Jason Blum to the Sundance Producers Brunch: ‘Don’t Get in the Way’ and 10 Other Pieces of Advice

The Blumhouse founder shared words of wisdom.
Jason Blum (Producer)Universal Pictures presents a Special Screening of 'SPLIT', NewYork, USA - 18 Jan 2017
Jason Blum at the premiere of "Split"

In a speech to the Producers Brunch at Sundance this morning, Jason Blum boiled down his advice to one simple directive: Don’t get in the way. The Blumhouse founder, whose recent hits include “Get Out” and “Split,” also shared a list of 10 things he would tell a producer not to do — including not to worry about getting a theatrical release and not to judge a project by its script.

Don’t force creative decisions on a filmmaker

“If the filmmaker knows from the get-go that he or she has the controlling decision when it comes to creative direction, then the filmmaker will listen to you more closely. And you will make your creative arguments with stronger reasoning because you know you can’t force the filmmaker to take the note.

“Success stems from the producer creating the optimal conditions for the filmmaker’s own creative process. NOT from steering the filmmaker through a one-size-fits-all approach.

“I’ve used the example of ‘Get Out’ quite a few times over the past year. Jordan Peele is an incredibly accomplished first-time director who had a very clear vision for the story he wanted to tell. When a test screening for the film showed the audience reacting negatively to the film’s downbeat ending, he was much more open to changing it because he knew that he was in charge.”

Don’t be overly passionate about one project

“The first thing I learned as a producer is that you have very little control over the life of a project. Anything can stall a film from financing to scheduling to casting. Things fall apart all the time. Don’t waste time on something that just won’t get made. Try to have as many projects going at one time as you can handle.

“You can be passionate about one impossible project. The key here is to recognize when something is unmakable and change it so that it is makable. ‘Whiplash’ was unmakable. But we knew we had to make it, so we made a short. That short won Sundance. That’s what made it makable (barely).”

Don’t take it to heart when you get a pass

“Here’s the great thing about the movie business. Most of the most successful films Blumhouse has made have been rejected by everyone else. No one wanted to make ‘Get Out.’ Nobody. Nobody wanted to make ‘The Purge.’ I think it was floating around for three years before it came to us. Nobody wanted to make ‘The Gift,’ when it was a script called ‘Weirdo.’ Nobody wanted to distribute ‘Paranormal Activity’ — even after it was finished. And nobody wanted to make — or even buy — ‘Whiplash’ as a finished movie.

“If you are still thinking about a script after five or ten years, that’s a sign that it’s GOOD — not that it’s stale. And the opposite is true — if EVERYONE wants to make your movie, that’s a sign that it probably sucks.”

“Get Out”

Don’t make your movie too expensively.

“At Blumhouse we make micro-budget films for a reason: The stakes are much lower, so we can look for films that have NOT been done before. We don’t want to make a film that looks like three other films. But, if you are making a big-budget movie, comps have to be part of the green-light process. There is just too much at stake.

“I enjoy the restrictions of low-budget filmmaking because I believe you make better movies when everyone involved in the film only gets paid if what they do makes money. It makes all the creative conversations around the movie more honest.

“So if you come across original material that you love, find a way to make it low-budget.”

Don’t think there is just one definition for a producer

“Some people are just better at business, or talent relations, or creative development.

“If you are better at one thing, be okay with that. If you are better at development and want to learn more about production, make sure you are humble about it — acknowledge that you don’t know how to read that call sheet. Same thing goes for dealing with talent negotiations or financing issues. Lead with your strength and be humble about the rest.”

Don’t worry about your movie getting a theatrical release

“A theatrical release is not the be all and end all.

“There are so many ways to release and consume films these days that do not have the inherent pressure of a theatrical release. Blumhouse is making movies for streaming services like Amazon and Netflix, which have huge audiences, can be very profitable and have none of the pressure that comes with a theatrical release.

“Here’s an example: We helped Mark Duplass and Patrick Brice with their movie ‘Creep,’ back when it was called ‘Peach Fuzz.’ I thought it could maybe get a theatrical release — it was like a found-footage version of ‘Single White Male.’ It premiered at SXSW and Netflix ended up making an offer. ‘Creep 2’ is on Netflix now and it’s incredible. And now Mark and Patrick are going to make one ‘Creep’ movie a year for the next 20 years.

“We intentionally make all our movies without a release strategy — which removes the pressure on a filmmaker that goes along with making a wide-release film. We finish the film, screen it and then decide what lane the movie will take.”

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JK Simmons
'Whiplash' Film - 2014

Don’t worry about taking a back seat to a director or writer

“If you ever have an opportunity to work with a visionary filmmaker, jump at it. Don’t be intimidated and don’t let your ego get in the way. It will make you a better producer. Night Shaymalan is a great artist, so is Damien Chazelle and Jordan Peele. One of the highlights of my career has been helping to cut a path for each of them to realize his singular vision.”

Don’t just judge a project by the script

“It’s about so much more. You need to look at the whole package — who is attached, are there actors, directors, cinematographers, composers or others you want to work with? Will the project challenge you in new ways? Making a movie is taking a huge jump into the unknown and there are so many ways it can go sideways. If there are people you can learn from and could spend time with in a foxhole, that is just as important to your overall career as finding the most compelling script.”

Don’t look for the negative when reading material

“The longer you are in the business, the more material comes your way. It becomes easy after a while to get lazy and dismiss everything as garbage. You have to find a way to focus on areas that show promise. Every script is a work in progress — it’s a blueprint for something else — so if there is a character or storyline that grabs you, it is sometimes worth pursuing, even if the overall script feels uneven. I am very lucky because I have surrounded myself with a bunch of smart and very opinionated people who get together every Monday to talk about what we’ve read over the weekend. We push each other to defend our opinions — both positive and negative.

“We had one very spirited discussion about ‘The Boy Next Door,’ an erotic thriller about a divorcee who embarks on an affair with one of her son’s friends. Certainly not the most original premise, but with Jennifer Lopez, some script work and a skilled director, it became a successful R-rated, wide-release thriller.”

Don’t subscribe to the notion of high art vs. low art

“I grew up in the art world. My mother was an art historian and my father ran a gallery, so I spent a lot of my childhood surrounded by artists and talking about art. I loved soaking up those conversations. And I knew from a young age that I wanted to do something that would bring artistry to the masses as opposed to just the coastal elite. Blumhouse would not exist if it were not for that early experience.

“My dad represented Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein at a time when their work was derided and not taken seriously by the art world. That stuck with me.

“Genre movies are sometimes given similar treatment — seen as inconsequential and not real “art.” I have never believed that and I think we’re experiencing a horror renaissance right now because films like ‘Get Out’ and ‘It’ are delivering deep messages about the times we’re living in that happen to be packaged in the horror genre.

The bottom line is film history will reward quality without regard to “genre.” Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford were, in their day, genre filmmakers. No one remembers ‘Wings’ (the first film to win best picture). But everyone remembers three other non-prestige releases from that year — ‘The General,’ and ‘The Jazz Singer,’ and ‘Metropolis.'”

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