movies than I do making my smaller movies.
Q: Because why?
A: Well, we take no fees (salary) in the budget.
Everybody we've worked with in the past — Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Keri Russell, Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey — everyone works for the same fee as me, which is zero. The director's are paid DGA (union) scale, whatever the lowest amount is, and everyone works for back end (a percentage of the film's profits).
That's my model. The only way you make these movies inexpensively is if the above-the-line (actors, producers and director) is next to nothing. And the only way to do that is, I gotta say that I work for free — then the actors work for free and the director (works for scale). So no one feels like they're getting cheated.