Horror is the perfect genre for independent filmmakers. Horror films can be executed on a low budget, with a small cast and crew and limited locations. It’s a fantastic entry point into the industry.
Peter Jackson began his career with Bad Taste. Sam Raimi got started with Evil Dead. First time director George Romero broke through with a little low budget movie called Night of The Living Dead and gave us the zombie film.
Horror gives you a great platform to establish yourself as a storyteller, demonstrate your visual style, and get seen.
From a distribution perspective, horror is both commercial and popular. There’s an established audience who buy and consume it, mainly men aged 16-24. Things have moved on from the 1980s and 1990s, when filmmakers could make a lot of money with a bad low budget movie, thanks to a shortage of films and a high demand from distributors. Today, the bar is higher and you have to make a good film to get noticed.
Here are some fundamentals to keep in mind when making a horror film.
Keep your budget low
Even at the top level, horrors are low budget affairs. Sinister was produced by Jason Blum, the man behind the Paranormal Activity series and Insidious. It was made for $3 million, complete with Ethan Hawke, who got a backend share of the $78 million it took worldwide.
UK filmmakers, unless you’re one of the leading production companies, your budgets should top out at a maximum of £150,000. Channel it through the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme, which will give your investors a 50% rebate. Register for Film Tax Relief to claim back up to 20% of 80% of production expenses.
Anything higher is unwise. Indie horrors that make it as theatrical titles are few and far between and usually come from established directors. You’re primarily looking at a DVD release, Video on Demand (VOD) and television as your revenue streams. Horror runs on a short sales cycle. Your film get released with a marketing push, makes the majority of its physical DVD sales in the first month and then gets pushed out of shops by the next wave of horror releases the following quarter. Your remaining revenue comes from VOD and television. Minimum guarantees (advances from distributors who license your film) are falling. Manage your risk, maximise your return.
Keep your production quality high
Distributors are more and more selective on what they pick up. Take a look at the trailers below. Here are some horror films that have got UK distribution recently.
We Are What We Are
Picked up by eOne
Released by Kaleidoscope
Picked up by Metrodome. Budget? $6000.
This is what you’re aiming for. This caliber or better. That means great locations, good production design, strong cinematography, editing and VFX. Fantastic sound and music is crucial. It’s your foundation for creating atmosphere and building tension. Casting is vital. You don’t need a big star, but get some great actors. Paranormal Activity worked so well because we believed those performances.
Think about doing a short
A fantastic short can get you momentum, notice, and finance for a feature. Mama went from a short to a feature after it was spotted by Guillermo del Toro. Brilliant idea, beautifully executed.
Festival wins and a strong fan response for a short go a long way in proving your film has an audience and demonstrates you can execute. Both help massively with investment. There’s also horror anthologies, which can give you a shot at greater exposure. Dread Central are calling for zombie shorts now for Zombieworld, which already has worldwide distribution. Deadline for entries is 30th May 2014. Always read the small print.
Understand the psychology of horror
Why do people watch horror films? What are they looking for from the experience? Know your audience and what they want.
Horror films are built on tension. They need to be relevant, tap into your viewer’s fears, anxieties and morbid fascination. Good horror gives us voyeurism into a violent unreal world and offers us catharsis.
Here’s a starting point: Understanding The Popular Appeal Of Horror Cinema: An Integrated-Interactive Model by Glenn D. Walters, PhD. Read it. It’s an academic paper, and it shows you the notes to hit as a filmmaker.
Give us the money shot
If your character’s being chased by a ghost or a demon or a rampaging monster, show us on screen. I want to see your lead get thrown across the room.
Consider your gore factor
When it comes to extremes and torture porn like The Human Centipede, your film might have a market in the UK, Germany and the US, where audiences have the stomach for it, but you can lose sales in other territories who are turned off by it.
Shoot scenes twice. One with all the gore your heart desires, and a toned down take. Cut two versions. Give your sales agent and distributor the option. It means you’ll get a wider release and opens up more chance for television distribution.
The same applies for your artwork. Your poster/DVD cover/VOD thumbnail has to be PG friendly. Take high quality productions stills throughout your shoot. It’s absolutely essential for marketing and one of the biggest complaint sales agents have with indie filmmakers – no photos. No, you can’t just pull them from your film. The resolution’s not good enough. Hire a photographer. Give options.
Forget found footage
It’s dead. It’s been done. The market’s oversaturated and distributors are tired of shaky cam footage and screaming. Unless you’re offering something truly game changing, like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, don’t bother. Mine new ground.
Tell me a great story. Tell me a new story. Tell me a smart story. There’s enough horror by numbers haunted house/prison/hospitals films out there. Distributors will bite your hand off if you can deliver a great high concept film.
We Are What We Are is fantastic. It brings something fresh to the genre. Both the Mexican original and the US version played at Cannes. They stand up as films outside the genre. Ginger Snaps is a fantastic satire. Werewolves as a metaphor for puberty. American Mary was picked up by Universal, partly because they liked the filmmakers and their point of view, rather than purely commercial reasons. The acquisition teams at Universal saw Dead Hooker In A Trunk and liked it. They’re interested in what the filmmakers are going to do next. They wanted to build a relationship with them. That’s what gets you success and longevity.
Agree, disagree, questions, thoughts? Hit me up in the comments.
Picture Credit: Amer