In the world of economics there are “once-in-a…” events. Great Depressions come once in a life time. Companies fail once in a while. Most days, however, are run-of-the-mill, businesses-doing-business days. The everydays.
“The Scariest Thing in Hollywood” was an everyday kind of episode. There was no stock market crash to attend to, no Grexit to ponder. It was just another day and another story. Time to fall back into the swing of things. And, as you might expect, it was good, but nothing to write home about. And I am still not sure what the “scariest thing” in Hollywood is.
The episode centers on Rob Cohen, a director who you might be familiar with from The Fast and The Furious and who you definitely won’t be familiar with from Stealth, the gargantuan flop that came two movies later and nearly ended his career. Well actually, it did end his career. Until he met Jason Blum.
Blum has made a name for himself and his production company, Blumhouse Productions, by pioneering, as his IMDB page tells us, “a new model of studio filmmaking—producing high-quality micro-budget films.” Blum approaches movie financing with tactics straight from the tech venture capitalist playbook: make a lot of small bets and hope one pays off in a big way. He estimates that about 40% of his films are financial failures. But the ones that aren’t? They produce huge returns. Blumhouse has produced films like Paranormal Activity, The Purge, Insidious, and Sinister, which grossed upwards of $1.2 billion. Their combined budgets? Under $40 million. Blum got his start with Paranormal Activity, which was made for $15,000—the price of an 18-karat gold Apple Watch—and grossed almost $200 million worldwide.
That makes it the single most profitable film in the history of Hollywood, with a roughly 1333% return on investment.
After Stealth’s failure and Cohen’s silver screen excommunication, Blum approached Cohen and asked him to direct The Boy Next Door, a Jennifer Lopez horror vehicle. Its budget was $4.2 million. I think for lack of content, the show spent a long time on how Cohen quickly exhausted his meager budget and goes to Blum for $300,000 increase to shoot a needle-in-eye stabbing and a sex scene. Blum sticks to his low-budget principles and denies him. In pre-screenings the movie is middling. Then Universal (the distributor) steps in to save the day. The team re-shot key scenes and recut the film for wider release. After the edits, the film went on to gross $35 million—which isn’t bad at all for a $4.2 million dollar investment.
Here’s the trailer; listen for the inexplicable “It’s Will Warren!” (as in, famed Audiologue critic Will Warren) around 1:21.
Maybe it was because I wasn’t particularly interested in the subject matter, but I didn’t really care for the episode. It felt a bit plodding, and while I can typically find joy in the whimsy of Planet Money‘s treatment of an unfamiliar subject, learning about movie financing felt a bit like watching the sausage being made, particularly if that sausage was made from sorrowful Hollywood has-beens in a grinder powered by broken dreams.
But, ya know, it was fine. It felt like Planet Money was trying for a base hit, and they got it. It’s just that I wanted them to swing for the fences; it wouldn’t bother me if they fell a little short, but I’m a bit disappointed that it seems as though they didn’t try.
- How Cohen and Lopez are nursing their hurt feelings:
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