Blumhouse Productions has blazed a bloody trail through Hollywood over the past 13 years. With its low budget hits and countless sequels (a fifth instalment in The Purge franchise is due this July), Jason Blum’s house of horror has been scoring big for filmmakers like Jordan Peele and M. Night Shyamalan while turning a tidy profit since 2007, when the first Paranormal Activity racked up nearly $200m against a $15,000 budget. Incredibly, it remains one of the most profitable movies of all time.
In April 2020, when one of the last proper box office reports was issued, just 14 cinemas remained open across the entire of America. 13 were drive-in theatres – and all of them were playing just three new releases: Pixar’s sentimental family flick Onward, and Blumhouse Productions’ The Invisible Man and The Hunt. If you were venturing out to one of the few screens weathering the storm, the chances were that you would be watching a Blumhouse horror.
In an oversaturated market, who would have thought an independent studio could stand up to the might of the MCU, Star Wars and Disney – and survive. Even after the industry has ground despairingly to a COVID-induced halt, Blumhouse’s ramshackle assortment of found footage thrill rides and creepy doll origin stories has continued to rack up new viewers via streaming, despite holding no real star power and R-ratings across the board.
Initially set for release in September 2019, The Hunt is a gun-toting survival thriller that cashes in on the class war zeitgeist. Deemed too controversial to release so close to the El Paso mass shootings the month prior, the film was pushed back to March 2020. The media debate that the delay sparked – plus President Trump’s Twitter criticism of the movie’s anti-conservative agenda – helped to stir public curiosity, and the film managed to hang on long enough to squeeze into those final few pre-COVID screens, boosting its final take.
Then there’s The Invisible Man – a modern retelling of H. G. Wells’ 1897 book that sees Elisabeth Moss play a domestic abuse survivor whose scientist-ex finds a way to make himself invisible in order to track her down. To date, the film has chalked up over $126m against its $7m budget, making it the fifth highest-grossing film of 2020 so far. This is the perfect example of Blumhouse at its best: a relatively star-free cast (Elisabeth Moss takes her first leading role in a mainstream movie) and a restrictive rating, that nonetheless tapped into an appetite for violent female redemption while showcasing the studio’s reputation for pairing shock scares and theatrical gore with timely social commentary.
Of course, Blumhouse has been on a winning streak for years. Rattling off genre-reinventing titles like Get Out, as well as frequent Oscar contenders such as Whip It and BlacKkKlansman, the studio has perfected the formula for low budget productions that still make a ton of cash (Get Out brought in $255m on a $4.5m budget). But 2020 can arguably be seen as a perfect capsule of the studio today: one inevitable misfire (supernatural horror Fantasy Island), one heavyweight success (The Invisible Man), and two new entries from lucrative franchises on the way (Halloween Kills is due for release in October; The Forever Purge in July).
However, this is also the year that the film industry completely turned in on itself. Major cinema chains and Universal Pictures are feuding over exhibition strategies, second quarter releases hang in the air, while halted productions have had a massive impact on employment and heavily disrupted the flow of output. And this is just the start. It’s an unpredictable, completely new phase of moviemaking where blockbuster productions and small indie features face similar battles for the first time.
It’s also the reason that Blumhouse could have a shot at being the most successful production studio of 2020. In a weird quirk of fate, all four of its features could see a relatively undisturbed theatrical release either side of the lockdown window, while other blockbuster titles have been caught in the middle.
Of course, major cinema chains (and Christopher Nolan) might seem overly optimistic that their doors will reopen in early July – the week before The Forever Purge is due for release – but there is a chance that social distancing might not scupper attendance. That Blumhouse’s last two films made a collective profit of $380 million is certainly not to be scoffed at. If anyone can steer moviegoers back to the multiplex, Blumhouse can.