On July 21, 2015, the film producer Jason Blum posted a tweet that said, “I’d like to do a scary movie with Donald Trump.” One day later, comedian Jordan Peele replied to him, “Too late. You’ve already produced a movie called Insidious.” Two months after that exchange, news broke that Peele would be making his directorial debut, Get Out, with Blum’s production company Blumhouse. The announcement may have surprised those who associated Peele strictly with sketch comedy, but Key & Peele fans who remembered bits like “Exorcist” or “Baby Forest” could see he had a capacity for darkness. Two years later, the combination of Peele’s love of horror and his comic bona fides has produced cinematic gold: Get Out debuted atop the box office with $33 million, and has received such ecstatic reviews that it now sits at number 51 in Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the 100 most critically acclaimed films of all time.
In a recent conversation with Vulture, Blum was genuinely surprised to be reminded of that 2015 tweet, and insists he’s not as prescient as it may have made him seem. “I totally missed the boat on Donald Trump,” he admits. “I was like every other idiot watching TV for entertainment value.” Peele, on the other hand, wasn’t missing a damn thing. His incisive approach to subverting racial stereotypes, his masterly command of tone, and his facility with satire makes Get Out seem almost tailor-made for this cultural moment. But it also helps that in Blum, Peele found a producer who saw the movie’s potential and was willing to throw enough cash at the project to give it a fair shot.
By major motion picture standards, Get Out’s $4.5 million budget is a pittance, but by the standard of Blumhouse, it’s at the high end of normal. Blum has built his business — his very, very profitable business — by keeping costs as low as possible. It’s not about making winners, he says, as much as it about making movies that “don’t lose.” Then, every once in awhile, he releases a movie like Paranormal Activity, which made back almost 13,000 times its budget, and suddenly there’s extra money in the bank to fund an array of small, bold projects. That’s how Blumhouse has delivered some of the highest-profile horror franchises of the past decade, including the Paranormal movies, The Purge, and Insidious. It’s also how the company has delivered excellent one-offs like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit and Split, Joel Edgerton’s The Gift, the crime Western In a Valley of Violence, and even the Oscar darling Whiplash — movies that are indicative of Blum’s mission of evolving his studio’s artistic output while remaining true to its core edict: keeping the overhead low.
In the run-up to Get Out’s release, Vulture spoke to the horror impresario about the impact of Peele’s debut, how the genre has changed since he started his business ten years ago, and how you win big by playing not to lose.
The more I think about it and the more I read about it, Get Out feels like a total subversion of the horror genre. It twists around tropes in a way I don’t remember seeing before. Is this as new as it feels, or am I missing something?
I think so. It feels totally new. No one could make heads or tails out of this script, because it was so weird. It definitely feels like Jordan just did something really different on a storytelling level that’s never been done before. It’s amazing. Really impressive.
My main concern with horror is that it’s a really smart medium that doesn’t get the mainstream attention that it deserves.
We’ve all been thinking about politics a lot lately, and I’ve been thinking about popular art as a form of activism. You have to be a businessman first to be successful, but do you find your own personal agenda gets into the art as well?
Yes. It’s impossible not to.
And you feel comfortable with that role?
Oh, yeah. It’s one of the things I love about my job, but — and this is where some people make a mistake — I would never tell a filmmaker, “Make a point about this” or “Make a point about that.” I think it’s super-lame. I’m attracted to things that make a point or have a certain point of view, but it’s not a conscious thing that I decide to do every morning. Unconsciously, what I like has a social commentary in it, or it’s about race, or it’s risky to do. That’s what I like doing.
When I was watching Get Out, I found the issue of race presented in a horror-film context to be very effective. Did you have any conversations with Jordan in making Get Out, just as a person working alongside him, about the monster of liberal white racism?
Yes. There were a lot of parts of the movie that I really didn’t understand that well, so I asked him, and he explained it to me. The idea of the liberal white racism, he explained it to me in a way that I hadn’t thought about it before.
