July 25, 2005

Horror Movies Face Bloodbath at Box Fffice

LOS ANGELES -- The only thing scary these days about horror movies is the state of their box office grosses.

Since May 6, when "House of Wax" was released, five horror films have been unveiled -- and they have consistently under-performed. Warner Bros. Pictures' much-hyped "Wax" remake sold a modest $32.1 million worth of tickets, zombiefest "George A. Romero's Land of the Dead" stumbled with a meager $20.3 million, Asian horror remake "Dark Water" grossed a murky $23.1 million, and French import "High Tension" yielded a limp $3.6 million.

Lions Gate Releasing held high hopes for this weekend's debut of Rob Zombie's "The Devil's Rejects," but the fright-fest debuted No. 8 at the box office, grossing a modest $7 million, and will likely suffer a steep falloff on its second weekend.

In the midst of a genre glut, spookmeisters are definitely on edge, wondering if the horror bubble has burst.

"It seems like some good things are getting lost," said Brad Fuller, a partner at Platinum Dunes, which produced the successful "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" remake in 2003 and is now prepping a prequel. The company is also developing a remake of the 1980s horror flick, "The Hitcher."

"We're looking at the numbers and questioning how we can do it better and smarter, so that we can get high grosses."

In fact, New Line Cinema, whose seeds were sown in the horror field decades ago, is taking a breather from the genre.

"This glut is why we don't have (a horror film) until the first quarter of next year," said David Tuckerman, the studio'spresident of domestic theatrical distribution, referring to "Final Destination 3."

While some industry watchers have long predicted that the ax would fall on this popular genre, as late as this winter, horror movies were making a killing. January's "White Noise" and "Hide and Seek" both opened to over $19 million and grossed over $50 million, while "Boogeyman" earned $46 million.

New Line and Dimension, which was created on the strength of the "Scream" movies and kept its Miramax Films parent in the black for many years, have been joined by more companies seeking to hack their way into the fright market, such as Raw Nerve and Sam Raimi's Ghost House. Universal's Focus Features recently spun off its own genre division, Rogue. Off the strength of "Saw," Lions Gate signed a nine-picture deal with Twisted Pictures, the genre label of Evolution Entertainment.

Yes, the last few years have been heady times for horror geeks.

The scary-movie business is a good one to be in because the budgets are usually low and profit margins wide. But too much of a good thing can be bad for business, as evidenced by the current horror box office slump.

"How many zombie movies have we seen in the last couple of years?" asked one studio production executive. "How many Asian creepy kid movies have we seen? What you're seeing is a burning out of the sub-genres within the horror genre as a whole."

Counting "Devil's Rejects," there were five horror movies released in an 11-week period. "Try and picture any other genre with the same output at the same budget level," Platinum Dunes' Fuller said. "It's hard to get people that excited."

"There's so much horror now and the audience is getting tired," Tuckerman seconded. "They can smell the bad ones."

The flood of titles continues in August with Ian Softley's New Orleans voodoo movie "The Skeleton Key" and the underwater monster flick "The Cave." Also still to come are September's "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," October's remake of John Carpenter's "The Fog" and December's black-rubber vampire sequel "Underworld: Evolution."

There is also a seasonal aspect to horror's box office performance.

Spring and summer have traditionally not been seasons that work for spooky cinema. Each of the three "Scream" films, which grossed over $100 million, was released in December or February. "Land of the Dead" was released in March of 2004. And then there is the traditional September/October window which spawned such hits as "Texas Chainsaw," the original "Halloween" movies and last year's "The Grudge."

Horror flicks often can't compete against traditional summer tentpoles, either on a "wow" or marketing level. "The audiences who are driving the summer box office want to go to the big spectacle film," Fuller said, "and by the nature of the genre, these movies are not spectacles, because you can't spend $130 million on a horror movie. Most are made for under $35 million. The tricks in those movies don't compare with the 'War of the Worlds' or 'The Island."'

According to one studio production executive involved with one of the recent horror disappointments, his team believed that horror was invincible. "They got carried away with horror films and thought that they could release them whenever," he said. "But these summer releases are being promoted by massive marketing campaigns, and if you don't do the same, you're going to get lost. The money spent on the horror films was more like a fall campaign."

"Dark Water," for example, had to contend with the marketing might of "The Fantastic Four." 20th Century Fox's comic-book movie, which even had a skywriting campaign, opened at $56 million while "Water" opened at $9.9 million.

One problem with the current crop of horror movies is their scope and budget, which have been steadily increasing. "Water," for example, is an arty horror film targeted at adult women -- not the typical horror crowd.

The $130 million "Wax" may eventually break even, but Warner insiders say that while casting tabloid fave Paris Hilton was great for publicity, she couldn't lure her younger fans to an R-rated film. Casting Hilton, who was bigger than the movie, may also have taken audiences out of the story, rather than building suspense.

In the end, "Rejects," which boasted a modest $9 million-$11 million budget, will make a profit for Lions Gate. After all, one of the attractions of making a horror movie is the fast and easy buck.

There are some who feel the horror downturn is actually a good thing.

Let the cycle run its course, said New Line's Tuckerman: "Hopefully the film companies are going to burn out on it and then there'll be room for good ones again."

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter