Film News

Horror pictures face brutal rivalry at box office

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - At the box office, where blood has been flowing freely this month, a final showdown looms for Halloween weekend.

Lionsgate’s “Saw” franchise, whose previous installment “Saw VI” was pretty anemic, is looking for a fresh transfusion by promising moviegoers that this time around the sadism will jump from the screen in 3D. But it faces formidable competition from the second weekend of Paramount’s “Paranormal Activity 2,” which has bewitched crowds with its low-tech approach to scares that are more suggestive than graphically violent.

Hollywood’s seasonal, fall flirtation with relatively low-budget blood-and-gore movies might look as if it’s simply an appeal to moviegoers’ baser instincts, but audiences can be discerning and the competition brutal.

Starting just before Labor Day, studios annually trot out a frightfest of slasher pics and other horror films. This year’s ghoulish conga line was particularly crowded. A few movies, like Universal’s “Devil,” with a domestic gross of $32.4 million, posted modest returns, while others, such as Paramount Vantage’s “Case 39” ($12.7 million) and Relativity/Overture’s “Let Me In” ($11.6 million), were left bleeding at the side of the road.

Why do the studios force so many horror pictures into such a narrow window? The answer has as much to do with economics as it does Halloween tie-ins.

Genre-picture distributors gravitate toward early fall partly because they don’t have to face major tentpole releases, giving movies with more modest ambitions space to operate. That’s literally true in multiplexes, where screens are more available than during most other times of year, but the absence of major titles also makes prospective patrons more likely to focus on the marketing messages for less star-driven fare.

Because horror pictures tend to boast skimpy marketing budgets, they need to find a setting where they can maximize their dollars.

“This is one of the few genres you can sell on the cheap,” said Robert Marich, editor of “A good YouTube trailer with some gory scenes is a cheap and effective way to go. That mechanism doesn’t work for a lot of other genres, but all the youth-oriented media are highly engaged with horror films.”

Horror pictures toting modestly bigger negative costs -- like the Universal-distributed Rogue release “My Soul to Take,” a $30 million production including 3D conversion costs -- are more likely to augment cyber-campaigns with traditional TV advertising. But even there, marketers tread lightly and tend to lean on the less-costly basic-cable buys including Syfy, FearNet and Chiller. (Horror ads also show up occasionally on the somewhat pricier and youth-rich MTV.)

Even the most expensive horror campaigns seldom cost more than high-teen millions, and marketing on less ambitious pictures generally is confined to the single-digit millions.

“Horror films tend to be low-budget and high-concept, with a rapid burn-off in the marketplace,” Marich said. “They’re in the fall because it’s essentially a dumping ground as an off-peak period, and with Halloween you do have some topicality.”

This fall, though, the onslaught of releases, even some with impeccable genre credentials, might have cannibalized one another.

Even though it carried the imprimatur of writer-director Wes Craven, whose credits range from the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to the “Scream” trilogy,” the serial-killer movie “Soul” has taken in just $14 million during its first three weekends. “Let Me In,” a remake of the critically admired 2008 Swedish teen vampire tale “Let the Right One In,” earned an 89% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. But though it was billed as the first film from director Matt Reeves since his breakout hit “Cloverfield,” moviegoers gave it the cold shoulder.

Still, if a horror film hits, it quickly can develop a rabid fan base.

Even though “Saw VI” showed signs of franchise fatigue with a $14.1 million bow and $27.9 million total domestic haul last year, over the long run, the series has provided Lionsgate with a nice annuity. The studio will try to get one more round of extra-dimensional play out of the series with “Saw 3D.” The calculation is that 3D enthusiasm will re-engerize the fan base with a must-see sense of urgency.

“We shot it in 3D to event-ize the film,” Lionsgate distribution president David Spitz said. “This is also the final chapter in the franchise.”

The question is where the “Saw” and “Paranormal” pictures can co-exist in multiplexes this weekend.

Before its bow last weekend, Paramount executives acknowledged that “Paranormal 2” likely would prove a one-weekend wonder. That’s just how it goes with most low-budget horror pictures and many other fan-fueled wide releases.

But with “Paranormal 2” overachieving with a $40.7 million opening weekend, Paramount executive vp of distribution Don Harris said he now hopes it can avoid the usual horror befalling horror pictures in their sophomore sessions.

“I’ve got a feeling it’s going to hang around for a while,” he said.

Compared with those horror titles that faded quickly, “Paranormal 2” already has made a killing.