With all the horror stories floating around about major flops and fan backlashes, you could be forgiven for thinking that cinema is really suffering this year. In actual fact box office takings are up around 4% compared to this time last year and the horror genre has been doing sterling work in keeping revenues ticking over while remaining cost effective -which was proved again by Don’t Breathe taking $25 million in its opening last weekend, providing a healthy return on a production budget of less than $10 million- but is Hollywood really paying it the dues it deserves?
One the year’s first notable horror entries was Robert Eggers’ The Witch that brought the folk horror genre back into audiences’ consciousness. The directorial debut for Eggers was woozily surreal, beautifully photographed in a gothic style and lavished with praise from critics (91% on RT) but perhaps more significant is that this low-budget production, just $3 million, went on to take a cool $40 million at the box office on a limited release.
Then in June this year, James Wan’s The Conjuring 2 showed that Wan is the master scaring up big returns on modest budgets when the second instalment in the supernatural gothic horror series racked up one of the biggest opening weekends for a horror film and went on to become the second highest grossing horror film ever behind 1973’s The Exorcist. Its investment in a production budget of $40 million saw a massive return of $320 million worldwide. These are something pretty impressive ROIs in comparison to a lumbering blockbuster like The Legend of Tarzan which took similar box office but had a production budget three times that of The Conjuring 2 and undoubtedly spent considerably more on marketing.
In fact, every single horror movie released this year has put itself firmly in the black, something that certainly can’t be said for some of this year’s blockbusters. So, will we see a shift in Hollywood production to these smaller, more nimble projects that guarantee a significant percentage on their initial investment? Probably not…
Keeping The Suits Happy
While horror movies undoubtedly have huge cost efficiency, they actually don’t make that much money overall and this is what leaves Hollywood so unimpressed. Yes, The Purge: Election Year may have made a 1000% return on a $10 million budget, that’s still only $90 million in profit. Whereas Captain America: Civil War made only 500% back on its production costs of $250 million but that equals a profit of $750 million, and it’s that number that makes studios excited.
The major studios are part of huge conglomerates so $90 million profit is mere pocket change to them and will do little to shift stock prices northwards. A film that’s notching up billions of greenbacks is what keeps shareholders interested and that’s why studios are still prepared to take these massively expensive gambles on huge productions in the hope of stimulating their stock prices.
The other big issue horror films have when it comes to bringing vast hordes of cash is that offer little in the way of subsidiary revenue. Merchandising, Saturday morning cartoon spin-offs, video game tie-ins these are things truly driving the need to invest in big movie properties as such outlets provide a constant stream of revenue that can often generate more income than the actual films themselves. Horror releases remain isolated this regard simply because studios aren’t going to be putting out lunchboxes based on such brands anytime soon and the best an original horror release can hope for is to establish a franchise that will likely incur diminishing returns over time.
So, if horror films aren’t the cash cows that Hollywood craves so badly, why have we seen so many of them this year?
Those Pesky Kids
Okay, probably the only scary thing about going to a deserted cabin in the woods for a millennial is that there’ll be no wi-fi there but it is absolutely in studios best interest to keep them scared in theaters. While box office takings are up this year, this is because of rising ticket prices and the actual amount of tickets sold are down, especially for young adults. There are a plethora of reasons for this downward trend but it’s mainly because going to a theater requires considerably more effort than staying home to watch Netflix or play video games and millennials are addicted to expediency when it comes to accessing their entertainment.
However, horror films are best enjoyed as a shared experience that only a theater environment can truly provide. They also provide a natural attraction to the thrill-seeking desires that’s naturally attributed to younger adults and offer a kind of artificial credence of “surviving” watching them so millennials can boast about how they held their nerve on social media. This makes horror movies vital in terms of studios keeping millennials engaged in cinema, which is still an essential outlet for filmed entertainment. From an industry point of view, keeping young people involved in the most financially beneficial means of distribution is of the utmost importance if you don’t to repeat how the music industry was massacred by their attempts to squash file sharing and keep consumers buying more lucrative physical media in the early 2000’s.
It is perhaps the realization that horror films are a cheap way of ensuring young people still go to the movies that has caused so much variation in horror releases this year as studios try to cast the net as wide as they can.
A Smorgasbord of Terror
Having an overall trend in the horror genre -such as slasher films in the 80’s, post-modern horror in the 90’s, and the torture porn aesthetic of the 2000’s- can often be detrimental to its overall appeal as audiences become conditioned to the tropes within the trend and as such the films lose shock value and the ability the scare audiences.
The only remarkable thing about this year’s trend in horror is that it doesn’t have one. We’ve seen the supernatural Gothicism of The Conjuring 2 and The Witch; the allegorical horror of The Purge: Election Year; taught one location thrillers like 10 Cloverfield Lane and Don’t Breathe; and the return of huge horror icons like Leatherface, the Blair Witch, and the Ring. While we may still be lacking a standout classic in these releases as we’ve seen in recent years like 2014’s The Babadook or last year’s It Follows, we’re certainly being provided with a varied diet to suit any horror fan’s tastes.
While the continuing prevalence of the genre may not be the success story Hollywood really wants right now, it may be the one ensuring that going to the movies remains a mainstay of viewing habits in the future.