WHY HORROR MAKES MONEY
One of the elements I mentioned in my plea about the advantages of attending a film festival like Sitges, was the possibility to see films produced by small companies, for whom it is much more complicated, not only access festivals and the industry at large, but to have their existence noticed; cinema with a minimal distribution or which is limited to concrete circles. My years attending these events have shown me, once again that budget and talent aren’t directly related or proportional; in fact, budgetary limitations can become a great fuel for creativity.
The fantastic and horror genres, which define Sitges Film Festival, have given us noteworthy examples of this, starting with George A. Romeros’ “Night of the living dead”, film that was shot on barely 100k $, a totally unknown cast and using a bunch of ideas and creative solutions that solved the budget limitations. The film by Romero became a reference in B series zombie films, for posterior horror films, getting a box office turnover 270 times than the original investment — the estimates for its global box office are of 30 million dollars, without counting all the other residual income since its premiere in 1968.
Another famous example of how problems are turned into creative solutions is “Jaws”, by a very young Spielberg, who would have to go through constant problems with the giant robot shark, which didn’t work well in water. They couldn’t destine more budget to create new versions of Bruce (yes, the killer’s shark has got a name), so Spielberg decided to play with the off-screen technique and the tension that is created by knowing that there’s a looming danger, but not knowing where it comes from. Four strings from John Williams and fantastic use of suspense is what stands out most in this masterpiece of the genre. “Jaws” is what it is thanks to an atrezzo mistake, so to speak.
James Ward Bykrit shot “Coherence”, his first film as a director, with a minimal budget, in five days, with one set (his house) and a mishmash of loops and very stimulating space-time paradoxes, which tension is built through dialogue. The film made 100k dollars in the whole world and had succeeded in various genre film festivals, like Sitges. In low-cost science fiction we can find other examples, like “Primer”, “Upstream Color”, titles which turned Shane Carruth in a cult director; “Moon”, which launched Duncan Jones’ career or “Another Earth”.
If you have the feeling that lately you are seeing more and more horror films, you are right. In a moment where production and distribution companies are looking for less risks and more guarantees, genre films profitability is very attractive. The chart above is part of a study conducted by Stephen Follows about the low cost horror film production (from 500.000$ to 5 million dollars) in the United States; the study also offers a comparison between genres and the probability that a certain title might be profitable. Horror is in the first position with 50%.
Apart from its quality to be easily entertaining, maybe of the main reasons for the success of horror is how open the audience is to what a specific title might offer, and how well received original ideas are, be well or badly executed (the subject of quality is also reviewed in Follows’ study). And all of this without mattering if there’s a big saturation of horror titles or not.
You would think that at this point, with so many zombie and infection stories, since those living dead by Romero, it would be complicated to get the attention of the audience with stories like these, and yet, we find a number of titles which have stood out and had big, as niche, success. The bold and frenzied Train to Busan multiplied almost by ten its budget of 8 million dollars, thanks to its success in film festivals, which translated into the box office. The turn of the screw within the genre of the British flick The Girl with all the Gifts achieved to get a spot amongst cult horror films, and the drama portrayed in the french Les Affamés and La nuit a dévoré le monde were big successes at festivals, but the most striking and recent example is the Japanese One Cut of the Dead.
With a budget of 27.000 dollars, a cast of students from an acting seminar and 8 days of shooting, have turned this horror comedy, so original and fun, in one of the most astounding and impressive box office phenomenons of 2018. It started little by little, conquering the audience prizes of various film festivals (it has already accumulated 18 prizes), receiving 1 minute long ovations (my example at the Sitges screening), until it got to the Japanese cinemas, where hell broke loose. It has been for three months in the box office top 10 (at the beginning of November it was still in the 10th position), it has sold more than 2 million cinema tickets (which translates into 27 million dollars) and has been distributed in other Asian countries, with a similar reception.
Why this madness? The film by Shinichiro Ueda goes beyond making a genre parody and plays with the expectations of the audience, he gives us a third act full of brilliant and hilarious scenes, which I hadn’t seen in a long time. I would like to be more specific on the matter how the film structures turns, making one of its most attractive points, the lack of budget; but it is better to see it without knowing much about it. This is one of those cases where word of mouth is everything.
What should I do if I come up with such a brilliant idea for a film as Ueda did? A resource reachable for anyone is crowdfunding. It’s not only a way of getting financing but the fact that you show your idea and that you reach out to individuals who might be interested in it, will give a certain security and guarantee to possible investors and production companies, minimizing risk.
