Unfriended producer Jason Blum on how to make a killing in Hollywood

Jason Blum is making a killing in Hollywood by following a simple formula: make it cheap and share the spoils.

Modern Hollywood is all about the numbers, but even in an industry obsessed with box office and back-end (a cut of the spoils), Jason Blum is one out of the box. At 45, the main man at Blumhouse Productions heads a pipeline of profitability built on a simple premise: make it fast, make it cheap, and make a pile of money – if it works, that is (and not all of them do). “We have a budget cap of about $US4 million per film, maybe a little more, and we came up with that number by looking at the movies that don’t work,” says Blum.

Many of his movies do work – like The Purge ($US89 million, two sequels), Insidious ($US93 million, two sequels), or Sinister ($US78 million, a sequel on the way).

But if a film doesn’t make it into cinemas, there’s always DVD and video-on-demand and subscription services, and Blum reckons taking $4 million – half from North America, the other half from the rest of the world – is a safe bet.

Keeping budgets at that break-even point “allows us to do weird, original stuff – because weird, original stuff is not always commercial,” he says. “Some of them work, some of them don’t, but as long as we keep the budgets down we can keep experimenting and trying new things.”

Rose Byrne in Insidious. The Australian actress was paid minimum wage for the film, but thanks to a profit-sharing deal has reportedly earned $US7 million from it.

The latest of those new things is Unfriended, a brilliantly inventive spin on the low-budget horror formula of six people in a room, being killed off one by one. The central premise here is cyber bullying, and the six are in an online chatroom – a virtual room – with the entire film constructed from imagery captured on secondary screens (laptops, phones, instant-messenger screens, Facebook pages and so on).

As is the Blumhouse way, it was made cheap, is going wide and, if it works, will undoubtedly have a sequel or three.

Jason Blum has been producing movies since 1995, but it was in 2007 that this mantra first emerged, when a low-budget horror film called Paranormal Activity landed in his lap. Made by Oren Peli for $15,000, the “found-footage” frightener had been rejected by every studio in town when Blum, who had a production deal with Paramount, made a case for it.

Earlier this year he told W magazine that “Paramount rejected it 100 times” before agreeing to put in cinemas. It grossed $US193 million worldwide and has spawned four sequels (so far).

On his imdb profile page, Blum has a producer credit on 78 titles; boxofficemojo lists 22 titles for a combined box office of more than $US1.8 billion, which suggests the true total is even higher; The Hollywood Reporter has claimed his 10-year output deal with Universal guarantees him a 12.5 per cent cut of the first-dollar gross (the ticket price) on all his titles.

Whatever way you cut it, those are astonishing numbers.

But Blum isn’t just making schlock. He also produced the triple-Oscar-winning Whiplash (for which he received a best picture nomination).

The indie favourite about a student jazz drummer (Miles Teller) terrorised by his teacher (J.K. Simmons, who won the best supporting actor Oscar) is, he jokes, a “Sundance horror movie”.

“I didn’t make Whiplash thinking it would be a big profit centre,” he continues. It was, rather, a passion project, the sort the profitability of the genre stuff allows him to indulge.

“I love our scary movies, that’s going to continue to be the primary focus of me and the people who work at the company, but when something amazing comes across the desk we’re in a position now where we can do it not purely for financial reasons. If everyone loves it but we’re not going to make a lot of money on it, so long as we don’t lose money we’ll pursue it.”

If it all sounds too good to be true there are some who have claimed that’s because it is. The reason Blumhouse movies are cheap is because everyone gets paid only base rates.

For the key creatives – writer, director, stars – the trade-off is a profit share that kicks in once the film has passed certain hurdles (the first at $30 million, according to The Hollywood Reporter). But for lowly crew, there’s no delayed payday, just the union minimum they signed on for in the first place.

Blum doesn’t see any reason to be defensive about this. “It makes no sense for someone to say, ‘Because your movies are very commercial I should participate [in the profits]’. If it’s a $50 million studio movie you don’t participate, you get paid scale. So why should you participate in ours?”

The real winners in this model, other than Blum, are the stars. Blum says their deals are predicated on their “quote” – the fee they usually work for. So even if John Travolta or Ethan Hawke or Jessica Alba signs on for the minimum (about $3500 a week), their eventual return could be pretty impressive. Rose Byrne, for example, is said to have earned more than $7 million for her role in Insidious.

“We’ve made a lot of people some great back end, so people have come back to try again,” says Blum. “From an actor’s point of view, it’s four weeks and if the movie works it’s a big payday. And if it doesn’t, you were in a cool movie.”

Unfriended opens on April 30 in Australia

Karl Quinn – SMH – April 17, 2015