*Editor’s note– Noam Little was nice enough to write this very thought provoking article regarding the state of horror and how a combination of marketing, dumping films to VOD and horror fandom might be incredibly detrimental to the genre. Give it a read, it’s a good one!-Jerry
The year is 1931. Although the American Public at large is greatly affected by The Great Depression, a line of people stand outside New York’s Roxy Theatre with cash in hand. None of these people knew they were contributing to American Cinematic History, but by the end of the decade, an entire film studio would become a box office tyrannosaur thanks to several refined, masterful depictions of the horror genre. And yet staring at that line of people is a man of supposed high social standing, uninterested by the fascinating in immoral and undignified cinema as he makes his way to his local library.
It’s a dynamic almost as old as cinema itself. As the world indulged the tastes of William Castle and Alfred Hitchcock, self-appointed cinephiles avoided horror like the plague in favor of more “substantial” films. And of course, these “substantial” films wouldn’t be playing in the multiplexes of genre fare; rather, they were shown in smaller independent theaters known as “art houses.” And while these art house theaters made nowhere near the money of mainstream fare, they provided something even greater: cinema that carried an unintentional classism which divided them from popular culture.
It’s that very dynamic, however, that has also spawned what modern critics call “the specialty box office,” where films outside of major releases are judged by reviews and per-screen averages. Incidentally, “the specialty box office” has also absorbed much of the straight-to-video market during the ongoing death of physical medium, with extremely limited theatrical rollouts helping keep some of these art house theaters alive. But these rollouts also make seeing these films theatrically an incredibly difficult endeavor for those outside of major metropolitan areas, and even more difficult for those who frankly don’t know these movies exist.
And yet as the marketplace continues to “change,” the dynamic of art vs. horror has changed as well, as the specialty box office has hosted more horror films this year than any multiplex. Yet even as the dynamic has made the art crowd and horror crowd merge ever so slowly, the results of this relationship have often proven dismal. Without a marketing push and an element of familiarity, theatrical horror releases will flounder as the primarily art house audience simply will not support what they perceive as “unintelligent.”
To this point, one does not need to look further than Kevin Smith’s TUSK. If you were to ask those in an art house cinema if they’d see TUSK, you wouldn’t get past “Kevin Smith” before they’d dismiss the notion outright. Conversely, if you would ask a horror fan about seeing a movie where a man is sewn into a walrus suit, most would at least be intrigued by the concept alone enough to give it a watch. At least, that’s what one would think, but the reality was in fact much, much different.
In a way, TUSK was always going to be an odd beast, even though the film set the stage for the ultimate underdog tale. Conceived of on Smith’s free podcast, TUSK singlehandedly revived Smith’s passion in filmmaking, causing the man to reverse his intention to retire and to work with an industry he’d all but eschewed. Smith made the film cheaper than any before, even at one time developing the film with Blumhouse before disagreements on casting and scheduling separated the entities. And while Smith’s last venture into horror, RED STATE, had divided its intended audience, TUSK was unarguably horror in concept- and a disturbing, demented take at that.
And for a little while, TUSK seemed to live up to its hype. While Smith’s formerly alienated film critics could have boycotted the film entirely, they gave the filmmaker a chance and offered some of the strongest reviews of a Kevin Smith film since CHASING AMY. Horror publications and social media buzzed about Smith’s TUSK, reveling on the absurdity of the content to the ambition of its genesis whilst surrounded by a rally cry: “#WalrusYes.” And distributor A24 had much faith in the film as well, placing it on 600 screens as opposed the atypical roll-out or a one-theater dump strategy.
But when TUSK finally hit audiences, it was not with a roar, but with a disappointing whimper. Grossing less than a million dollars, TUSK’s per-screen average didn’t get close to more dramatic fare in fewer locations and didn’t even break the top ten grossing films for the week. The horror audience found themselves too adverse to Smith’s humor within the film, and the lack of marketing left mainstream audiences largely unaware of its release. And on top of that, the appearance of an uncredited A-list actor in a glorified cameo which could have anchored the promotion for a wider audience was otherwise kept secret from those outside of the film trades.
