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Blumhouse Productions loves PG-13 horror

From ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’ to latest ‘Imaginary’

By Ryaan Faughnder, Los Angeles Times
Published: March 15, 2024, 6:02am

Horror films have long been among the most reliable profit centers for Hollywood studios, even as other categories of film — like rom-coms, raunchy comedies and even superhero flicks — cycle through ups and downs. Within that ever prolific heading is a subset of titles that have shown themselves to be a dependable way to get younger audiences to the local multiplex: the PG-13 horror movie.

This weekend Blumhouse Productions releases its latest effort, “Imaginary,” which follows a woman whose young stepdaughter befriends a creepy stuffed bear named Chauncey. Lionsgate is distributing the film, which is expected to open with about $10 million to $12 million at the domestic box office on an estimated production budget of $10 million, according to people who’ve reviewed pre-release audience surveys. That would be comparable to “Night Swim,” which opened to $11.8 million in January.

It’s the latest spooky PG-13 Blumhouse pic, following the success of “Five Nights at Freddy’s” ($291 million in global box office sales) and “M3gan” ($180 million). Both “Five Nights” and “M3gan” were distributed by Universal Pictures.

Blumhouse sees an opportunity to expand the market for the horror genre as the company itself grows through its merger with James Wan’s Atomic Monster. The Los Angeles-based producer is trying to make movies that young people can watch with other family members. The idea is that if the pictures work, they’ll hit not just with Gen Z, but with their parents and siblings as well.

Backing up this point, in a recent Blumhouse-commissioned survey of self-identified horror fans, 70 percent of Gen Z respondents reported watching horror movies with their moms while 65 percent have watched them with their fathers. Including other generations, 60 percent of survey participants said they’d watched with Mom, versus 49 percent with Dad, 44 percent with a sister and 39 percent with a brother. Sixty-nine percent said they consider watching horror movies a family bonding activity.

“You wouldn’t think of these as ‘family movies,’ but the audience can be a family audience for these and that’s how something like ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’ can gross almost $300 million at the box office,” Blumhouse President Abhijay Prakash told The Wide Shot. “When you have that PG-13 rating, it opens up the opportunity for parents, siblings and the child to all go, and that really came across in the data in a big way.”

The research provided to The Times, based on a September online survey that received 1,655 complete responses, was conducted by Sage Outcomes for Blumhouse.

PG-13 horror movies are not a recent phenomenon, of course, despite the broader genre’s subversive bent and the reputation for luridness and exploitation earned by the ’80s slasher movies and their descendants. Joe Dante’s Christmas-themed horror-comedy “Gremlins,” rated PG, helped originate the PG-13 rating in 1984 after parents complained about its inappropriateness for smaller children.

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Since then, films including “The Ring” and “A Quiet Place” have repeatedly reinforced the fact that studios can deliver genuine scares without pushing into hard-R-rated territory (though to this day, movies designed to scare the younger set raise questions about whether the Motion Picture Association is too lenient when it comes to violence and imagery).

And teenagers have long been a key demographic for the genre, regardless of the MPA designation. Think of how many movies became cult classics thanks in large part to the slumber party audience. Plus, horror is typically inexpensive to produce, making profitability easier to achieve, as is the Blumhouse way.

Part of horror’s endurance at the box office has been attributed to the unique experience of seeing something scary in a theater with a group, which is hard to replicate on the couch. What the survey data suggests is that the crew in question “doesn’t necessarily need to be your peers and friends, it can also be your family,” said Prakash.

Teens and tweens have been a lucrative audience for Hollywood across multiple genres. As my colleague Christi Carras recently wrote, there’s a reason studios and streaming services are still apt to spend serious coin on fantasy-adventure series aimed at younger viewers — such as Disney+’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” and Netflix’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” — even as budgets tighten in other areas. Good teen-oriented TV-PG programs can easily become family viewing, making them “four-quadrant” hits.

In horror, some movies can also have cross-generational appeal, such as the most recent three-part reboot of the “Halloween” franchise, even though those films were rated R.

The post-millennial generations are also helpful to studios because of their penchant for meme-ing their favorite content into viral social media sensations. So making films relevant to their world makes sense, and this certainly applies to horror. “M3gan,” for example, exploited fears of artificial intelligence and skewered the ersatz reality of life spent on electronic devices. “Five Nights at Freddy’s” was based on a video game franchise popular among the youth.

Not every movie is going to hit the mark. “Lisa Frankenstein,” a horror-comedy from Focus Features, hasn’t exactly sent folks rushing to the cinema ($9.7 million in box office sales). And there’s still a big audience for far edgier material, as A24 demonstrated with its supernatural Australian chiller “Talk to Me.” But we can expect to see more PG-13 frights in the coming years, especially with these movies becoming family affairs in some cases.

“We’re striving to be the ultimate scary story company, and that means serving all types of audiences,” Prakash said. “Clearly, there’s an audience here, and now that’s validated with data on younger audiences and cross-generational audiences. So we want to serve that audience with our movies, but also our TV shows and, eventually, our games. ”

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