Is Horror the toughest genre to crack?

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I read with interest recently that horror films pretty much only have 1 weekend to recoup their money and make a profit. After the first weekend, their box office takings drop by 50%. Strangely enough, the horror genre is pretty much the only genre affected by this audience abandonment. This could also point to the fact that when horror films do win prestigious awards, they tend to be for sound, cinematography, makeup and costume. The last time a horror film was acknowledged in the big awards categories was The Exorcist in 1973 which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, you have to go back even further to find a horror film which won a big award, 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby (a best supporting actress award). Silence of the Lambs changed that in 1991, when it was awarded a Best Picture Oscar, but many argue as to whether or not Silence of the Lambs can be classed as an outright horror film. Personally I’d put it as a drama/thriller, but each to their own.

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So what is it about horror cinema which has turned it into the sparkler of the cinema world? A long build up and then a quick fizz bang and it’s over. I would suggest that the primary audiences of horror films are teenagers/young adults, who in contrast to the youth of the 1970s, have their own expendable income. And they are concerned with one thing, the scares. The jumps. The messed-up-ness of the film. Not too fussed about plot (as long as it’s not completely unwatchable). So once your friend sees a horror film you ask ‘What was it like? Was it scary?’ Your friend replies with either ‘Yes, it was scary, really creepy’ and you go and see it. Or ‘No, it was rubbish, wasn’t scary at all’ and you save your money and don’t bother’. Which suggests to me that horror is the only genre in which plot isn’t the most important thing. So for example if you asked your friend about a film they saw in the cinema which was a sci-fi, you wouldn’t necessarily ask ‘Has it got aliens in it? Has it got space and rockets?’ and then base your viewing upon that. Likewise with romantic comedies ‘Is there a good relationship in it?’. All but horror films have more to fulfil, but they aren’t necessarily subjected to the same minimal ‘word-of-mouth’ reviews.

So I’m hoping that because you’re here, reading a cinema blog, you have a basic understanding of the production line of a film. But if not, here’s a brief overview of a typical medium sized budget film life-cycle.

  • Production of film – seeking money from investors to fund film production, possibly point them in the direction of previous work or reference material. Forecast potential earnings.
  • Post-production – Editing of film, showing to investors, investors possibly suggest changes to ensure they get their money back (removal of controversial scenes, bad language). BBFC rated.
  • Marketing plan – trailers created, promotional interviews, promotional merchandise (if applicable) release date agreed.
  • Exhibition – Released in cinema. First weekends taking will hopefully cover investor costs, pay those back. Any income after this used to pay wages, debts, and of course profit.
  • Post-exhibition – removed from cinemas, marketing plan created for home media/streaming release, recoup any shortfalls in debts and/or profits.

Wow. Sorry to bore you to death with cinematic commodification, but unfortunately a lot of cinema-goers take for granted the process of making films. As you can see stage 4 tends to be the most critical point of a horror films cycle. If stage 4 fails, you can guarantee that stage 5 will be a very quick process. No longer is it about the distribution of art, it’s about regaining losses. Which is why you will see a high turnover of actors, rarely do directors make it big in horror cinema (unless of course you perfected your craft in the 80s or 70s). Unfortunately for horror films it seems to be a catch-22. They can’t get investment to make a polished glossy horror film because horror films as a whole tend to fare badly at the cinema, so they make a sub-standard film in an attempt of finding a ‘hit-making’ franchise (Saw, Final Destination). More often than not the sub-standard film gets terrible reviews, making just enough money back to investors, but as part of the deal of investing, they tend to make a small profit out of it. So that profit is a bonus for the investor, who will inevitably back a sequel. Whilst the director and actors make next to nothing, it makes sense for an investor to back sequels, they then make more cash. Whilst all this happens, we are constantly being fed bad horror films.