This is what the directors of Prospect did, another of the genre titles which was screened this year at Sitges Film Festival. This kind of sci-fi western is an adaptation of a short film that Zeek Earl and Christopher Caldwell financed through Kickstarter. They reached their 20.000 dollar goal and presented the short at SXSW festival, where it got some attention. With this CV in hand, which had a successful number of views on Vimeo, they got a Canadian production company to finance the feature version.
Prospect is also another example of how the lack of budget can feed creativity. Earl and Caldwell in an interview talk about how they dedicated a lot of time to brainstorm with technicians and artists of each department of the short, to find ideas which would give the production more value, having a limited budget. In spite of its simpleness, the construction of the universe of the film (which takes places in a far away planet and in a spaceship) is as complete as realist as it can get, and it is patent the care and attention to detail, from something as prominent as photography to small atrezzo details.
And though crowdfunding might seem like a harder option in a country with much less population, like Spain, there’s also success cases. Dhogs, the first feature film of director Andrés Goteira, which also went through Sitges Film Festival, got financing from its home province of Lug, but also got 10% of its budget through a crowdfunding campaign on Verkami.
The Head was another feature shown at Sitges, an obscure story about a Viking and its vengeance against orcs, goblins and other fantastical creatures. At the presentation, the producers of the film explained how the had shot it with a minimal budget, a three people crew, one actor, 40 pages of script and an abandoned house in a remote Portuguese village, property of the grandmother of one of them. A home made concoction of very attractive horror, on the basis of chiaroscuros, off-screen action, very tight shots and very practical special effects which compensate the lack of means, with a well constructed tension throughout the film. After its run through several festivals, The Head has achieved a distribution deal with Vertical Entertainment.
Talking about film festivals, we can’t lose sight of the opportunity some offer in the form of pitching contests, coproduction forums and similar initiatives. Regarding fantasy, sci-fi and horror cinema goes, Sitges Pitchbox is, at the moment, one of the most important events in Europe, but you shouldn’t limit yourself to calls of this genre only.
Horror is also DRAMA
In this resurgence of genre films, stands out a tendency to tell dramatic stories by using horror to explore trauma or even social conflict. Get Out, which horror is rooted in the racial conflict that is lived in the United States, has been one of the few genre films in reaching the main categories in the Oscars. This year, a lot of noise was made with the release of A quiet place (pun intended), which with its 17 million dollar budget has made almost 350 million around the world. It isn’t as indie as other mentioned films in this article, but apart from the visibility that it might gotten thanks to its director and main character, and due to Paramount’s marketing machinery, the core of its success is in its main concept. The quiet routine of this family living in a post-apocalyptical environment and how it connects to its underlying drama.
In this line we find another of the big successes of the year, Hereditary, a psychological horror tale about mental health and loss, told through the horror genre. In recent editions of the Sitges Film Festival, titles in this line that sparkled were The Babadook, which take the post-birth depression and the relationship between a mother and its son to horrific terrains, or Under the Shadow, an Iranian production which transports horror of the war between Iran and Iraq in the 80s to a story of a haunted house. Amongst associations with themes such as equality (the theme of the paper women play in those countries is also touched upon slightly in the film), the collaboration of the Doha Film Institute (Qatar) and the British coproduction, reached to put together 1 million dollars to shoot this film, which afterwards would stand out at Sundance, would be bought by Netflix and would end up as the candidate for the Oscars for the UK in 2017.
It is this way of transforming into horror dramas that are so horrible and tangible as having a bomb falling into a block of apartments, which gets to the audience; without taking into account the amount of VFX, setups or other production values. The trauma gets to us. Another example, is the recent success of The Haunting of Hill House, a Netflix show which makes tangible mental illness, addictions and childhood traumas, via ghosts.
By the way, with the intention of making social or dramatic cinema through the lens of horror in mind, there are options to finance offered at film festivals, such as “Cinema in construction” (Latin American projects), the “Co-production forum for Europe and Latin America” or the “Glocal in Progress” at San Sebastián film festival, other calls and contests can be found at Málaga Film Festival, Gijón or Albacete Film Festival, SEMINCI or Euro Connection offers funding for distribution, a coproduction meeting for short films from European countries.
Summarizing, after this potpourri of ideas around horror, small budgets, creativity as a resource to find financial solutions, I hope I’ve been able to pass on this last idea to you: horror is one of the most favorable genres to delve into when you have just a bunch of dollars to invest in making a film, be it you want to tell an epic dramatic story or a tense survival film, with its shabby, non realistic looking blood. I don’t think there’s another genre where the audience will go with a more open mind and disposed to enjoy as in horror; as long as you don’t go for a promotion campaign as was done with “The Village”, by Shyamalan, but that’s another story for another day.