From ‘Purge’ to ‘Get Out’: Meet the hero of low-budget horror

We speak to producer Jason Blum about the movie franchises making him millions

LEX SCOTT DAVIS as Nya in "The First Purge." Behind every tradition lies a revolution. This Independence Day, witness the rise of our country's 12 hours of annual lawlessness. Welcome to the movement that began as a simple experiment: "The First Purge." Annette Brown / Universal Pictures
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Jason Blum is a man with a plan. Ever since his company, Blumhouse Productions, made horror flick Paranormal Activity for US$15,000 (Dh55,000) – and saw it gross $193 million around the world – he has cornered the market in low-budget genre features. Blockbusters? He leaves that risky part of the industry to the Hollywood studios. "I have no temptation to do expensive movies," he says. "I really don't."

Partly, it's a case of been there, done that. In 2010, shortly after the mega-success of Paranormal Activity, Blum worked on Tooth Fairy, a fantasy with Dwayne Johnson. He "hated" the experience, he says. "Not because of the specific movie, but because of how big-budget pictures are made. The role of a producer in a big-budget movie – honestly – blows." A lack of control and creativity left him rethinking his methods.

Blum, who was raised in Los Angeles by parents in the art world, steered his company towards making movies with minimal production costs. His profit-heavy franchises include Insidious, Ouija and Sinister. This week sees the arrival of The First Purge, the fourth movie in the series written by James DeMonaco. The first three episodes cost a total of $22m to make and collectively grossed $319m.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 02:  Jason Blum attends 2018 Hulu Upfront at La Sirena on May 2, 2018 in New York City.  (Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage)
Producer Jason Blum has cornered the market in low-budget, high-return horror movies. WireImage

Released in 2013, The Purge's dystopian story set itself in a near-future America where the government sanctions an annual 12-hour period where all crime, including murder, is legal. The subsequent success of the sequels – The Purge: Anarchy (2014) and The Purge: Election Year (2016) – comes down to the way Blum encourages the original creators to stay involved, with financial but also artistic incentives.

"We let them experiment," Blum says. "[For example], James DeMonaco made a movie about Hillary Clinton [with] Purge: Election." DeMonaco, who also directed the first three Purge films, returns again as a writer and producer with The First Purge, although this is the first time a movie in the franchise has been directed by another – Gerard McMurray (who made the indie hit Burning Sands).

"The First Purge is an origin story," explains Blum, "and we go back in time to how 'the purge' started in the United States. We're morphing in The Purge from class war to race war." So are you blaming US President Donald Trump, I ask, jokingly? "Always!" exclaims Blum. "The roots of all the problems in the world are at Donald Trump's feet, and yes, I blame him for every one of them."

Like so many of the Blumhouse films, the cast of The First Purge is not made up of movie stars (although Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei does pop up in a small role). "If someone is too famous it works against the movie," says Blum. "If they're super famous, it makes the movie less scary. You are just so familiar with them, you feel like you know them, you know they won't be in trouble."

Click to watch the teaser trailer for The First Purge:

Of course, casting up-and-coming talents is another way of keeping budgets low. Blum uses other cost-cutting exercises. He often shoots in Los Angeles, using local crew and cast. Expensive luxuries like trailers can be brought on set only if the actor pays for them. And when it comes to crafting stories, expensive special effects are out. “Frankly,” he says, “we’re not very good at [those].”

While Blum is not averse to making horror films for younger audiences – like the teenagers-in-peril tale Truth or Dare – he's also interested in subversive genre fare "with a larger message underneath it". The Purge franchise fits into that, as does last year's Get Out, a racial satire with horror elements. A huge hit (it grossed $255m worldwide) it also won writer-director Jordan Peele an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Currently on Blumhouse's slate is Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman, a crafty mix of action, comedy and 1970s blaxploitation film, based on a true story about a black cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. "His first movie was a big influence on me to get into the movie business," says Blum, referring to Lee's 1986 debut She's Gotta Have It. "So it was pretty cool to get to do a Spike Lee movie." Again, like Get Out, it brings hot-button social issues to the masses.

Other up-and-coming Blumhouse projects include a reprisal of the classic slasher horror Halloween. "I feel quite bullish about the movie," says Blum, who insisted on bringing star Jamie Lee Curtis back, in her role as the terrorised Laurie Strode, and the original creator John Carpenter on board as a "mentor" to the project. Then there's M. Night Shyamalan's Glass, a spin-off that brings together characters from the director's earlier films Unbreakable and Split.

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Blum has also entered the small-screen arena with Blumhouse Television, and its planned TV series based on The Purge and a co-production with HBO, Sharp Objects, an adaptation of the first novel by Gone Girl's Gillian Flynn. These are more "traditionally budgeted", he says, with Amy Adams headlining Sharp Objects. "We use movie stars in TV," he adds, noting Russell Crowe has also been tapped for a nine-part mini-series about Fox News founder Roger Ailes. 

What he isn’t about to do is criticise studios for making blockbusters. “I don’t think they’re doing it all wrong at all,” he says, diplomatically. The big issue now is streaming companies like Netflix and Amazon, who have blown apart traditional methods of distribution. “That’s what the studios are challenged by as opposed to the types of movies they’re making.” It’s a brave new world, but one Blum is clearly planning to be a part of.   

The First Purge is in UAE cinemas today