It did that for me, too. I was grateful to be made so uncomfortable by how explicitly it says that life is legitimately a horror show for many people.
You think about being a racist yourself. I put myself in that category of the elites, and certainly the movie, and just talking to Jordan, made me think about the racism that’s in all of us, and in me. It makes you aware of it, which is a very good thing.
Were you guys the first studio he talked to about it, or had he been pitching it around?
He wrote the script and I think it was kind of making its way around town. We’ve had the most success with movies that are not the new bright and shiny object. The Gift was shopped all over the place. The Purge was shopped all over the place. Paranormal Activity was shopped all over the place. So it had kind of been making the rounds. I didn’t hear the pitch. I read the script and then I met Jordan afterward, but I loved it. It was so original. It is about race and it is about Donald Trump, and it’s about all these other things. I loved a lot of things about it, but the politics is certainly one of the many aspects I loved about it.
Historically, eras in which we have conservative governments, or in which Americans are particularly afraid, are very fruitful times for horror. As a person that sees a lot of scripts and hears a lot of pitches, do you see that anxiety reflected into the ideas coming to you?
It’s starting. It takes three months to write a script, so I think we are going to see it reflected in movies that come out in 12 to 18 months. I anticipate for the next six months I’m going to see a lot of scripts that are very much affected by what is going on in the world. Not in obvious ways, but it’s out there and I think that makes writers get that energy. It comes out in the storytelling in weird ways.
Just as a fan, what era of horror do you gravitate toward?
People don’t call them horror movies, but Hitchcock for me is my favorite storyteller. He was really exploring dark themes, and I don’t know what category you put his movies in. Thriller? Horror? Some of them go in either one. And I love John Carpenter, too. John Carpenter was doing everything that we’re talking about 30 fucking years ago. He’s the one who really kind of started horror movies with social messages in them. He started the whole thing. I’m a huge fan of his movies for the same reason that I like Get Out and The Purge.
Carpenter is obviously a trailblazer, and George Romero, too, with Night of the Living Dead. Thinking about those men and how long ago their early movies came out, it feels like Get Out is continuing the dialogue introduced by that generation of filmmakers.. We finally have the language at a popular level to make Get Out a mainstream hit. Blaxploitation horror of the 1970s was really the first major wave of black empowerment in the genre, but more people will see Get Out than Scream Blacula Scream.
One-hundred percent. In every art form, nothing exists in a bubble. It exists because of what came before it. A lot of bricks were laid. I think if it weren’t for The Purge, Get Out wouldn’t resonate as a mainstream movie. You push on the taste of the audience in a way, get them used to something, and then you keep pushing on it. That’s what Jordan did, in hopefully a really effective way.
Doing this for as long as you have, you’ve seen a lot of ideas. Are there risks that you wish people would take more of?
I think our movies take tons of risks. Get Out, The Purge, these movies would never be made at traditional studio budgets, and so I’m not frustrated, because the movies that are done for low budgets are actually very edgy. “Risk” is probably the wrong word, but they’re different, and they try new things. I wish that more people were willing to turn down upfront money in exchange for doing things that are more original. Turning down a seven-figure check has a ripple effect on the budget, which has a ripple effect on the storytelling. The higher the budget gets, the fewer storytelling risk you’re able to take.
There was a recent study that came out of USC that tracked diversity among directors of major Hollywood movies. It wasn’t a good look for anyone. Every studio is underperforming when it comes to hiring women and people of color. But you’ve started off the year with M. Night Shyamalan’s Split and Get Out from Jordan Peele. Sleight by J.D. Dillard is coming soon, and you’ve just green-lit a second movie from him, too. That’s a good start to 2017.
We’ve had two African-Americans and one Indian man to start with, and I’m very proud about that.
In regards to women, Amy Adams said in The Hollywood Reporter actress roundtable that she was tired of being asked about insufficient representation for women in Hollywood, because it was really a question that should be posed to producers.
As someone who signs the checks, where does diversity fit in your mission?
