Low-Budget Producer Jason Blum on The Secret of His Success

In his keynote address at SXSW, indie producer Jason Blum outlines the secret to his success.

At the 87th Academy Awards, Whiplash won Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Supporting Actor for Simmons [L], and was nominated for Best Adapted Screeplay and Best Picture.

Everybody wants to know the secret to Jason Blum’s success. If there was a turning point for the indie producer, it was, of all things, “The Tooth Fairy,” the big-budget studio film starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Having worked in acquisition for Miramax in the ’90s, Blum eventually left to forge his own path as an indie producer.

“I produced eight movies, 7 1/2 of which nobody has ever heard of,” Blum told the audience at his SXSW keynote address earlier today. “I got frustrated making movies nobody had heard of,” he explained. So he went on to produce “The Tooth Fairy.”

“I couldn’t stand it. It was what I thought I always wanted. I was there every day in the trenches and I hated everything about that job. But what I loved — and what I got from ‘The Tooth Fairy’ — was to see how studio movies were released,” he explained.

The experience inspired him to create Blumhouse Productions and a business model that relies on low-budget films ($3-5 million) using experienced directors looking for creative control. After “Paranormal Activity” made Hollywood take notice, Blum stuck with the successful model and repeated the success with low-cost franchises like “Insidious” and “The Purge.”

“Everyone thought I was nuts because everyone thought ‘Paranormal Activity” was a magic trick… Then we had the sequel to ‘Paranormal’ and ‘Insidious’ and ‘Sinister.’

Recently, we had ‘The Purge’ which was the moment when the establishment finally was like ‘this guy is on to something.'” According to Blum, “Purge” cost $3 million and grossed $80 million worldwide.

Blum outlined the key elements of his low-budget model:

1. Everybody above the line works either free or for scale.

If an actor asks for a trailer or other frills, he’ll tell them, “You can have all those things, but you have to pay for it yourself. But more often than not, those things go away.”

2. Never work with first time directors.

“We work with experienced directors. We make a deal — we’re not going to pay you a lot, but you get to do what you want to do. Most directors get final cut. It’s ‘auteur’ filmmaking, but for commercial movies…

I tell directors: ‘I can’t promise you a hit, but I can promise you the movies is going to be yours.’ When you work for a studio, they pay you a lot of money, but in exchange for that, they tell you what to do.

3. Cut down on time spent negotiating.

The way we structure our backend, we key the payments to the box office — so that cuts the negotiating way down and it’s very transparent. One of the things I’m most proud of is that we’re really transparent with our process.”

4. Don’t release every movie wide.

“One of the benefits of doing low-budget movies is you don’t have to release them wide to recoup. You can release it in a smaller way, make your money back and keep going.”

5. Don’t go with the hot directors.

“The directors that everyone’s chasing, we’re not chasing. If someone says ‘we’re meeting every studio in town,’ I always say they should enjoy those meetings and shouldn’t come here.

My perfect director would be James Wan, who had done “Saw” and had two difficult experiences with a studio. He couldn’t get a movie made and had a ton to prove and there was no way ‘Insidious’ was not going to be a great scary movie… Experienced directors can do a lot more with less.”

6. Story and character matter — even in horror movies.

“The scares don’t work if the story and characters don’t work… if you take away the toys, the director has nothing to focus on but those things. I think it makes the movie stronger.”

7. Don’t think about a sequel until the original is shot. “Whenever anyone is doing an original movie and they say ‘we want to end it this way for the sequel,’ I always say ‘don’t do that.’ You can always figure out a sequel, but it’s really bad to plan for a sequel. We don’t think about the sequel. We think about making a really good movie and if it’s good, we think about a sequel.”

8. Shoot in Los Angeles.

Blum said he shoots 80% of his films in Los Angeles because “you get the best actors” and talent is willing to accept a smaller paycheck if it means they can “kiss their kids goodnight.”

Now that Blum has a number of financially successful movies to his credit, he is using that power to shepherd non-genre indies such as “Whiplash,” which recently received raves at Sundance. “I could never have made ‘Whiplash’ five years ago,” said Blum, who also produced “Creep,” which is having its world premiere at SXSW.

Talking about the future of film distribution, Blum emphasized that “a wide release shouldn’t always be the golden ring” and anticipated that theatrical windows will eventually collapse.

“The fact that we haven’t collapsed windows is pushing the best artists into TV,” he said, “‘True Detective’ wouldn’t have happened eight years ago.” Along those lines, he’s trying to emulate his low-budget film model in TV.

“We’re interested in having the same conversation with showrunners that we’re having with directors… Let’s make 10 episodes for $300,000 each.”

