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Horror Stories: Examining the Business of Genre Filmmaking

Horror Stories: Examining the Business of Genre Filmmaking

Distribution

Right now, it’s the lowest of the low-budget horror moviemakers for whom VOD has had the most immediate effect, because—much like crowdfunding—they’re the ones who are most dependent on it. Says Kevin Kangas, known for 2004’s Fear of Clowns: “We’ve been waiting for this wave for a while, but I think it’s about to crest. For my newest film, Garden of Hedon, we didn’t even seek distribution—we created our own Blu-rays and put them on our site and on Amazon, and it’s also available to stream from Amazon, VHX, and Distrify. We’ve done very little advertising but the film has been doing excellent sales. I only wish Amazon would give us an idea of what was driving the buyer to our film, so we could target some ad dollars there.”

That lack of transparency, some think, belies fears that revenue will not materialize. “There is a significant lag in data when it comes to rental reporting for VOD,” Johnson says. “The reporting on the part of the multi-system operators is not instant the way it is on Digital HD platforms. It is not centralized, so it takes about two weeks to get the first week’s data and an even longer time for actual revenues coming into the studio.”

“When VOD numbers are listed publicly, the way theatrical box-office numbers are shared, it will be great not only for transparency, but also for building recognition for indie filmmakers to prove to investors that there is a viable way to earn revenue,” says Mena, owner of Long Island-based production company Crimson Films. “Until we can demonstrate those numbers are real, it will remain difficult to raise money in the current environment.”

Alexandra Daddario in Stevan Mena’s feature Bereavement. Photograph by Scott Krycia

Alexandra Daddario in Stevan Mena’s feature Bereavement (Photograph by Scott Krycia)

What can moviemakers do?

In order to attract financing for 2004’s Saw, friends and moviemaking partners James Wan and Leigh Whannell spent $5,000 to create a seven-minute short film based on their Saw script, which proved instrumental in securing the film’s eventual $700,000 shooting budget. “The most effective way to finance a film is to make a short two-minute trailer or clip of the project,” says Mena. “It’s so much easier to convey your vision through images than words, especially when you’re trying to sell someone on your ability to put together a feature film, which is never easy. There’s no excuse not to do it this way.”

“If you aren’t lucky enough to land a spot at a film festival,” advises Miska, “all you can really do is get in touch directly with buyers—either through a sales agent, meetings or attending a film market—and get their interest with a good sales promo and art. You’re playing with fire if you spend more than $250,000 on an indie genre film without a name director or talent. Unfortunately, delivering a movie, fixing problems, and going over budget can really fuck you in the end. So put aside 30 percent of the budget for emergencies and for delivering the film to a buyer.”

Be careful who you work with, though, as Sanchez warns. “There are so many people out there who talk a big game and then fall off the face of the earth once the rubber meets the road. We’ve learned that you can’t take anyone 100 percent seriously until the checks clear. It’s important that the people you surround yourself with are in it as vehemently as you are.”

Low-budget horror moviemakers need to fine-tune their marketing approach and work smarter, not harder. Johnson says, “Start with a marketable concept that isn’t too niche and use the tools we have today that weren’t available 10 years ago—Tumblr, Instagram, cookies, hashtags, etc. Horror has a definite audience and you have to know where to find it, but it is loyal. To market on a smaller budget, you need to be more effective in seeking out the real core audience, rather than casting a bigger net. Pay attention to the subgenres.”

What will the horror genre look like a decade from now? Will the Blum model still be around, or will the inherently cyclical nature of the horror genre have completely redrawn the low-budget horror landscape yet again? “I think theatrical distribution is going to largely leave horror behind, except for the cream of the most original ‘event’ films,” says Greutert, whose film Jessabelle is being released through VOD in November. “There have been too many sub-five-million-dollar movies, in which studios invested $25 million to advertise, that never made their money back, so they’re shying away from the formula.”

Stevens is philosophical, though optimistic. “Your perspective shifts a bit. Maybe there isn’t more money coming in, but what are the upsides? Our film played around the world in festivals, which gave us opportunities to meet more filmmakers, financiers and distributors. It played globally in cinemas and was easily available in retail outlets. This meant we were building an international audience and international distributors see value in that. It allowed us to secure more money on our other projects. Your definition of ‘profit’ expands a bit, working in this space.”

Horror never dies, and whatever business model independent horror moviemakers find themselves operating under in 10 years, they’ll still be making movies at whatever level they can afford to do so. “Horror will always have an audience,” says Kevin Sommerfield, owner of Wisconsin-based production company Slasher Studios. “The horror fan lives and dies with the genre and it’s a great sight to witness. I love being part of the horror community because it is a family that’s incredibly supportive of one another. It’s never going to be easy to make a profit, especially in today’s world of torrents and instant downloads, but it’s about doing what you love. As long as I’m able to make the next film, any money made is a mere bonus.”

“I never thought I’d be making horror films,” says Sanchez. “But [after Blair Witch], here I am 15 years later, still making horror movies! I am grateful to be where I am. A horror or genre film still has an incredibly high possibility of being distributed. I always tell filmmakers to go genre if they can.” MM

This article is printed in MovieMaker‘s Fall 2014 issue, on newsstands on November 25, 2014.

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