I think it’s a huge problem, and I one of the things that annoys me about it is that people think by actively trying to be diverse, somehow it’s going to hurt the business. It will help it. The audience is diverse. Stories by white men — enough already. Yes, most of our directors are still white men, but many of them aren’t, and I think Hollywood would make more money if there were more women directors, and more black directors, and more Muslim directors and everything else. I am actively trying to hire women and minorities and I would like to work with more Hispanic people. Not because I’m, like, a good guy. It’s good for the business!
That’s honestly the thing that has always shocked me about the diversity problem in Hollywood. From a purely cynical standpoint, you only stand to gain from tapping into different demographics with cash to spend.
I had a recent conversation at a film festival I was attending. We made this movie — I won’t tell you what it is — but we made this movie, it’s directed by a woman, and I was trying to get into a film festival past the deadline. I talked to the director of this film festival and I when I told her it was directed by a woman, and she said, “All right, sure, I’ll see it!” It’s a benefit, everyone should be doing it more. Certainly we’ve benefited an enormous amount from it, and it’s not because we’re charitable.
So you are actively trying to build out a more diverse director pool?
Yes. We want more women directors and just fewer white guy directors. I’m much more excited if it’s not a white guy who’s pitching me a movie. Anyone else, they’ve already got two bonus points for walking in the door, because it’s good for business. Hopefully, the rest of the world will come around to that, too.
Do you talk with filmmakers about improving representation for diverse characters onscreen?
I try not to do that. I am actively pushing to hire women and minorities. Once I hire them I do not try and push an agenda into storytelling. I don’t believe in that. I believe in giving people a voice who don’t have it, but then just letting them have that voice. I think that would annoy me if I was on the other side of the desk, so I don’t do that.
From what I have read about your leadership style, it does sound like freedom to operate is a big part of the ethos.
Yes. You cut a lane for someone, but then let them play in their lane. I really believe in that.
As you said, it’s not your job to creatively police people. You are a curator and a facilitator, but beyond the mission of entertainment, what do you hope horror can accomplish?
When you’re younger, the world seems kind of inaccessible. Outside of your immediate circle, things don’t really matter. And I think it would be great for horror movies to get young people to be talking about things that are right with the world and things that are wrong with the world. If they help do that, it’s a great thing — but they don’t all have to do that. I’m also happy to get an hour and a half and go into a theater and be scared to death, and then come out and go to a party. That’s okay, too.
While you’ve been doing this job, you’ve seen pop culture get more fractured than ever. There’s a streaming service for every niche interest.
Horror is kind of the last monoculture.
It’s pretty close to it.
Is that a genre mash-up you’d want to tinker with?
A superhero horror movie? As long as it’s inexpensive. I’m much more inclined to do movies that are outside of scary, as long as they are inexpensive. I’m not interested in doing expensive movies.
Speaking of superheroes, I think your studio’s upcoming movie Sleight is pretty important. It’s a middle-class superhero movie from a black director with a cast that is entirely people of color. Like Chronicle, it proves that economical super-movies are an option — and that they can have heroes who aren’t white.
It is. You can absolutely make a kind of superhero movie for low budget. Not Dr. Strange or The Avengers, where they want to see fighting and buildings falling down and oceans flooding. But you can certainly do superhero movies low budget for sure. Sleight is a perfect example of that.
I see horror fans as like the movie version of country music fans. They’re genre loyalists — a community that will show up for the new scary movie that is playing simply because it is the scary movie.
It is one genre left where there is still a broad audience for it. The thing that I find really interesting — you know, my parents were art dealers. Well, my father was an art dealer and my mother was an artist. But when I was growing up, contemporary art was a tiny world, so I think a lot of what I always loved about the movies are the broad appeal. The movies that I’m interested in doing are broad appeal movies. Scary movies don’t always fit that, but sometimes.
So having watched the changing cultural mores over the past decade, going from a torture-heavy aesthetic in the early 2000s and then getting into another wave of supernatural horror — basically all of which came from James Wan — what are you seeing from the independent horror film space that you like?
