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The Horror, The Horror: Seven Rules for Success at the Box Office

The Horror, The Horror: Seven Rules for Success at the Box Office

With Halloween upon us, TOH box office analyst Anthony D’Alessandro looks at what’s working–and what isn’t–among horror genre titles. He finds seven often counter-intuitive rules to follow for horror success.

The Paranormal Activity franchise stands as a pillar of success for horror films over the last year, reviving the genre after a recent spate of bombs (i.e. Devil, Case 39, My Soul to Take, Let Me In). What makes a horror title live or die at the B.O.? Here’s a primer for horror success:
1. Realism rules: “When you touch death or visceral things like the other world, it makes people feel more alive,” says Scream exec producer Harvey Weinstein. “That’s the allure of something like horror.”  Paranormal Activity producer Oren Peli is agreeing all the way to the bank: “What made Paranormal a success is that it feels small and intimate and it was important to stay true to this with the sequel,” he says. “While there are different types of horror films out there, i.e. gore, slasher, the slow psychological build of Paranormal scares people in a different way than being slashed apart.” 

2. Reinvent the wheel: “It’s the fashion of how you tell that story that will always be changing,”  adds Weinstein.  That explains why Lionsgate’s Saw is a long-running $730 million multi-million dollar franchise over seven films: they remain original. Jigsaw, the main baddie, isn’t a run-of-the-mill killer–like Jason or Leatherface–but an antagonist who leaves his victims with survival quandaries. “College kids love the game logic of the film, it’s like different levels of a videogame,” says an insider connected to Saw, “not to mention Jigsaw, unlike other horror villains, haunts those who need to be taught a lesson.”  
3. Marquee names mean nothing:  While brands and worlds count in the horror genre, Hollywood “names” do not. An M. Night Shyamalan production? A Wes Craven film? Nobody cares. These Hollywood players did not pull crowds to Devil ($32.5 million) or My Soul to Take ($14.3 million), respectively. Nor is anyone seduced by such hotties as Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body ($16.2 million) or Cameron Diaz in The Box ($15.1 million).  Scream remains one of the highest-grossing horror franchises ($507.2 million worldwide), but that is less due to its ‘90s ensemble than its fresh ideas: here’s Roger Ebert.

4. 3-D sells: Nothing scares better than a knife in the face. Whether it brings higher ticket prices or more admissions, the 3-D format drove the recent installments for Final Destination ($27.4 million bow, $66.5 million cume) and Resident Evil ($26.7 million bow, $60 million cume) to franchise record opening/cume highs. This Halloween weekend all eyes are on Saw 3D, the series’ final installment, which seeks to topple Paranormal Activity 2.  Estimates for Saw 3D’s opening range from the high teens to low 20s. To its advantage, the latest Saw was actually shot in 3-D and not retroverted.
5. Don’t overspend: Horror films can be cash cows but they are rarely tentpoles (Paranormal Activity is an anomaly).  There’s no need to spend $150 million for an R-rated Wolfman ($62 million domestic B.O.), when a $2 to 3 million budget can churn profits from a Last Exorcism ($41 million) or a Paranormal Activity 2 ($47.2 million through Wednesday).
6. Handle reboots with care: Horror films are notorious for boffo openings followed by dramatic second-frame plummets. Few remakes have emulated the leggy success of New Line’s 2005’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre ($80.6 million), which kicked off the current reboot craze. Nonetheless, New Line, along with Warner Bros. and Paramount, kept costs low respectively on Nightmare on Elm Street ($35 million, $63.1 million domestic B.O.) and Friday the 13th   ($19 million budget, $65 million domestic B.O.), banking on huge openings that more than covered their budgets.
7. Keep ‘em in suspense: The golden rule of horror marketing is keep the critics out, the spoilers to a minimum and tease, tease, tease in the materials (see Lionsgate’s Chatroulette girl and their Saw 3D survivors blog). Says Peli on the PR for Paranormal Activity: “We were very guarded and we wanted to surprise.” 

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