When asked for advice about how to break into the industry, Blum urged the crowd not to wait for approval from Hollywood. “The advice I give for filmmakers starting out is don’t wait for me. Don’t wait for the industry… It’s a mistake to wait for Hollywood to tell you you have a good idea. If you have a good idea, try to make it on your own as cheaply as possible… on your phone.”

By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire | March 9, 2014

Jason Blum’s 5 Tips for Low-Budget Filmmaking Success

Some must-read insights into the success of low-budget producer Jason Blum.

Writer-director Eli Roth, who served as the moderator for an in-depth, hour-long conversation at the 2015 Produced By Conference on Saturday, May 30 in Los Angeles with producer Jason Blum and top executives at Blum’s wildly successful company, Blumhouse Productions, opened up the session with quite a bit of flair.

“I’m so excited to be moderating this panel,” Roth told the audience, “not just because I am a fan of Jason and Blumhouse, both personally and professionally, but because if there is one question we all have [it’s] how [you] take a $15,000 horror movie and turn it into a $1.4 billion dollar empire?”

While Blum didn’t give up the ingredients to the secret sauce, he and his team did provide some unique insights about low-budget filmmaking, which you can find below:

1. Work with people. Do more than just give and take orders.

In the case of Blumhouse, collaboration sits at the center of what the company describes as its “director-oriented approach” to filmmaking, which grew out of their firm low-budget production model. Head of Physical Production Jeannette Volturno-Brill told the audience that Blumhouse extends a director free reign over a film as long as the scope of his or her vision remains within the confines of the budget. She likened the director to “MacGyver.” “We say, ‘You’re a MacGyver. You have two Popsicle sticks and a roll of duct tape — what do you want to make?'”

To keep projects within their respective budgets, Volturno-Brill said she and her colleague, Blumhouse Head of Post-Production Phillip Daw, work closely with each director and the crew to determine how the money is best spent in line with the director’s vision for the film.

The collaborative spirit between Blumhouse executives and the directors and crew brought onboard for each project emerges from the $3-5 million production model, which is structured such that each participating entity — no matter whether it’s Blumhouse, the director, the crew or the actors — enters into a project on an equal financial footing. According to Blum, $3-5 million “is about what we are able to recoup on the movies if they don’t get a wide release. In a worst case scenario we break even, or maybe lose a little bit of money, but not very much, and everyone gets paid scale.”

Because no one entity has more or less to lose than another, collaboration between all parties becomes all that much easier and, as Blum also noted with regard to Blumhouse in particular, “it allows us to do all the stuff I talked about — to take chances, do weird things, do different kinds of movies.”

2. Work with the same people. If not always, then as often as you can.

One of Volturno-Brill’s biggest priorities — which makes it one of Blumhouse’s biggest priorities as well — is her commitment to the crew. Throughout the panel discussion, Volturno-Brill stressed the importance of taking care of your crew — noting, in particular, how most of the people that fill the positions on a Blumhouse set are people who have worked on another one of the company’s projects (or perhaps even more than one) before.

According to Volturno-Brill, working with the same crew on multiple projects provides a certain level of stability to the production process that isn’t usually characteristic of the set of a film being helmed by a first or second-time director (which is generally the caliber of directors that Blumhouse works with on a regular basis). When Blumhouse has a rapport with crew members, it also makes Volturno- Brill’s job easier because it provides her with the creative muscle to guide the director such that that the film stays within budget, and the director never feels as if his or her vision is being compromised.

Blumhouse has facilitated long-term relationships with crew by bringing many aspects of the production process in-house, making it possible for them to edit, color correct, mix and even produce certain visual effects for their projects without having to go to a third-party provider.

3. Be flexible.

“We have to be nimble,” noted Blum very simply. “When directors and actors are working for scale, you shoot when they want to. When you’re paying them seven-figure sums, you shoot when you want to.” Being nimble means that once a script is ready to be shot and talent get attached, Blum and his team need to be ready at a moments notice because A-list talent won’t make a commitment to a low budget movie that plans to shoot in 12 months as it could potentially cost them a job on a much bigger budget film. Said Blum: “I have to be able to say, when you have a four month window, you call me and on Monday we’ll start our prep.”

4. Have fun.

“Everyone says we do low-budget because it’s big profits — and I’m not saying that isn’t a terrific thing,” Blum said. “But we’re certainly at a place in our lives where we could be doing expensive movies and we choose not to, and I really feel like there is a real correlation between not spending a lot of money and having fun.”

The relationship between the amount of money spent on a production and the enjoyment factor ties back to the fact that the low-budget model is set up such that everybody involved has very little to lose and almost everything to gain. “Shooting begets shooting,” he said, “and it keeps you out of your office in your head going crazy. You interact with people who are making things, even if it’s at a very rudimentary beginning level.”

