After the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police during the summer, Hollywood attempted, in its typical too little, too late fashion, to respond to the latest protests of the American justice department sweeping the country. The industry’s sudden acknowledgment of the Black Lives Matter movement came in various forms: Gone With the Wind was temporarily banished from streaming. The Academy established new diversification standards for Oscar eligibility. Just about every major entertainment company issued public statements in support of inclusivity measures.
But Jennifer Salke and Jason Blum — respectively, the Amazon Studios head honcho and the rainmaking Blumhouse Productions boss behind such horror hits as Get Out, the Paranormal Activity franchise, and The Invisible Man — would like you to know that they are no Johnny-come-latelies to the diversity and inclusion party. Their joint-production anthology series, Welcome to the Blumhouse, was set to premiere in 2020 long before a pandemic hit and a new nationwide reckoning launched. Comprised of eight feature-length, stand-alone “dark thrillers,” each edition to the series was intended to be directed either by filmmakers of color or women or both, with several featuring actors of color in leading roles.
Season one, which began streaming on Amazon Prime earlier this month, features films by The Killing’s Veena Sud, Elan and Rajeev Dassani (with Mississippi Masala’s Sarita Choudhury starring), first-time feature director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr., and Zu Quirke. The second season’s lineup, announced Thursday at the Blumhouse fan event, Blumfest 2020, will showcase features directed by such emergent talent as line producer turned filmmaker Maritte Lee Go, Axelle Carolyn, Mexican horror up-and-comer Gigi Saul Guerrero, and Ryan Zaragoza. The series’ genesis predates the current Hollywood vogue for increased multicultural content by nearly two years.
“Almost 18 months ago, we sat down to say, ‘What could we do together that would be exciting and groundbreaking?’” Salke says. “We were like, ‘What if we had underrepresented directors and filmmakers come and bring their stories and voices to the project?’” “The audience at Amazon is diverse,” Blum adds. “And I think for too long, that audience has been underserved from voices of people who look like them.” In conversation with Vulture, the producer and studio boss also addressed the challenges of making and releasing films during the time of the coronavirus and whether the distinction of movies being “made for TV” even means anything anymore.
Scary movies tend to do really well in a theatrical setting because people love to be scared as a group in a crowded auditorium. Could you talk about how that dynamic changes when you put scary content on streaming? And how does Amazon take advantage of that dynamic?
Jason Blum: As a producer of scary movies, it’s amazing. It’s like the guardrails come off. Because when you’re making a horror movie for theatrical release, it’s a very narrow lane. The audience demands certain tropes. When you’re making it for streaming, you have a lot more leeway to take creative risks. We got to make these movies that wouldn’t have gotten made otherwise — and really deserve to get made — because of Amazon.
Jennifer Salke: This is an event for us. It’s a horror-thriller event with the best producer in the genre. It was a great opportunity to create a destination for a suite of thematically linked films that were exciting and could connect socially with audiences. Not just pursuing a one-off strategy with a film and hoping you could get the same kind of excitement you could get culturally from people coming to the theaters. So we’re really happy with the way it is being shared and embraced, how a real community of horror lovers and genre lovers have gathered around the movies and amplified that message even louder.
In 2018, an announcement about the series in the Hollywood trades explicitly mentions that Welcome to the Blumhouse would showcase projects “from diverse backgrounds.” Why was that important to you then, and what does it mean now?
JS: It was important to make sure we were delivering a lot of great content for younger and multicultural audiences. And horror-thrillers definitely have a strong fan base. So all parts of a great strategy came together, effortlessly, as far as embracing the strategy to pursue underrepresented filmmakers.
How much did you spend on each installment?
JB: The movies were under $10 million apiece. As soon as you get much higher than that, you start to have to make compromises. You have to put movie stars [in them] or this or that. You can’t kill the main character ten minutes into the movie. So we built a company on doing low-budget movies so we can take creative risks. And when I first pitched it to Jen, that was what I wanted to do with this.
Veena Sud is perhaps the best known of the filmmakers in the first four episodes. But where did you find the rest of your filmmakers? Had you been in negotiations with the rest of them prior to Blumhouse and Amazon coming together?
