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How the box office success of 'Get Out' is going to reshape kids' films

  • The return on investment of the horror film "Get Out," produced by Jason Blum on a tight budget of $4.8 million and now up to a worldwide gross of $247 million, shocked Hollywood.
  • Blum's success in the horror genre is likely to be imitated by smaller, struggling studios.
  • Besides horror, the Blum way will also likely bleed over to other genres — like kids' animation.
Daniel Kaluuya in "Get Out."
Source: Universal
Daniel Kaluuya in "Get Out."

One of the biggest Hollywood shockers in 2017 was the return on investment of the creepy horror film "Get Out." Produced by Jason Blum on a tight budget of $4.8 million, the Jordan Peele flick is now up to a worldwide gross of $247 million.

Jason Blum has been following the same formula for 15 years: Focus on the horror genre that is a consistently profitable niche especially with young audiences, spend $5 million or less per film, and — when it works — see these films hit in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The approach has led to a string of hits and profitable sequels including "Purge," "Insidious," "Paranormal Activity" and "Split."

It's a method that flies in the face of one of Hollywood's biggest trends right now: Sequels based on proven franchises. "Transformers," "Pirates of the Caribbean," "The Mummy," "Guardians of the Galaxy 2," "Justice League," "Wonder Woman," and the new "Star Wars." These are some of the big blockbusters being released this year.

The franchises have enormous production budgets but hope to make it up as audiences recognize the names and stories. Sometimes these high-risk gambles pay off (as with "Wonder Woman" or "Guardians of the Galaxy"); sometimes they don't (see the recent "Fox Alien" film or last year's "Batman v. Superman").

Blum has shown Hollywood that you can win at a different game — a game of singles and doubles, rather than trying to hit a grand slam each time.

Hollywood as a whole is hunting for recipes for more profits. Disney is ruling the roost at the box office these days. It broke the $7 billion mark at the box office last year for the first time due to its string of franchise hits. Yet studios like Sony Pictures and Paramount are regrouping with new leadership after years of financial disappointments.

Blum's success in the horror genre won't go unnoticed. It's likely to be imitated by smaller, struggling studios.

And besides horror, the Blum way will also likely bleed over to other genres — like kids' animation.

You would think that kids' animated movies would consistently cost less than live action movies. That depends. They certainly consistently cost less than the biggest franchise blockbusters, but they are still eye-poppingly expensive:

  • Pixar films (owned by Disney) usually come with production budgets of $200 million.
  • DreamWorks Animation (now owned by Universal) reportedly spent $145 million apiece on "Kung Fu Panda 3" and "How To Train Your Dragon 3."
  • Sony Pictures' "Boss Baby" cost $125 million to make; so did "Trolls."
  • "Smurfs 1" cost $115 million to make.
  • "Smurfs 2" cost $105 million.
  • Universal's "Sing" cost $75 million.

So some Hollywood execs cheered to hear that last weekend's "Captain Underpants" cost "only" $38 million to make and made $24 million in its first weekend (beating out Pirates in its 2nd week of release).

This wasn't by chance. Universal and DreamWorks execs definitely focused on ways to cut costs, including making the film at a studio in Canada for far less than a typical animated film.

Yet, compared to "Get Out's" production budget of less than $5 million, "Captain Underpants" still seems positively extravagant.

How would Jason Blum make a kids' animated movie closer to his typical production budget? Unquestionably, he would avoid star actor voices, as is the norm today. You won't find a "star" in any of his films. The story is the "star."

An image from the movie "Boss Baby."
Source: DreamWorks Animation
An image from the movie "Boss Baby."

In the case of "Captain Underpants," the intellectual property is well known to kids in the 3-to-12 range due to the popular book series. Did any of them clamor to see the film this past weekend because Kevin Hart, Thomas Middleditch and Ed Helms were the voice talent used for the main characters? How much could "Captain Underpants" have been made for with unknowns doing the voice work?

I'm sure part of the thinking by Hollywood execs is that it's the parents spending the money to take the kids and therefore you need to have those stars attached to it to attract the parents. But is that really true? Did parents or kids boycott "Moana" because an unknown girl was the voice of the star? Or did they only go because The Rock was attached to it?

In the case of my family, the choice comes down to what other kids' films are competing for attention that weekend and which one is supposed to have the best story.

A few weekends ago, my kids wanted to see the new "Smurfs" film from Sony. I didn't even know they'd made a third. I've learned since that the film's made over $180 million. Right away, I noticed that Sony had gotten rid of the live actors and gone completely animated. I assumed the film must have been much cheaper to make than the first 2, which it was. But I was surprised to find out later that it still cost $60 million (instead of over $100 million). I couldn't figure out why until I saw the list of voice talent: Demi Lovato, Rainn Wilson, Julia Roberts, Michelle Rodriguez, and Mandy Patinkin. Yet, neither I nor my kids had a clue they were the "stars" of the film. What could Sony have made that film for without them?

Some will say that "Boss Baby" made $475 million, so what's the problem if they spent $125 million making it? But any studio head knows that you only need a couple of big budget misses in a year to sink you financially and possibly cost you your job.

"We've always done it this way" is never a great way to defend yourself against tough questions from your boss or shareholders about making money. As we've seen with "Moneyball" and professional sports, eventually logic, stats, and return on investment win out over the long arc of time.

Five years from now, kids' animated films will be consistently closer to Jason Blum-level production budgets than $100 million ones. And studios, audiences and shareholders will be happier for it.

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