Summer is the time for tentpole films like “Captain America: Civil War” and “Finding Dory,” but the real winner this season is the horror genre.
It’s long been a profitable gambit for Hollywood studios, and that trend doesn’t show any signs of relenting, if the recent successes of New Line’s “Lights Out” and James Wan‘s “The Conjuring 2” are any indication.
“In a bit of a twist, the most unlikely and unexpected winner of this season is one of the most marginalized genres of all: horror,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst at comScore.
“Lights Out” made $110 million worldwide despite a budget estimated around $4.9 million. “The Conjuring 2” scared up $319 million on a budget of just $40 million. This summer also saw “The Purge: Election Year” bank $102.4 million worldwide on a spend of only $10 million. Even Blake Lively‘s “The Shallows” grossed $84 million although production cost a mere $17 million.
Obviously, we saw huge summer blockbusters like “Civil War” bank over $1.2 billion with a budget of $250 million, and “Finding Dory” charged to over $900 million after a production outlay of $200 million.
But this summer has been disappointing overall, exemplified by last weekend’s “Ben-Hur,” which bombed at $11 million in its first weekend against a budget of $100 million.
“While way too many high-profile sequels are bleeding red this summer, horror flicks are firmly in the black,” said Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations.
“Insidious,” for example, made $13.2 million on opening weekend, while “Lights Out” had a killer debut with $21.7 million.
“Recently, we’ve been talking about the big-budget flops, the “Ben-Hurs” of the world,” added Bruce Nash, analyst at The Numbers, “and they don’t [earn much more] than the horror films that cost $2 million to make. From the perspective of the studios, it’s kind of a no-brainer to have these in the pipeline.”
David Sandberg, who directed “Lights Out” and is currently filming “Annabelle 2,” told TheWrap, “Horror movies are the best investment if you look at returns and budget,” “Which is pretty amazing when you see these $100 million movies that made what ‘Lights Out’ did.”
In 1999, “The Blair Witch Project” was made for a meager $60,000. Shockingly, it made $140 million domestically and $108 million overseas. “Insidious” was produced for $1.5 million and grossed $97 million worldwide in 2011. Even 2006’s “The Omen,” while not exactly low budget, earned almost five times what it cost to make.
“If we were to reconfigure box office charts based on profitability, movies like ‘The Shallows’ and ‘The Purge: Election Year’ would be right at the top,” Dergarabedian previously told TheWrap.
Add “The Conjuring 2” — and now “Lights Out” — to that list, and you have movies that represent the highest revenue margins of the summer. That says a lot as this season has been sluggish compared with past years.
And now, Sony debuts “Don’t Breathe” this weekend, which was made for under $10 million and is looking to make $11 million to $12 million — similar to that of “Ben-Hur.”
What explains moviegoers’ consistent hunger for horror? For one, it’s among the only genres to evoke a physical reaction — as Wes Craven once said, “Horror films don’t create fear. They release it.”
Alexandra West, cohost of the Faculty of Horror podcast, agrees with the pioneering director.
“Horror and porn are film genres that elicit a physical sensation,” said West. “It provokes people in so many different ways. What scares me may not scare you. If you like that kind of fear, there is so much litany to choose from.”
And at least horror offers one of the more communal movie-going experiences of any genre; fans screaming and being afraid together evokes a sense of energy.
“Horror is one of those genres where audiences definitely have a pack mentality, and the communal, big-screen experience of that is a large part of the attraction,” Bock said.
West agrees. “There’s a huge amount of participation,” she said. “At ‘Lights Out,’ for example, it was a packed crowd and people were losing their minds. It’s one of the few communal experiences as moviegoers that we have left.”