5. Don’t chase “what’s hot” — just focus on what you like.

Chasing after the so-called next big thing is similar to when a dog tries to chase its own tail. Just when you think you think you’ve got it, it slips out of your grasp and then you are right back where you started. “We all do it,” Blumhouse Head of Television Jessica Rhoades noted during the discussion, “[try] to anticipate what our boss is going to like.” At Blumhouse, however, Rhoades said that she and her colleagues are encouraged to follow their gut. “Gut check,” she called it — meaning that if a project gets you and the people that you work with excited, then it’s worth pursuing, in spite of what a trend report might say.

Perhaps the most instructive example of this philosophy is Blumhouse’s involvement with Andrew Jarecki’s six-part docuseries, “The Jinx,” which aired on HBO earlier this year. Jarecki, Blum said, came to him with all six episodes ready to go and in search of a provider to put them on the air. After watching the first episode, Blum was so impressed that he didn’t need any more convincing. “I feel like that’s one of the things that I am proudest of our team for — finding things that are really off-beat like that,” said Blum. “It seems, in retrospect, not offbeat, but before there was all this stuff around it, it was very offbeat.”

Although Blum admitted that projects like “The Jinx” and “Whiplash” do not specifically fit under the Blumhouse horror brand per se, he argued they do fit into the bigger picture. “We’re in a position now — a very lucky position now — where we have a certain amount of clout in the business and so, we can get things made that are tricky or hard to get made.”

By Shipra Harbola Gupta | Indiewire | June 2, 2015

Google a pirate, says News Corp chief executive Robert­ Thomson

Google a pirate: News chief

News Corp chief executive Robert­ Thomson. ‘The words “intellectual property” don’t appear in the Google alphabet.’ Picture: Richard Dobson Source: News Corp Australia

News Corp chief executive Robert­ Thomson has attacked Google for piracy, zealotry and kleptocracy for its disregard of copyright and distribution of journalism created by others.

In a speech at the Lowy Institute Media Awards last night, Mr Thomson warned that, without proper remun­eration, well-resourced reporting would be further challenged in the future, with the digital age hostile to ­investment in ­journalism.

Mr Thomson, in Australia for News Corp’s board meeting, said aggregators and distributors such as Google, Facebook and LinkedIn had a “new-found fondness for premium content” created by others, but had an aversion to paying for it.

Provocatively, he also called LinkedIn “pretenders” and “spammers”.

“The supposed idealism of these companies is in stark contrast to their actual behavio­ur,” Mr Thomson said. “That Google’s newly conceived parent company is to be called Alphabet has itself created a range of ­delicious permutations: A is for avarice, B is for bowdlerise, through to K for kleptocracy, P for piracy and Z for zealotry.”

Mr Thomson said he was fortunate to be a custodian in a company that invested in thousands of creative acts around the world each day, from great journ­alism and compelling analysis to feisty blogs, capti­v­ating videos and brilliant books.

But, he said, Google and other aggregators had little respect for original content or copyright created by media companies struggling to profit from news.

“The words ‘intellectual property’ don’t appear in the Google alphabet,” he said.

Mr Thomson said there was a “deficit in reporting resources created by the egregious aggregation of news by distributors for whom provenance is an inconvenience and who are contemptuous of copyright”.

While media companies such as News Corp created important content, he said, the distributors were appointing editors not to create but to curate.

“And these curators tend to have a certain mindset, a deep fondness for polit­ical correctness, and a tendency to be intolerant of ideolog­ical infractions,” he said.

“Silicon Valley is moving from the PC to being a purveyor of the PC. The stream of content is often a flow of soft-left sensi­b­ility, a stream of content consciousness in which genuine debate is in danger of drowning and alternative views rarely surface­.”

Mr Thomson contrasted this with the nature of newspapers, which were characterised by public debate and carried passionate arguments about issues­.

Moving to a greater distrib­ution of politically correct content by the “e-elites”, Mr Thomson said, was taking place without any serious discussion of the social consequences.

He paid tribute to News Corp’s executive chairman Rupert­ Murdoch and said that, without him, instead of being at a fine award ceremony that celebrated the continued importance of journalism, the group would be in the backroom at a dingy pub lamenting its passing.

The Australian

August 14, 2015 12:00AM

Road trip pays off for Last Cab to Darwin

Australian filmmakers criss-crossing the country to talk about their films has paid off
twice now this year. First director and star Damon Gameau appeared at more than 70 Q&A sessions on the way to the documentary That Sugar Film becoming a hit.

Now director Jeremy Sims and (mostly) actor Michael Caton have appeared at 48 Q&As leading up to the solid opening for Last Cab To Darwin last weekend. The final one – at least before a couple of industry screenings for AACTA Awards voting – was at a small community hall in Kangaroo Valley, south of Sydney, on Sunday. “It was packed,” Sims says. “People, as usual, laughed and cried and they all stayed to talk about the film.”

