'Halloween' is a massive box office contender in this new era of blockbuster horror

Key Points
  • 'Halloween' is Fandango's biggest horror preseller of the year.
  • The film is expected to haul in as much as $100 million in its first weekend.
  • This sequel is being released at a time when the horror genre, is raking in blockbuster grosses.
  • Usually a domain for small-budget films, Hollywood has developed a fresh taste for big budget horror films.
A scene for the movie Halloween released in 2018. 
Source: Universal Studios

If advanced ticket sales are any indicator, "Halloween" is about to carve out one spectacular opening weekend.

The film set 40 years after the original "Halloween," surpassed "The Nun" as Fandango's biggest horror preseller of the year and is eyeing a first weekend box office haul of up to $100 million.

"Halloween" is being released at a time when the horror genre, always a money maker, is raking in even bigger blockbuster grosses with the releases of films like "Get Out" and "A Quiet Place." Usually a domain for small-budget films, Hollywood has developed a fresh taste for big budget horror films such as "It" and "The Conjuring 2."

Domestically, most estimates have "Halloween"  earning $65 million to $70 million, but that could be conservative. The slasher flick currently has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 81 percent and has the added benefit of being produced by Blumhouse, which has set a new standard for horror production in the 21st century, which is lifting the entire category.

In 2017, horror movies made more than $1 billion at the U.S. box office alone, that's up considerably since 2014, when horror films raked in $255 million

Blumhouse, which is known best for translating small budgets into huge box office receipts, has been responsible for the profitable and popular "Paranormal Activity" films as well as the Academy Award-winning "Get Out."

"Blumhouse seems to really have their finger on the pulse of what horror fans want and finding a way to cross over to audiences who may have been put off by horror movies," Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore, said.

However, "big budget" means something different when it comes to horror. Warner Bros.' "It" cost $35 million to make, quite a bit more than the $4.5 million of "Get Out," according to Box Office Mojo. But when compared to other Hollywood films, the larger horror movie budgets look tiny. For example, "Justice League," also from Warner, cost $300 million to make and made nearly $230 million in domestic grosses. "It," for a fraction of the production costs, made $327 million domestically.

It's the Blumhouse model on a bigger scale. "Paranormal Activity," which was released in 2009, had a budget of just $15,000 and went on to make more than $107 million in the U.S. and nearly $200 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo.

Because of this, horror films are one of the most consistently performing genre of all time, Dergarabedian said.

The new "Halloween" had a budget of $10 million, not including marketing costs, and appears to have recouped that cost in just one night. The film opened Thursday evening to the tune of around $10 million and is poised to have the second biggest horror movie opening ever, behind "It: Chapter One," which garnered $123 million in 2017.

For comparison, the original "Halloween" had a budget of about $320,000 and earned $47 million domestically. Adjusted for inflation, that's more than $177 million at the box office, according to comScore.

Cultivating cult audiences

"Horror has always occupied an essential place in the film industry landscape precisely for this reason," Adam Lowenstein, professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of "Shocking Representation," said. "You can make the films inexpensively and you have a built-in audience that is relatively forgiving ... they are devoted to the genre, they believe in it."

Unlike fans of comic book films, who can be easily turned off by an unfaithful adaptation of their favorite character, horror movie fans don't seem to mind if the film isn't totally up to par. So long as the movie had some good scares and was a fun experience, they will still turn out for the next installment.

This dedication to the genre means that film studios are almost always guaranteed to make money on their investment. However, it has also led to an tidal wave of horror films that spent less time on story-telling and more time on cheap scares and over-the-top gore.

This was particularly evident following the success of the original "Halloween" in 1978. While there were a number of horror films produced in the '80s and '90s that went on to cultivate cult audiences, the majority of films were panned by critics and the category was soon thought of as inferior compared to other genres.

However, that all changed in the early 2000s, according to Rick Worland, professor at Southern Methodist University and author of "The Horror Film: An Introduction."

"With 'The Ring' in 2002, there really started to be some attention to atmosphere when making horror films. [Filmmakers] weren't totally giving up on violence or gore, but were also adding this suspense element," he said. 

With the release of movies like "The Ring" and "The Grudge," Hollywood discovered that younger audiences, particularly young teenage girls would go to these films they weren't too gory, Worland said.

Movies like "The Orphanage," "Paranormal Activity," and "The Conjuring," would soon follow, dialing back the gratuitous violence in favor of creating moments of prolonged tension and dread.

At the same time, filmmakers were also reinventing how gore was used films. Movies like "Saw" and "Hostile" were extremely violent films, but were also commentaries on society and how we deal with torture, Andre Loiselle, dean of humanities at St. Thomas University, said.

An 'exciting moment' for horror

"The traditional horror film has always made a serious comment on society," he said. "But, those films were hiding their seriousness behind the spectacle of blood and gore. [These days there is] less blood and gore, the films have become less horrific, and the fact that they are serious social commentaries [is] more obvious."

Plus, there's more to watch. Online streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, and an increase in television horror shows like "The Walking Dead" and "American Horror Story" as well as even better access to international horror films have led spectators to not only want, but expect more. This in turn has created a more sophisticated audience, Loiselle said.

"The genre has broadly become more accessible and reputable," Worland said.

These films also are earning massive payouts, and garnering critical acclaim. Prior to "Get Out" winning an Oscar for best original screenplay, only five other films in the genre had ever been nominated for an Academy Award. Those films were "The Exorcist," "Jaws," "Silence of the Lambs," "The Sixth Sense" and "Black Swan."

There is already chatter that John Krasinski's "A Quiet Place" will receive a number of nominations. 

"It's an exciting moment in the horror genre," Lowenstein said.

Disclosure: CNBC's parent Comcast owns Fandango and Universal Pictures. "Halloween" is being distributed by Universal Pictures.