I really loved It Follows. I really loved The Witch. I think you get a new generation of filmmakers that aren’t so ghettoized by horror. Those movies, you’re allowed to like those in elite culture. I think that’s good. There’s an aspect of horror which is cool now.
Do you see a true destigmatization of the genre happening?
I mean, no. Not really. Maybe a little bit. I don’t think horror is ever going to be acceptable. But that’s why I kind of like horror, because I like that, in horror, we are kind of outcasts. I have no agenda to change that. It may be getting a little bit better, but I don’t think it’s ever going to be okay. There will always be people who say, ‘You people are sick.’
One problem I have with horror-movie criticism is when people evaluate something by saying, ‘Oh, well it wasn’t scary.’ Like with The Witch. I heard that feedback a lot, and I know it’s the genre of horror, but that critique feels like it wildly misses the point sometimes.
A wide-release horror movie has to scare you. When you’re going to the cineplex and you’re 17 years old, there’s gotta be jump scares in the movie, otherwise it won’t work for you. But there are tons of other ways of distributing movies. With all the services available, you can make more specialized horror, and in specialized horror you don’t need jump scares.
There’s such a wide field of platforms now — Shudder and Amazon and Netflix. How do you work with that?
We have this great system where we make the movie, and then we decide how we’re going to distribute it once we’re done. We have more choices now, which means we can make even more movies, and so many different kinds of movies, because there are so many different avenues you can go down to monetize the movie to at least make your money back. You can keep taking shots. You know, my model is really predicated on the idea of not losing, as opposed to winning. I’m not trying to make winners. I’m trying to make movies that don’t lose. And if you make a lot of movies that don’t lose, it’s great when the winners happen, but you can try different things. And you never know when you’re making originals. You never know what is going to kind of catch an edge with people. So the advantage is to do a lot of them.
Obviously with horror, there is a long tradition of franchises. How do you look at your slate? When you have Insidious and The Purge scheduled, do you want to counterbalance that with, for every one of those, we want two original properties?
I don’t do a ratio like that, but yes. About half of my movie business is about managing franchises, and half is originals. And the way you go about making a sequel, versus the way you go about making an original, is completely different. A sequel, you really have to think about the movies that are going to come after, and spend a little bit more money on the sequels. There are rules that you have to follow. With originals, it’s the opposite. I never think about the sequel to an original movie. Ever, ever, ever. I just think about making the movie great, and then making it different. We push on making it feel totally weird, while a franchise movie has to have the DNA of the previous movies in it. It’s two different parts of your brain.
The argument comes up every so often that ‘movies are dead,’ because of the lack of original properties and the proliferation of sequels. I don’t happen to have a problem with updating preexisting material. I think if you make a good movie, you make a good movie. But do you find the franchise-ability of horror films to be a crutch or a benefit?
It’s a benefit to us. Most Hollywood executives make horror movies because they make money, not because they like them, and I think most of the fans can tell that. If you look at horror movies, it’s actually really hard to make money. There are a lot of horror movies that bomb all the time. When a studio makes sequels to a horror movie — not always, but most of the time — it’s very cynical and they suck. So, for us that’s great, because I love horror movies, and I’m proud to say, not all of our sequels, but most of our sequels subvert expectations. They’re really good. They’re not what people are expecting.
Ouija: Origin of Evil was —
Ouija 2 was better than Ouija 1! It was a great movie, and everyone thought it was going to be terrible. The Paranormal sequels, except for the last one, which sucked. The rest of them were pretty good, but Paranormal Activity 3 I thought was the best one. And the Insidious sequels have been really good, and the Purge sequels have been good.
The Purge movies really do seem to keep growing into themselves.
The Purge is getting better, and James DeMonaco is getting better.
Mike Flanagan, who’s done Oculus and Hush and Origin of Evil, and James DeMonaco are both really improving. It’s like the Blumhouse development league.
