Horror maestro Jason Blum on scares in the age of austerity

Blum's career-defining -- and life-changing -- moment came when he saw an early cut of "Paranormal Activity," which had been put together for $15,000 (AFP Photo/FREDERIC J. BROWN) (AFP)

Los Angeles (AFP) - Call most people cheap and you might expect a slap in the face, but horror filmmaking legend Jason Blum wears his parsimony like a badge of honor.

From "Paranormal Activity' in 2007 to this year's critically-acclaimed "Get Out," the 48-year-old producer has made many of the defining horror films of the last decade -- always on a shoestring.

Paying actors peanuts, but working with studios that ensure that his films get worldwide distribution, he has recouped some $3 billion at the box office from a portfolio made for less than a twentieth of that amount.

"The most important part to making a successful low-budget horror movie is the story and acting has to be great. Not the scares -- the scares are less important than the story and the acting," he tells AFP.

By cutting budgets down to the bare bones -- typically $5 million for an original movie and $10 million for a sequel -- Blum has redefined genre filmmaking.

Of his most recent work, Jordan Peele's "Get Out," M Night Shyamalan's "Split," James DeMonaco's "The Purge: Election Year" and Mike Flanagan's "Ouija: Origin of Evil" have grossed $664 million on a combined budget of $27.5 million.

An executive working for Harvey and Bob Weinstein at Miramax, Blum was briefly an independent producer at Warner Brothers before striking out on his own with Blumhouse Productions in 2000.

"I was frustrated at Miramax just because I always wanted to be my own boss. I really wanted my own company. I left, I started my own company," he says.

"I made seven movies no one ever saw and that was frustrating for a different reason."

- Life-changing -

Blum's career-defining -- and life-changing -- moment came when he saw an early cut of "Paranormal Activity," which had been put together for $15,000.

When no one else would touch it, he saw its potential and came on board as a producer, steering it to a worldwide gross $193 million and making it the most profitable movie of all time.

He analyzed the success of the film and realized he had a revolutionary formula that he has since repeated over dozens of low-cost titles including the "Insidious" and "The Purge" franchises.

"Paranormal Activity" taught Blum not only that low budget meant more chance of making money, but also that keeping a tight grip on the purse strings often makes for an artistically more accomplished movie.

"I don't think throwing money at scary movies results in better movies," he says. "Most scary movies that are bigger budget are much worse than low budget scary movies."

The Vassar College graduate, who lives in downtown LA with screenwriter wife Lauren, is in the middle of a 10-year partnership to make movies distributed by Universal.

But he didn't set out to be a horror filmmaker, originally destined instead to go into the family business, an art dealership.

"I loved the holiday Halloween and I loved Hitchcock movies. But I didn't love horror more than other genres when I was a kid," he said.

Over the years Blum has built up an encylcopaedic knowledge of the genre, but if he comes across as a frustrated director, nothing could be further from the truth.

- 'Political animal' -

"I can definitely say I have zero interest. It's not my talent. I think one of the things that makes me a good producer is that I don't want to direct," he says.

AFP caught up with Blum as he was visiting Universal Studios in Los Angeles to check out his latest collaboration, the "Horrors of Blumhouse" maze at the theme park's hugely popular annual Halloween Horror Nights.

Every fall, Universal's creative head honcho John Murdy -- a longstanding friend of Blum's -- opens numerous mazes after dark featuring authentic scares from some of the most iconic properties in the history of horror.

"The Horrors of Blumhouse" combines the four films from Blum's "The Purge" franchise as well as the "Sinister" movies and "Happy Death Day," which comes out on October 13.

Always on the lookout for new opportunities outside of cinema, Blumhouse recently expanded its reach into television, and is launching a series version of "The Purge."

Next up is "Secure and Hold: The Last Days of Roger Ailes," a biopic on the media mogul Blum calls the "scariest man of all," who built the Fox News empire but died in May mired in a mounting sexual harassment scandal.

"I'm a political animal. I'm trying to convince John to do a Roger Ailes maze at Universal," joked Blum.

"I'm not sure if that's going to happen but I'm going for that for next year. That would be the scariest maze ever made."