But Sims cautions against the idea that grassroots word-of-mouth campaigns are the way to go for Australian films. “It’s only if you’ve got a good film,” he says. “If you’ve got a bad film, it’s the worst way to market a film.”

Last Cab,which has Caton as a Broken Hill taxi driver who heads to Darwin to take advantage of new euthanasia laws, took $1.15 million on the weekend. With previews, it has taken $1.37 million already, adding to a strong year for Australian films that includes the hits The Water Diviner, Paper Planes and Mad Max: Fury Road.

Garry Maddox – SMH – August 12, 2015

ABC TV screen sector ‘dysfunctional’ says producer

Samuel Johnson plays Molly Meldrum in the TV miniseries about Countdown snapped up by Sev

Samuel Johnson plays Molly Meldrum in the TV miniseries about Countdown snapped up by Seven. Picture: Ben Timony. Source: Supplied

The screen sector has called for greater transparency at ABC TV as one producer said the department was the “most dysfunctional” he had experienced in 28 years.

Many production companies have been distressed this year by the late or abrupt cancellations by the ABC of TV projects well into their development, inaction on key decisions and the apparent ad hoc programming strategy for the drama, kids and light entertainment strands.

Most perplexing is the ABC’s decision not to commission the miniseries about its seminal music show, Countdown, and its host Molly Meldrum.

Mushroom Pictures’ miniseries, Molly, starring Samuel Johnson in the title role, is anticipated to be a major hit for the Seven Network, following its success with INXS: Never Tear Us Apart last year.

Yet the ABC turned down the project, despite ABC drama chief Carole Sklan wanting the project, with a more senior ABC TV manager arguing he believed Australian audiences would not be interested in Meldrum’s story.

The ABC’s unwillingness to produce the upcoming political drama Enemies of the State, based on the life of former High Court Justice Lionel Murphy, has also raised concerns. The project, which has been picked up by SVOD service Stan, is seen to be right in the ABC’s sweet spot: a real-life political drama being developed by the producers of Rake, Peter Duncan and Ian Collie, Paper Planes filmmaker Robert Connolly and the ABC’s Q&A host Tony Jones.

Symptomatic of the decision-making recalcitrance is this week’s development, where it is understood a major ABC talent, used prominently in ABC TV marketing this year, signed a deal with a commercial network for his next series, after being left stranded and frustrated by inaction from the ABC.

While producer complaints about programming decisions are a constant of the business, there is heightened fury within the sector at ABC TV’s late or fractured decision-making and the move of funds and attention away from the drama and kids sector into light entertainment.

The ABC’s new strategy to purchase international format rights for its own productions, such as the misfiring How Not To Behave, has also confused producers, none of whom wanted to comment publicly due to their ongoing, or anticipated, commercial relationships with the ABC.

But The Australian understands one producer was so annoyed by his company’s treatment, he wrote to the ABC earlier this year stating he had not seen ABC TV in a “more dysfunctional and disrespectful environment” in his three-decade career.

The ABC’s new head of content and creative development, Adrian Swift, has been the lightning rod for many complaints. One of the former Nine development boss’s first tasks was decommissioning many projects greenlit before his arrival, which has cost a number of businesses substantial development costs.

Also, internally ABC commissioning editors are now engaged in what one producer described as “their own Hunger Games-style battle” as competitive funding has been introduced between genres.

“The brinkmanship and power being used is pretty poor,” said one producer with an ongoing relationship with the ABC. “They’re treating a lot of good relationships like shit.”

Screen Producer Australia director Matthew Deaner said ­clarity on programming and expenditure strategy was required.

“In order to create business stability and allow for better planning there needs to be greater transparency around the way in which the ABC and SBS report their program expenditure,” he said.

“The broadcasting financial results published by the Australian Communications and Media Authority are a good example of reporting obligations for the commercial sector that should be replicated for public broadcasters,” Mr Deaner added.

He said the snapshot of aggregated expenditure, revenue, profitability, assets and liabilities of the commercial radio and television sectors “crucially provides a layer of commercial transparency that underpins business confidence in the independent sector”.

Drama decision-making has been complicated by changes in strategy. The ABC built its local drama stocks back across many years with relatively safe bets appealing to older viewers, including Bed of Roses, The Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, ANZAC Girls and The Dr Blake Mysteries before it took riskier gambles on series The Slap, Serangoon Road, Redfern Now, Jack Irish, Rake and others.

As it took more risks, with dramas such as The Code, Glitch, Crownies and The Time of Our Lives, the audiences have not ­responded.

Many within the drama sector were dismayed by the lack of innovation when the ABC commissioned this year new series of Janet King, The Doctor Blake Mysteries, Rake, The Code and Jack Irish.

The ABC director of TV, Richard Finlayson, was unavailable for comment.

Media and Entertainment Writer
Sydney