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So what is in store for the future of horror cinema? With a slight crossover to my review of Insidious (link to come!), I reference Insidious as an example. I watched the first one (recorded from the television) coincidentally on the release weekend of the Insidious 2. And my god, it was bad. The first half filled me positivity ‘crikey, are we getting an earlier ‘The Conjuring’? in all it’s greatness?’. The second half answered this question with a big fat unsubtle ‘not a hope in hell’. And it made me think in terms of the article I read which states that horror cinema box-office takings are a harsh model of business. It got me wondering that maybe there is a different model which they could use. Scrapping the cinema element all together. The easiest way to recoup costs surely would be a release on streaming platforms? This way there is more realistic time frame in which to make profit. So instead of pinning all your hopes into one weekend, you could agree that the recuperation process begins on day of release, and the cut off point by which you’d expect investors to have their money and a nice chunk of profit would be 12 months later.

We’ve seen a transition in horror cinema anyway in recent years. Whereas The Exorcist was released by Warner Brothers, now many horror films are released by dedicated production studios. These types of companies enable investors to spread their cost amongst many films, it also allows directors to draw on a fund should they need to. By grouping together this peculiar genre (do you know of any romantic comedy specific production companies? Answers below please!) it’s enabled a steady flow of at best, mediocre films with the occasional gem to still maintain their place in cinema. I would suggest that the way forward for these companies is to regain control of their exhibition process. Creating dedicated streaming channels, subscription services on paid-for-tv-services. Or possibly doing cinema exhibition the other way round. Release first on streaming, then wait for reviews and word-of-mouth marketing to take effect and then release in a cinema.

It feels strange talking about cinema like this, and I can understand if this isn’t particularly the exciting blog you came here to read, but it’s definitely worth some exposure. The way media is consumed is constantly changing, and it concerns me that maybe horror cinema wont be able to keep up with changing demands.

6 thoughts on “Is Horror the toughest genre to crack?

  1. Pingback: » Movie Review – The Lords Of Salem Fernby Films

  2. Pingback: Insidious | FlikGeek

  3. As a generalization, Horror was turned into cinematic Junk Food through the 80’s, with the ubiquitous Nightmares, Halloweens, Friday the 13th and all those B-movie franchise’s playing to more and more niche crowds. Essentially, as the squeeze on budgets came when studios thought they could go cheaper and cheaper and make bigger profit margins – after all, all you need is a cast of six, one of whom is the killer, and a set where most of it is in darkness, and the audience will be satisfied.

    I don’t think situation has ever rectified itself, although as you mention, there have been some valiant attempts to bring Horror back into the upper echelons of cinematic filmmaking.

    • I think you’ve got it spot on actually about 80s horror films being cinematic junk food! (Love that description by the way!)
      I just think it’s a shame that it seems to be the only genre which is actually probably the most easily accessible in terms of debut work for film makers, but also easily dismissed by so many people. Plus it’s so brutal that they effectively have one weekend to make or break it. But as much as I like to focus on cinema as an art form, it’s completely impossible to deny its a manufactured and processed commodity. If money was no object, I wonder what kind of films we’d be watching! If you didn’t have to impress and beg investors! Even more so, I wonder his many films have changed at the request of a financial stake holder to ensure success! You only have to look at Basic Instinct! That was changed to appease studio bosses and now we are forever stuck with the problematic bunny boiler!

  4. I think that horror, and sci-fi, tend to have different sub-genres which make the films harder to market for mass appeal. You have films like Saw and Hostel which are torture porn, but still horror. Then you have Insidious, Sinister, and The Conjuring that are haunted house films. There are many, many more sub-genres in horror, which is something you don’t get in dramatic films. Drama is simply drama. Action is simply action. Much like heavy metal music, the sub-genres of horror affects it mass appeal. With metal music, you have ’80’s metal, thrash, death, etc, etc, and horror is the same way. At least, that’s what I think.

    • Hi Chris! Thanks for reading, you’ve got some interesting points there. I guess horror cinema in itself is so diverse, like you said, Drama tends to be just that, you don’t necessarily get different sub-genres of Drama. Maybe that’s why horror is such a tough market. I guess it’s incredibly difficult for a director to appeal to all audiences; those who like the Saw series, may not necessarily like things like The Mothman Prophecies etc. It’s such a shame really that so many horror films probably don’t get made and if they do they might not have the right kind of support/investment that they need to become successful! Still, I thought it was really interesting that 50% of their takings drop after one week, and that statistic really applies to horror films. Seems really terrible that cinema can be reduced to one weekends takings to judge if it a success or not! I love a good horror film, always have, always will! 🙂

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