Writer-director Eli Roth, who served as the moderator for an in-depth, hour-long conversation at the 2015 Produced By Conference on Saturday, May 30 in Los Angeles with producer Jason Blum and top executives at Blum’s wildly successful company, Blumhouse Productions, opened up the session with quite a bit of flair.
“I’m so excited to be moderating this panel,” Roth told the audience, “not just because I am a fan of Jason and Blumhouse, both personally and
professionally, but because if there is one question we all have [it’s]
how [you] take a $15,000 horror movie and turn it into a $1.4 billion
While Blum didn’t give up the ingredients to the secret sauce, he and his team did provide some unique insights about low-budget filmmaking, which you can find below:
1. Work with people. Do more than just give and take orders.
In the case of Blumhouse, collaboration sits at the center of what the company describes as its “director-oriented approach” to filmmaking, which grew out of their firm low-budget production model. Head of Physical Production Jeannette Volturno-Brill told the audience that Blumhouse extends a director free reign over a film as long as the scope of his or her vision remains within the confines of the budget. She likened the director to “MacGyver.” “We say, ‘You’re a MacGyver. You have two Popsicle sticks and a roll of duct tape — what do you want to make?'” To keep projects within their respective budgets, Volturno-Brill said she and her colleague, Blumhouse Head of Post-Production Phillip Daw, work closely with each director and the crew to determine how the money is best spent in line with the director’s vision for the film.
The collaborative spirit between Blumhouse executives and the directors and crew brought onboard for each project emerges from the $3-5 million production model, which is structured such that each participating entity — no matter whether it’s Blumhouse, the director, the crew or the actors — enters into a project on an equal financial footing. According to Blum, $3-5 million “is about what we are able to recoup on the movies if they don’t get a wide release. In a worst case scenario we break even, or maybe lose a little bit of money, but not very much, and everyone gets paid scale.” Because no one entity has more or less to lose than another, collaboration between all parties becomes all that much easier and, as Blum also noted with regard to Blumhouse in particular, “it allows us to do all the stuff I talked about — to take chances, do weird things, do different kinds of movies.”
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2. Work with the same people. If not always, then as often as you can.
One of Volturno-Brill’s biggest priorities — which makes it one of Blumhouse’s biggest priorities as well — is her commitment to the crew. Throughout the panel discussion, Volturno-Brill stressed the importance of taking care of your crew — noting, in particular, how most of the people that fill the positions on a Blumhouse set are people who have worked on another one of the company’s projects (or perhaps even more than one) before.
According to Volturno-Brill, working with the same crew on multiple projects provides a certain level of stability to the production process that isn’t usually characteristic of the set of a film being helmed by a first or second-time director (which is generally the caliber of directors that Blumhouse works with on a regular basis). When Blumhouse has a rapport with crew members, it also makes Volturno-Brill’s job easier because it provides her with the creative muscle to guide the director such that that the film stays within budget, and the director never feels as if his or her vision is being compromised.
Blumhouse has facilitated long-term relationships with crew by bringing many aspects of the production process in-house, making it possible for them to edit, color correct, mix and even produce certain visual effects for their projects without having to go to a third-party provider.
3. Be flexible.
“We have to be nimble,” noted Blum very simply. “When directors and actors are working for scale, you shoot when they want to. When you’re paying them seven-figure sums, you shoot when you want to.” Being nimble means that once a script is ready to be shot and talent get attached, Blum and his team need to be ready at a moments notice because A-list talent won’t make a commitment to a low budget movie that plans to shoot in 12 months as it could potentially cost them a job on a much bigger budget film. Said Blum: “I have to be able to say, when you have a four month window, you call me and on Monday we’ll start our prep.”
4. Have fun.
“Everyone says we do low-budget because it’s big profits — and I’m not saying that isn’t a terrific thing,” Blum said. “But we’re certainly at a place in our lives where we could be doing expensive movies and we choose not to, and I really feel like there is a real correlation between not spending a lot of money and having fun.” The relationship between the amount of money spent on a production and the enjoyment factor ties back to the fact that the low-budget model is set up such that everybody involved has very little to lose and almost everything to gain. “Shooting begets shooting,” he said, “and it keeps you out of your office in your head going crazy. You interact with people who are making things, even if it’s at a very rudimentary beginning level.”
5. Don’t chase “what’s hot” — just focus on what you like.
Chasing after the so-called next big thing is similar to when a dog tries to chase its own tail. Just when you think you think you’ve got it, it slips out of your grasp and then you are right back where you started. “We all do it,” Blumhouse Head of Television Jessica Rhoades noted during the discussion, “[try] to anticipate what our boss is going to like.” At Blumhouse, however, Rhoades said that she and her colleagues are encouraged to follow their gut. “Gut check,” she called it — meaning that if a project gets you and the people that you work with excited, then it’s worth pursuing, in spite of what a trend report might say.
Perhaps the most instructive example of this philosophy is Blumhouse’s involvement with Andrew Jarecki’s six-part docuseries, “The Jinx,” which aired on HBO earlier this year. Jarecki, Blum said, came to him with all six episodes ready to go and in search of a provider to put them on the air. After watching the first episode, Blum was so impressed that he didn’t need any more convincing. “I feel like that’s one of the things that I am proudest of our team for — finding things that are really off-beat like that,” said Blum. “It seems, in retrospect, not offbeat, but before there was all this stuff around it, it was very offbeat.”
Although Blum admitted that projects like “The Jinx” and “Whiplash” do not specifically fit under the Blumhouse horror brand per se, he argued they do fit into the bigger picture. “We’re in a position now — a very lucky position now — where we have a certain amount of clout in the business and so, we can get things made that are tricky or hard to get made.”