JB: We see pretty much every genre idea or script or movie out there coming through our office at some point. When Jen first said, “What could we do together?,” I pitched this because I’m always frustrated. I think there are a lot of great stories and scripts out there that we weren’t able to do because we don’t have the right kind of distribution. One or two of them, maybe we had been working on something before. Others we found in conjunction with the team at Amazon.
Jason, among fans online, there’s a certain fascination with this idea that Blumhouse has an enormous “stockpile” of unreleased films. That because of your track record of producing things for a low price, you can afford to allow filmmakers to take creative gambles — some of which pay off, and some of which don’t — and that you can afford to bury the ones that don’t seem like they’re going to work out. I wondered if any of those films have or may ever come out via Welcome to the Blumhouse?
JB: No. But first of all, what you said is incorrect. What you’re implying is that we’ve made movies that we haven’t released. We don’t have a single movie that we’ve ever made that we haven’t released. We release movies in different ways. Could you name one movie we’ve made that we haven’t released?
This is the subject of fevered internet conjecture. If that’s completely wrong, I want you to clear it up.
JB: There doesn’t have to be any conjecture. We announce every movie that we do. You could see if it comes out or not. There was an article a long time ago about it, but I’m now aware of that now. And so the second question you’re asking relates to what I said before. There are upsides and downsides of the — no offense, Jen — of the streaming world as it relates to movies. And none of the movies that I made for one destination wound up at another destination. But the great thing about streaming is that — and the whole way our business plan is modeled — we make movies, and we decide what lane the movie is going to travel down after the movies are done. And streaming has provided a new, big lane, which is terrific.
The next four installments of Welcome to the Blumhouse are scheduled for some unspecified time in 2021. The global pandemic has obviously impacted the way everything these days is shot and ultimately released. How are you managing to shoot the movies at this time?
JS: Do you want to speak for Blumhouse and then I can answer?
JB: No. You guys are shooting 9 million more times than I am, so you should speak to that one.
JS: It’s an incredibly trying time and remains so. You can see these [infection rates] pulsing up and down in various countries, the second wave, all of this. We were ahead of the game, as far as our protocols to get back into safe production. I think they exceed the industry standard. By the end of the year, we are hopeful to have about 60 productions going. But I will say the recent upticks in Europe have caused some further challenges to that strategy. When we set everything down, things were obviously in various stages of production; we would luckily be able to go back and get a large amount of our production finished that had maybe ten days, two weeks. We got them wrapped up safely. So feeling good. Cautiously optimistic. But obviously COVID is a big unknown for all of us and will remain a big challenge to production moving forward.
JB: Luckily, lower-budgeted things are less compromised. They’re easier to do, and that’s what we’ve found. We’re shooting our fourth movie for the second year [of Welcome to the Blumhouse]. We’re about to start, and we’ve been able to do that because, for different reasons, lower-budgeted TV and movies are easier to shoot than this big-budget stuff.
JS: You can contain the production much more easily than you can on something that’s a giant global show with hundreds of people working on it. So it’s all about risk and containing the amount of people working on the productions.
Throughout our conversation, you have both used the word movie to classify the features that comprise the series, even though none of them was ever intended to reach the inside of a movie theater. Especially while so many people are avoiding multiplexes because of the coronavirus, there is a real fuzzy area between movies and what used to be called “made for TV” content. Do old terminologies for things intended for a small screen versus a big screen even matter anymore?
JB: I think it matters. It’s hard to say because theaters are so compromised. But I think when there’s a vaccine, and we’re back doing things that we used to do, I do still think there’ll be a theatrical experience, and there’ll be theatrical movies and streaming movies and there’ll be a difference. But I don’t know. Jen, what do you think?
JS: We are going to continue to support theatrical when it makes sense to come back. And certainly we’re doing it now with some of our smaller prestige films that won’t require the same level of turnout that others might. When you experience the global premiere of these movies or other movies that we’ve done, or when you see just the collective reaction and conversation, we get to feel the same sense of community and excitement around the piece of content. How we translate that to filmmakers and to artists I think is the challenge. But that being said, if it’s the right movie we think will bring a huge audience for communal viewing in the theater — and it’s safe to do that — we are not closing the door on that at all. We’re just pivoting our distribution during a time where we are really, exceptionally challenged. And we’re happy to do that, given that’s the fastest and most efficient way for us to reach a massive audience.