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'Insidious,' 'Paranormal Activity' Producer Jason Blum On the Secret to His Phenomenal Success

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire September 17, 2013 at 11:39AM

Box office pundits all expressed shock this past Sunday at how well "Insidious: Chapter 2" performed financially, generating the second highest September bow in history with a mighty impressive weekend cume of $41.1 million. But for producer Jason Blum, whose Blumhouse Pictures produced the film and its first hit installment "Insidious," that figure couldn't have come as such a surprise.
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Box office pundits all expressed shock this past Sunday at how well "Insidious: Chapter 2" performed financially, generating the second highest September bow in history with a mighty impressive weekend cume of $41.1 million. But for producer Jason Blum, whose Blumhouse Pictures produced the film and its first hit installment "Insidious," that figure couldn't have come as such a surprise, and neither should the news that because of this weekend's numbers, there's now a third film in the works.

Since first launching his company in 2000, Blum has been responsible for some of the most successful horror films of all time thanks to his micro-budget model first tested by "Paranormal Activity," which was made for a paltry $15,000 and went on to become a global phenomenon, grossing $200 million worldwide and spawning a massively successful franchise. Since hitting that payday, Blum has gone on to produce other low-budget, high earning hits like "Sinister" and this year's "The Purge." Indiewire called up Blum to discuss his model for success.

I read that it's in your rule book to not to cross $ 5 million when budgeting your films. Does that still stand?|

I wouldn't quite put it like that. Occasionally I'll be a producer for hire on a larger budget movie, but with Blumhouse Pictures we mainly focus on micro-budget, under $5 million dollar movies. That's what we're in business to do and that's what we're in business to make.

Most studios go bigger and broader with their sequels. "Insidious: Chapter 2" was made for a bit more money ($5 million vs. the original's $ 1.5 million), but retains the small-scaled nature of the first film. What keeps you on point with sequels?

[Laughs.] Compared to the first one, even at $5 million, it felt bigger and broader. I've said this a lot, but I fundamentally believe that the higher the budget of a movie, the less risks you can take -- unless, obviously, you're one of five anointed directors who can do anything with any budget. One day hopefully I'll be lucky enough to work with one of those people, but until then we're all constrained to a certain degree by budget, and the bigger the budget the less creative freedom you have.

I think that makes sense. If I was giving someone $30 million to make a horror movie, I would want every decision to be looked over by many, many people. But if you keep budgets down, you can let James Wan do what he does, fast, and let him focus on making the movie he wants to make. And if he wants to do something that seems a little out of the ordinary, if the budget is low it's okay to let him do that. If the budget isn't low, it's a lot trickier. For me, personally, it's just more rewarding at lower budget levels.

Back when I interviewed Rob Zombie for "Lords of Salem" in Toronto he sang your praises as a producer -- this after being burned out by working for the studio system on the "Halloween" movies. He said you let him fly, as long as he stayed within the given budget. Is that the way you typically work? Give them monetary parameters, and then leave the filmmaker be?

We have a lot of data for everything so it's not to say we don't give lots of notes on the script, lots of thoughts about casting and lots of thoughts about the cuts of the movies, but the directors are free to take what they think makes the movie better and not use what they think doesn't make it better -- and surprise, surprise, when you give a director total creative control, they listen more, they solicit us more. They want to know our opinion more because they know ultimately they can decide. The dialogue becomes much more healthier. So the short answer to your question is yes, but there is an in-between part which is that some directors take a lot of our ideas and some take very few, and that's okay with me.

"I fundamentally believe that the higher the budget of a movie means the less risks you can take."

"Insidious" has a third film in the works. "The Purge" has a forthcoming sequel. Do you just greenlight sequels for monetary reasons?

Well, for me there are a lot of parallels between doing a sequel and doing low budget movies, which is they give creative parameters. As a creative person myself, I work better with parameters as opposed to anything goes. Sequels force you to work creatively so that you don't make a movie that people go into and say "That was so original, why was that a sequel? That should have just been it's own movie. It had nothing to do with the first movie."

You don't want them to come out saying, "Well that movie felt exactly like the first movie. Why did I waste $14.50 on that." I think that's fun. I really like the challenge of that. It's like a puzzle or game. In terms of whether we will do a sequel or not, that's largely driven by the performance of the movie. I'm not going to pretend that it isn't. If the movie is really successful obviously a sequel is more feasible than if one isn't.

In order to open up the doors for a sequel, most horrors nowadays tend to end with an open ending.

That I really discourage our filmmakers to do. It's really hard to make an original movie of any kind that succeeds in the theatrical market place, in the wide release market place. To say you need to end the movie open ended so a sequel is possible, that's nuts, [but] it's completely responsible on a movie that's a $100 million or more. To do a movie at that budget level and not be thinking about the franchise is crazy. But on a micro-budget movie, I always tell the filmmakers make a great movie. If you make a great movie that succeeds, we'll figure out a sequel. It's like counting the box office before the movie opens.

The best example of that is "Paranormal Activity." Certainly, before we made the second movie, all anyone could say, "Oh boy, it's 'Blair Witch 2' all over again. How on earth can you make a sequel to 'Paranormal Activity'? It doesn't make sense. There's no storytelling. The movie is not set up for a sequel. " All that is true, but we figured it out, and I think if you create a movie that touches a nerve, sequels can be figured out.

Ethan Hawke in 'The Purge'

The success of "Sinister" and "The Purge" caught many by surprise, but following the huge surprise success of "Paranormal Activity," do your successes still surprise you? You've had such a remarkable run.

Success is always a surprise. Maybe I lose a little less sleep, but I still lose sleep. There are so many factors that go into having a successful movie. There's the movie itself obviously, there's marketing, there's the weather, current events. Everything can be right and then you have bad weather and your suddenly in trouble. There are too many factors that you can't control. I'm always thrilled and always surprised.

This article is related to: Insidious: Chapter 2, Insidious, Insidious 3, James Wan, The Purge, The Purge: Anarchy, Horror, Interviews, Filmmaker Toolkit, Jason Blum