Yes. And Leigh Whannell from Insidious. One of my most proud things about the company is that we work with people over and over and over. That speaks volumes about a company, when they have repeat business with people. When we find someone we like, we invest in them, and we bet on them. Hopefully Jordan will be one of those people. I hope to make 100 movies with Jordan. We had a great experience with him and he’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with in my life.
What does the next stage for Blumhouse look like?
We’re growing the TV side of the business a lot. All our documentaries are going to go to the TV side, and we’re doing a lot of different genres in TV. We’re working on Gillian Flynn’s book Sharp Objects. We’re doing that with HBO and Amy Adams and Jean-Marc Vallée. On the movie side, we are definitely expanding. The Gift and Split are much more thrillers than horror movies and I’m definitely interested in pushing the boundaries of the genre. Not pushing the boundaries of budget; I really want to stay in low budget. That is the cornerstone of the house. It’s really all tied around that — for originals. For sequels it’s a different story, but for originals that is a linchpin of it.
How do you feel about the TV marketplace versus the film one?
I think the television ecosystem as a whole is much healthier than the movie business, and the storytelling you can do can be much more experimental. You’re not locked into a 90-, 120-minute format. It gives creators a lot more flexibility. It’s a very different muscle we’re exercising in TV. It’s not so much micro-budget, and the umbrella is bigger. Our movie focus, even though I’m saying it’s not just horror, it’s pretty confined. In TV it’s much broader. As we like to say, it’s things that scare you, so The Jinx falls into that or The Normal Heart falls into that. The boundaries of the genres we’re doing are bigger, further away. We just did a show for YouTube Red. We’re doing the Amy Adams show. We have a bunch of unscripted stuff. We did a big documentary event at Sundance. We’re expanding our TV business very quickly.
When you say it’s a healthier ecosystem, does that mean the level of difficulty for getting projects green-lit?
It’s much, much easier in TV than in film. Now, we don’t have the problem getting things green-lit in film, because we do low-budget films. Not everything can be done for cheap, as much as I would like for that to be true. There are certain things you just can’t do inexpensively. You need scope. You can’t make a Marvel movie on a $5 million budget. Maybe $50 million, but still, that’s not cheap. And in terms of normal cost production there’s just much, much, much more money. It’s just much easier to get that green-lit on television than in movies. There are more people watching TV. It’s easier to monetize.
So how would you pitch horror to a filmmaker that feels alienated by the genre, or maybe has a misconception that it’s a static form of storytelling?
They’re in the wrong business, is what I would say. To make any kind of art you have to have a thick skin, but I think for horror, I’ve learned to kind of enjoy that. You’re the underdog and people kind of poo-poo it, and I’ve always liked being the underdog. I guess there are a lot of people who make movies who don’t like horror, so I shouldn’t say quit the business. But I’m still going to tell them to quit the business.
And what about to fans who are reluctant horror watchers?
I’m not wildly interested in converting people who are close-minded. If people don’t like to watch violence onscreen, I don’t begrudge them. I do begrudge people who think all horror movies are stupid. That annoys me. But people who don’t want to see horror because they don’t want to see violence onscreen, I think that is totally valid. I completely understand. I’m not one of them, but I get it.
In the ten years you’ve been doing this now, is there anything that’s changed about your role as a curator?
When we started I was much more involved in the day-to-day of production, postproduction, and now I’m more involved in bigger decisions along the way. Now I’m happy to say, I hate being on set. I used to be on set all the time, and now I’m only on set if the movie’s in trouble, so I’m thrilled about that. It’s certainly more competitive. I’ve made it more competitive. I think horror is less ghettoized than it was ten years ago, certainly. I think more people take it more seriously. Not just because it’s lucrative, but because people see that it’s one of the few genres that’s held a theatrical audience, and theatrical audiences have really eroded for a lot of the other genres. A good scary movie still gets people into the movie theater.
Jordan has said that he has a handful of projects in this social-thriller track that he would like to produce. I’m assuming that’s something you would be onboard to do?
We will make all of them.
This interview has been edited and condensed.