Yet TUSK wasn’t the only well-reviewed genre film to fall on deaf ears that weekend, as Adam Wingard’s THE GUEST also failed to pull in promising numbers at the specialty box office. Posited as the comeback release for revived distribution outfit Picturehouse, THE GUEST had the makings of a major box office contender: a sexy up-and-coming lead actor, a familiar yet promising premise and a riveting cinematic experience. Yet Picturehouse didn’t have the money or the strategy to give THE GUEST the push it deserves, rolling it out in 19 theaters on a crowded mid-September weekend to ho-hum results even by art house standards.
Yet TUSK and THE GUEST do have one thing in common, and it’s something that more and more genre directors are becoming accustomed to: the comfort of being labeled a cult classic. While the low box office for both films will be seen as financial failure, the films both have unique genre aspects that will inspire later success in the home media sector. TUSK has the advantage of being unabashedly weird, which will pique the curiosity of film fans who will either champion it as an underrated horror comedy gem or a “so-bad-it’s-good” fiasco. THE GUEST, however, will have the advantage of being a great film through and through, with the film destined for the same revered afterlife as the films of John Carpenter and Walter Hill.
In discussing both TUSK and THE GUEST, however, the elephant in the room is the growing Video On-Demand market, which has supposedly become a financial boon for “specialty box office” distributors such as Magnet Releasing, IFC Midnight and Radius-TWC. The VOD market has promised genre fans convenience and affordability instead of the theatrical experience, often bypassing the lucrative marketing costs and offering greater home media exposure. Yet the VOD market also has a darker side to it, often placing critically acclaimed titles such as SNOWPIERCER and BLUE RUIN alongside knock-offs and complete cinematic garbage, perceiving all titles as “not deserving” of the esteemed theatrical experience. Simply put, VOD is the new “straight-to-video,” minus the costs of physically creating or marketing the discs themselves.
And that market took an explicit turn into straight to video comparisons when Blumhouse announced their VOD distribution division, BH Tilt. Promoted by Blumhouse and their distributors as a way to dump films not suited for theatrical release, BH Tilt is taking advantage of a marketplace that Blumhouse was essentially structured to avoid. By keeping costs low on production, more money could be spent towards marketing and filmmakers were given more creative freedom as a result. Yet when distributors had cold feet, or, in the cases of NOT SAFE FOR WORK and MOCKINGBIRD, were openly mocked by Blum in the media, they turned to the VOD market to minimize losses and save face.
From an industry perspective, BH Tilt is a move that makes a lot of sense, especially when combined with Blum’s production tactics. For studios, it removes the weight of spending more on publicity and theatrical distribution when they can hit a fraction of the audience on VOD for a more direct and statistically equal profit. Studios also are able to hedge their bets on films without major stars, even though STRETCH’s Patrick Wilson was the star of two of 2014’s most profitable horror films and CREEP’s Mark Duplass has been in the public eye for years. But lastly, Blum is able to still look like the knight in shining armor while undermining the very concepts he supported. In essence, Blum becomes the William Randolph Hearst of indie horror, staging the drowning of his own films to emerge as their savior.
From a filmmaking perspective, BH Tilt is a generally bad move, relegating auteurs unknowingly to direct-to-video status while making Blumhouse’s theatrical release slate a virtual lottery. Filmmakers like Joe Johnson, Joe Carnahan and Brian Bertino, all of whom had smashing successes in their last endeavors, will find their next films underserved to the masses who honestly don’t know how Video On-Demand works. Meanwhile, promising genre filmmakers such as Ti West, Franck Khalfoun and Greg McLean may find themselves in the same position, having worked under tight budgets and schedules for unreported grosses and less exposure than other distribution outlets. But even worse may be the more subtle repercussions; formerly a place for unmolested creative freedom, Blumhouse’s filmmakers may look to homogenize their visions for the precious possibility of a theatrical release.
