Ethan Hawke didn’t exactly get the star treatment when he was working on The Purge. While shooting the 2013 horror film about a near-future America with an annual crime free-for-all, the actor was paid scale, went without a trailer, and slept on producer Jason Blum’s couch, according to The Hollywood Reporter. He was rewarded for these sacrifices with a $2 million cut of the profits and his first No. 1 opening since Training Day. (The Purge would eventually earn over $64 million.) Hawke discovered what more and more mid-level actors are realizing: Making a microbudget horror film is an excellent career move.
The latest actor to sign on for a spooky shoestring production is Dermot Mulroney, who has just been tapped for Insidious: Chapter 3. Patrick Wilson starred in the first two “chapters,” and also starred opposite Vera Farmiga in the haunted-house flick The Conjuring. (Both will return for The Conjuring 2 next year.) Keri Russell took a lead role in last year’s Dark Skies. Eric Bana appears in this summers paranormal drama Deliver Us From Evil. And Kevin Bacon is now shooting the supernatural horror film 6 Miranda Drive.
With the exception of The Conjuring and Deliver Us From Evil, all of these movies have one man in common: Jason Blum, the producer who let Hawke crash on his couch. Beginning with Paranormal Activity in 2007, his Blumhouse Productions is almost single-handedly responsible for the success of the micro-budget horror genre. While some of Blum’s films star unknowns (like those in the Paranormal Activity movies) or rising actors (Evan Peters and Donald Glover in the upcoming Lazarus), the producer has a knack for recruiting a certain type of star. Hawke, Wilson, and Mulroney are all recognizable names who can still draw audiences, but at the time Blum reeled them in, none were in a position to open a big-budget studio film.
Blum’s economic model also sweetens the deal for these actors. He’s developed a no-frills model of filmmaking, shooting his movies in less than a month with a budget of less than $5 million. Blum pays actors, directors, and himself either nothing up front or union-mandated scale in exchange for a percentage of the profits. Those can be considerable; per Businessweek, Blum’s ten biggest hits have grossed over $1.25 billion. But even a more modest film is likely to make a profit when the overhead is so low. With only a couple weeks of shooting to lose, actors in no-frills horror productions have the potential to net a much wider audience and a bigger payout than usual. Hawke’s back-end check for The Purge was twice his normal salary. And Wilson’s participation in The Conjuring and the Insidious films boosted his profile, which may have something to do with him landing a role in Marvel’s Ant-Man.
Obviously, this strategy wouldn’t work so well if the films didn’t attract an audience – and for now that doesn’t seem to be an issue. Last summer, The Conjuring and The Purge opened to far bigger box-office numbers than studio tent poles like Pacific Rim. With their respective budgets of $20 million and $3 million, these movies had much less to lose than their big-budget competition, and offered an excellent return on investment. Lesson learned: If you’re a mid-career actor with a few weeks to kill, spending them in a haunted house or a violent dystopia might be your best bet.
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