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Jason Blum: How to succeed in the microbudget movie business

By Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune reporter

10:32 AM EDT, June 6, 2013

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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.

Q: But if the movie doesn't make money, the actors and director can't be pleased if they're not getting paid for their efforts.

All those movies that go to Sundance, it works the same way — the famous people work for free and they get the back end. But with those films, they have a 1 in 50 shot at seeing back end. A pilot is 1 in 10. And I'm 1 in 2.

Q: It seems like this model is best suited for horror movies because you don't need a complicated shoot or a big cast. You don't need expensive CGI. You can scare people with good editing and loud sound effects.

A: You're totally right. I'm going to reverse-engineer this for you. I don't ever say I'm looking for horror — I'm looking for low budget, wide-release movies. How do I define that? Well, the head of marketing at any studio is looking for the same thing: When they read the script, they want to say, "I know what the poster is, I know that the trailer is, I know what the TV spot is." In other words, "Can I release this movie wide?" So it has to be a high concept.

On the low budget side: No too many locations. Not too long. Not too many speaking parts. Super simple. When you combine that (with the studio's marketing metrics), 80 percent of the time it's going to be a horror movie. It doesn't always have to be.

But it doesn't work for everything. Like, it could never work with comedy.

Q: How come?

A: We actually tried one and it didn't work (2012's "The Babymakers" directed by Jay Chandrasekhar which made less than $8,000). I think about this endlessly. In the last 10 years, what comedy under $5 million has been widely released? "Napoleon Dynamite" — total anomaly, a complete outlier. Never repeated again.

Q: And that was more of a quirky comedy than a mainstream comedy.

A: Right. And a movie that has a commercial studio comedy feel, but it's low budget? It doesn't exist. My feeling is, those movies don't work without massive movie stars. I think there are 10 super famous comedians that need to anchor those movies to get people to go and to really enjoy those movies.

But I think my model will also work for, we tried an erotic thriller with (director) Catherine Hardwicke ("Plush," which has not yet been released), and I think it can work with a thriller. What it definitively does not work for is comedy or drama. A $3 million drama is not getting a release.

Q: The quintessential Sundance indie.

A: Right, exactly.

What we're doing is really fun and really creatively satisfying for me. It allows me and the filmmakers that I work with to try weird stuff in commercial moviemaking. People try weird stuff in independent moviemaking all the time, but the American public — me being part of it — has complaints about the studios churning out all the same stuff, all the time. I'd like to think the movies we make at the very least are not that.

I'm 44 years old. I spent 10 years doing independent movies that nobody saw. I worked for Miramax from 1995-2000. And from 2000 to 2004 or 2005 I produced eight movies — seven of which you've never heard of. Probably all eight, unless you saw "Hysterical Blindness." Did you ever see that? No.

Q: Yes! It was an HBO film.

A: OK, so you saw one. But I got really frustrated with making movies that no one saw.

It's easy to get a theatrical release that shows in one theater for a week. But there's no advertising, and no one sees the movie. It's hard to get a real theatrical release. The distribution of independent films is, to me, extraordinarily frustrating.

And then I did make my one big studio movie. I made "The Tooth Fairy" for Fox, a $60 million goofy, silly family movie — and I hated the experience of producing that movie. I thought it would be my dream to produce expensive movies. And it was awful. Awful! Because everything I just described goes away, and that's not particular to Fox. It's what happens when you're producing big movies with other people's money.

Q: And you're able to keep everyone's ego in check?

A: Here's what I saw on the big movie that I did: Everyone can pretend that you're great and you're a family, but that's not actually true if one person is standing eight feet from you making $10 million dollars — so, what is that, $10,000 an hour? — and you're (on the crew) making $25, which is good by normal standards. Everyone can pretend that they're all great friends, but I think that's very corrosive to the creative process. That's another reason why I'm not a fan of big-budget filmmaking. It twists everyone's head. People pretend it doesn't, but I think it does.

nmetz@tribune.com | @NinaMetzNews