Mini-Budgeted ‘Sinister’ Horrifies the Box Office – Here’s How

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ANALYSIS: Here's how producer Jason Blum and Summit pulled off a scary-good $18M opening with "Sinister," made on a $3M budget

It was the blockbuster sequel “Taken 2” vs. the star-driven political thriller “Argo” at the box office this weekend, but Summit’s mini-budget horror film “Sinister” felt like the big winner.

“Sinister” took in $18.2 million, just behind “Argo” at $20.1 million and “Taken 2” at 22.5 million. That’s pretty good. But consider that “Sinister” cost just $3 million to make, as opposed to the roughly $45 million production budgets the other movies carried, and it’s more like scary-good.

It's an eye-catching number but didn't surprise studio rivals or analysts, given the track record of Jason Blum, who produced the film with Alliance Films' Brian Kavanaugh-Jones via Blumhouse Productions.

Also read: 'Paranormal Activity' Producer Backing L.A. Haunted House

Blum produced the original “Paranormal Activity," among the most profitable movies of all time. That found-footage project cost $15,000 and took in $193 million globally in 2009. Last year’s “Insidious,” made for $1.5 million, has grossed $97 million worldwide.

The concept is high-quality, low-budget films for wide release. It's not necessarily high art and it's somewhat formulaic, critics say. And even their audiences frequently don't give them high marks. "Sinister" was given a "C+" CinemaScore, but that's not unusual for R-rated horror films. Joss Whedon's  "Cabin in the Woods" got  a "C." But regardless of how they grade, horror fans keep coming back, so they must be getting their $9 worth of scared silly.

“The movie really works,” Blum told TheWrap. “It’s (writer-director) Scott Derrickson’s movie creatively, and to see it perform so well is very gratifying.”

So what’s the secret, and why does it seem to be easier to make this kind of haul on scary movies than other genres?

One reason is almost too simple: scary things often happen in contained places thus eliminating the need for expansive locales and exotic locations. The second is more complex. Big budgets come with big expectations and constraints. Filmmakers who do without have more leeway to experiment with effects, techniques or approaches that might be considered too risky for mainstream fare.

Getty ImagesEven before the weekend, “Sinister” was a positive experience for Blum. The project came together in a hurry — another advantage to lean and mean — going from pitch in April to shooting in October. During that period, Blum asked Derrickson which actor he envisioned in the key “Sinister” role of Ellison, the father who finds the mysterious home movies that lead to the terror. When Derrickson answered Ethan Hawke, Blum was thrilled.  He and Hawke (pictured with Blum at the "Sinister" premiere) had been good friends for years, though the actor had never done a horror film. The script, co-written by C. Robert Cargill, and a meeting with Derrickson sold the actor. Filming was completed in January. Juliet Rylance plays his wife.

Blum keeps busy. He reteamed with Hawke on "The Purge," with Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes. That's one of the films Blum has wrapped since announcing a first-look deal with Universal Pictures last year, along with "Not Safe For Work," directed by Joe Johnston; and "Mockingbird," directed by Bryan Bertino. Blumhouse has also wrapped on the Scott Stewart-directed "Dark Skies" for Alliance/Dimension and "Jessabelle" for Lionsgate.

Lionsgate and Summit did their part marketing "Sinister" with a heavy social-media push that connected with the film’s young African-American and Hispanic bases. "Sinister" was always planned as a Halloween season movie, but a little more than a month ago, the release date was pushed forward a week.

“When we saw ‘Taken 2’ was going to be so strong, we got off that weekend,” Lionsgate’s executive vice president for theatrical distribution David Spitz told TheWrap. “We knew ‘Paranormal Activity 4' was coming on Oct. 19, so this seemed the right slot for us.”

“Sinister” is off to a solid start overseas, having taken in more than $4 million from the U.K in its first two weeks. On the homefront, it remains to be seen if "Sinister" can carve out a niche next week.

But Blum's not worried about that. He's a producer on "Paranormal Activity 4" along with the franchise's creator, Oren Peli.