But from a fan’s perspective, BH Tilt is a truly atrocious endeavor, further flooding the crowded VOD market and enacting as another death knell to the theatrical horror experience. BH Tilt will further remove horror from art houses, even those that look to the one-theater roll-out strategy for continuing business. BH Tilt also clearly removes horror from the multiplexes as well, allowing condescending studio bullshit, misguided remakes and microbudgeted sequels to feed the casual audience’s horror appetite. But in terms of content, BH Tilt pisses on the legs of horror fans and calls it ‘rain’; having shamed these releases in the press as “not working”, Blumhouse aims for us to just consume them via VOD because the platform makes the cinematic experience wholly disposable.
But even for all of BH Tilt’s ethical transgressions, they sure as hell can’t be blamed for the decisions to do so. In fact, if there’s anything to be learned from TUSK and THE GUEST, it’s that so-called “horror fans” have stopped giving a shit about the theatrical experience. Often times, die-hard horror fans claim to be jaded by the Hollywood system, chastising them for their remakes and demanding more original ideas at the cinema. But when it comes to actually getting out of the house and seeing these films, their word is only as good as their dollars, which is not very. In the cases of widely released original horror fare like OCULUS, THE QUIET ONES and AS ABOVE SO BELOW, the horror fans didn’t show up, blaming marketing or a general interest in pirating anything new.
And if one is to look at the social media of horror presences such as Fangoria, Bloody-Disgusting and even Icons of Fright, there’s a perverse sense of nostalgia among horror fans so apparent that it’s no wonder why remakes are trotted out so often. With new horror being perceived as an afterthought, if not immediately ignored, horror fans remain in a state of arrested development when it comes to their horror tastes. While this remains great news for specialty blu-ray distributors, convention all-stars and horror merchandisers, this also means these lovers of the macabre won’t put their ass in a theater chair unless Robert Englund is running around in an ill-fitting sweater. It’s a counterintuitive mentality that unfortunately means anything new and challenging not be making it into the eyes of the homegrown horror fan.
But as with every terrible situation, there is still hope. Much like the Universal Horror in 1931, the genre blew up the box office last year during one of the single worst economic recessions in American history. Yet unlike 1931, it may seem that the formerly uninterested cinephile may be slowly learning to accept the horror genre, with UNDER THE SKIN still remaining a highlight of this year’s specialty box office and Criterion progressively adding more titles from the genre than ever before. But circumstances aside, how does one save the newer fare of the genre from befalling the same fate as TUSK and THE GUEST?
The answer, as hard as it may be to accept, may lie in a evolutionary step backwards: the blu-ray market. I can already hear the laughter and eye-rolling of my colleagues, but think about the logic. If the theatrical marketplace is alienating horror as it is, why not devote that money to giving it the best damn home media treatment possible? Or how about cutting that money all together and making your overhead incredibly low as to compete with the prices of the VOD marketplace? And while some may cite convenience as the gaping flaw in the plan, they also might forget that the subcultures behind VHS and Vinyl releases have grown more prominent with each passing year, despite requiring effort to find.
But above all else, the physical, straight-to-video method offers a tangible opportunity that VOD cannot: the cult classic status. While titles are given more exposure on paid streaming services, cult classics are carved out by the physical medium. That’s how they become shared experiences; after all, would films like THE BOONDOCK SAINTS, DONNIE DARKO or HATCHET still be remembered if released in the day and age of VOD? And cult classics are also perpetually profitable to this day on physical media as well; collector’s editions, box sets, high-def transfers and limited engagement screenings still reign in tons of residuals for filmmakers and distributors.
But perhaps the horror genre, either at the specialty box office, as a theatrical experience or in physical medium, isn’t mean to prosper in this day and age. TUSK, BH Tilt and independent horror distributors have continually proven that getting rewarded for investing in the safety of VOD supersedes the potential risk of releasing something undeniably original and gutsy in theaters. Having pride in your cinematic output is a gamble, expensive for distributors without studio budgets and arduous for the deceptively hypocritical horror fanboys. But if there are no players in the game, even the house loses, and all your left is with nostalgia from an empty, dusty old table that used to mean something to somebody a long time ago.
Bio: After winning the Pulitzer Prize for his series of undercover NASCAR journalism, Noam Little was hit on the head with a bowling ball and decided it was a good idea to write about horror films. He currently lives in North Dakota, across the street from those damned Barberini Twins.