Why horror films make a killing at the box office
Michael Myers makes his return to movie theaters this weekend and with the fictional serial killer comes one of the most enduring genres of all time.
“Halloween,” the eleventh film in the horror franchise, nabbed a strong $33.3 million on its opening day Friday and is expected to bring in roughly $80 million domestically this weekend for Universal. That’s up from earlier projections of $60 million and could be one of the biggest openings in October’s history. It would also make it the highest grossing debut for the franchise. Last year’s big screen version of Stephen King’s “It” opened at $123 million, for comparison.
The film, starring Jamie Lee Curtis, is a direct sequel to the 1978 version, which means it continues the original’s story and ignores the other films in the series.
So why does Hollywood keep coming back to “Halloween?” It’s because horror is a unique genre with broad appeal, films that are affordable to make and that are best enjoyed at brick and mortar theaters where other viewers are screaming with you in the dark. Studios benefit from the high return on investment and theaters get more foot traffic at the box office and at concession stands where they make the highest profit margins. In an age of on-demand streaming from the comfort of a living room, horror films brings people back to the theater.
“Horror really is the easiest sell,” film critic Amy Nicholson told CNN Business. Nicholson is the host of The Ringer’s “Halloween Unmasked,” an eight-part podcast series about the making and cultural impact of the franchise.
“You could say, ‘with this film I’m going to try to make you laugh’ and that may not work for everybody. People have different senses of humor,” she said. “But if you say, ‘here’s a movie that’s going to make you cringe,’ that’s going to hit a much broader swath of people.”
Paramount’s “A Quiet Place” reportedly cost $17 million, but nabbed $334 million globally, bringing in 19 times what it cost to make. Last year’s breakout hit “Get Out” made $255 million worldwide off of a reported budget of just $4.5 million. That’s 56 times its budget.
Neither of these recent blockbusters compare to the original “Halloween,” which was made for just $300,000 in 1978 and brought back $60 million, or 200 times its costs.
“You don’t need stars, you don’t need huge name directors,” Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, told CNN Business. “There’s not a lot of risk when you’re talking about horror films.”
Horror is a genre that is ideal to watch in the theater because there’s “something contagious about fear,” according to Caetlin Benson-Allott, an associate professor at Georgetown University who specializes in new media’s impact on film.
“In academia, we use the term ‘affect’ to describe an emotional intensity that’s shared among people, that’s not just an individual’s internal emotion,” Benson-Allott told CNN Business. “Horror movies are a perfect example of ‘affect’ at work. When I hear the other people screaming in the theater with me, it amplifies my response.”
Jason Blum — the CEO of Blumhouse Productions, which backed “Halloween,” “Get Out” and “The Purge” — told CNN Business that no genre has been spared from being cannibalized by streaming services. But “horror is certainly more immune than other genres.”
Blum explained that filmmakers who don’t typically make horror movies are suddenly eager to make a great horror film, largely because “they know the theatrical experience will be preserved” since “the genre works really well in movie theaters.” Great examples of this are “Get Out” director Jordan Peele and “A Quiet Place” director John Krasinski, two comedic actors who created hit horror films in recent years.
Another reason horror is having a moment right now is because its fictional stories might be more comforting than what’s happening in the real world.
“I think it’s because the world is a particularly scary place. It’s nice to go somewhere to see something that’s scary, that’s not real,” Blum said. “I think it’s as simple as that.”
Nicholson thinks there is reason why “Halloween” is particularly relatable at the moment.
“Michael Myers is, in a way, one of the original angry young men, who is just mad for reasons we can’t comprehend,” she said. “That’s a story we’ve been talking about a lot lately in the news, why are some people just angry and how do we reach them? Michael Myers is a man you can’t reach, and that’s terrifying.”