Depending on who you are, you likely know one of the following two things about me: I’m passionate about urban economics, and I’m marginally obsessed with low-budget, b-grade horror movies.
I get that these might not seem like they’re related. Hang with me.
A lot of my friends have suffered (or heckled) through a re-watch of the Phantasm franchise with me, or heard me rant about the eerily prescient social commentary in Night of the Living Dead. I wrote a novel loosely inspired by the making of the notorious gorefest Cannibal Holocaust, and I firmly believe I wouldn’t be a writer if my parents hadn’t been lax with bedtimes and the parental controls on our cable package movie channels. I learned the basic grammar of storytelling by watching late-night 80’s slashers over and over, fascinated by the way filmmakers could take the same basic formulas and tropes—latex masks, weaponized hand tools, screaming teens—and contort them into something new and thrilling, time and time and time and again.
Of course, not all of my horror movie-loving friends are closet economics nerds like I am, so I don’t often have a chance to talk about the other reason horror movies fascinate me: that they manage to do this on next to no budget. And often, that they’re great precisely because they’re pulling the production off on a shoestring.
NPR’s Planet Money recently ran an update on their episode about Blumhouse productions, the thriller/horror juggernaut behind films like Jordan Peele’s current box office behemoth (and instant personal favorite), Get Out. The secret to Blumhouse’s success lies in their insistence on micro-budgets: fresh new faces stand in for spendy celebrity actors, creative storytelling and cinematography take the place of big, expensive special effects, and directors are told in no uncertain terms that if they run into a roadblock, they’re not allowed to spend their way out of it.
Of course, this approach results in a lot of direct to DVD flops—Blumhouse actually expects 40% of their films to die in the focus group. But for every dozen failed little bets, Blumhouse might produce one film like Paranormal Activity, which was shot basically without a crew, on a handful of VHS cameras, with actors working largely for future royalties over the course of a super-quick seven day production schedule and wearing their own clothes as costumes. The entire production cost just $15,000; the film went on to gross almost $200 million, making it the highest return on investment for any film ever made in any genre, and it became the cornerstone of a worldwide franchise that has grossed hundreds of millions of dollars more.
What the podcast doesn’t point out, though, is that just like most things human beings have made for generations (cough: cities!), most horror movies are low budget, and always have been. Some of the earliest films ever made, period—think The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu—were horror films whose directors, by necessity, took their creative direction (and, yes, their scares) from the most basic and lowest-cost tools of the filmmaking trade: shadow, light and smart editing. The smartest horror filmmakers today still rely on those basic building blocks: The Blair Witch Project famously eschewed an ending that would have required a bloody, expensive special-effect kill in favor of an infinitely more chilling (and ultimately, iconic) image of the same character standing paralyzed in a corner, facing a wall, while the VHS tape runs to black. Blair Witch also had a record-setting gross: $250 million plus on a budget of $60k. A little bet paid off big.
If this is starting to remind you of something we talk about a lot on Strong Towns, good.
Most people don’t think of horror films as a deeply creative genre. But most people don’t think of city building that way, either—and that’s because they’re thinking of bad city planning, and the most boring kind of high-budget horror movies that no one really likes.
The worst horror production companies and the worst city planners tend to think of the high-ticket items as basic necessities of their craft: a mammoth highway overpass, a $24,000 prosthetic head to get that stabbing-a-dude-in-the-eye scene just right. If the budget comes up short, it’s a disaster; the highway bridge crumbles because no one asked how they’d pay to maintain it in the first place, too many movies flop and eventually the production house folds. Bad horror movie directors and bad city planners can’t imagine alternatives to what they perceive as the basic needs of their projects. If there’s too much traffic, don’t you have to build a $100 million highway expansion to handle the load? If you want to make a blockbuster remake of a cheap B-movie classic—and make no mistake, this is definitely the profile of most high-budget horror films—don’t you have to shell out for a bunch of a-list actors and a fancy CGI werewolf?
But the best kind of horror filmmakers, like the best kind of placemakers, know better. They’re the kind of people who find ways not just to survive their budgetary shortcomings, but to make work that is more creative and exciting (or at least campy and fun) because of that constraint. Blumhouse production rolls the dice on Get Out, a film that uses a smart, provocative script about the racism of seemingly good white liberals to keep viewers engaged and stretch every dollar of its $4.5 million budget (no $24k prosthetic heads here). A city drives a book mobile to a few neighborhoods around town that don’t have their own branches and sets up shop for a day.
The beauty of this approach? If a low-cost movie or a low-cost city project fails, the losses are small, and you’ve generated knowledge and energy that might help you in your next effort, without ruining anyone financially. You’ve failed forward—just ask the tons of A-list celebrities whose careers have survived the worst B-grade horror debacles. (I really do recommend George Clooney’s star turn in Return of the Killer Tomatoes.) But if they succeed, they might win big: a popular bookmobile experiment might make a meaningful case for the city building a permanent branch (as Jane Jacobs admired in her own New York City neighborhood,) or Jordan Peele might become the first black writer/director to gross $100 million on a debut effort.
We’ll always have high-budget Hollywood blockbusters, just like we’ll likely always have highway projects and high-rise apartment buildings. Done right, and with enough thoughtfulness behind them, I have nothing against either.
But wouldn’t it be nice if the default modus operandi for Hollywood, and for every other city in America, wasn’t a risky, expensive model that has drastic consequences for the livelihood (and in the case of cities, the safety, health and welfare) of tons of people if it fails? Wouldn’t it be thrilling if more people, regardless of their budget, were out there making the cities they want to live in and the movies they want to watch, with just enough institutional or studio support to ensure they could fail forward if the enterprise tanks (or at least, in the case of cities, a government with the sense not to make a basic incremental development project illegal)?
Even if you’ve never watched a horror movie in your life, you know how it feels to watch a city you care about slowly bleed out. How funny that something like schlock horror movie financing could teach us how to survive.
(Top image from Nosferatu)