Paranormal Profits : The Indicator from Planet Money Horror movies are good business. Scary good. They are more likely to be profitable than any other kind of movie. Today on the show, we look at why.
NPR logo

Paranormal Profits

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/662706955/662707862" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Paranormal Profits

Paranormal Profits

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/662706955/662707862" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HALLOWEEN")

JAMIE LEE CURTIS: (As Laurie Strode) He's waited for this night. He's waited for me.

(SCREAMING)

CURTIS: (As Laurie Strode) I've waited for him.

Get out. Go home. Get inside.

STACEY VANEK SMITH: (Screaming).

CARDIFF GARCIA: Whoa.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) This is a clip from "Halloween," the new one. It's just out. Jamie Lee Curtis is back. The original, though, was made back in 1978. And John Carpenter, the director, made it for just $300,000. And it made way more than that. In the U.S., it took in $50 million. I would say, Cardiff, that is a scary profit (laughter).

GARCIA: Terrifying profit. And since this is THE INDICATOR, I'm going to adjust that for inflation. 300 grand back then, a little more than a million dollars.

VANEK SMITH: Still super cheap.

GARCIA: Yeah, still not a bad return at all. And this is kind of a unique thing about horror movies. See, the movie business is hard. It is hard to make money. Most movies don't, except when it comes to horror movies.

This is THE INDICATOR. I'm Cadaver Ghoul-cia (ph).

VANEK SMITH: And I am Slayer Vampire Smith (ph).

GARCIA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Oh, my God. Today on the show, horror movies - why the business model is less scary for horror movies than it is for other kinds of movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA: The horror movie "Paranormal Activity" had a return on investment of more than 710,000 percent, according to our rough calculations. That is today's Planet Money indicator. And what it means is that for every dollar that investors put into the movie, they got back more than $7,000. That makes "Paranormal Activity" the movie with the highest return on investment of all time.

VANEK SMITH: "Blair Witch Project" comes in at number two with a 230,000 percent return in the U.S.

GARCIA: These are insane numbers.

VANEK SMITH: It's true. I mean, most movies don't come anywhere near this. "The King's Speech" - huge hit - had an 800 percent return on investment. "Hunger Games," another huge hit? Four hundred and twenty percent return. That is according to numbers from the movie-tracking site PartyCasino and "The Horror Report" from Stephen Follows.

GARCIA: Yeah. When it comes to movies that have made the most money versus what they cost, like, seven of the top 10 are horror movies. Think of names like "Blair Witch Project," "Friday The 13th," "Saw." They cost very little to make and pulled in a ton of money.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. Even the recent "Halloween" with Jamie Lee Curtis had a big, splashy debut. It cost $10 million to make. And after just a week in theaters, it's already made more than $125 million in the U.S. Now compare that to the budget for the recent hit "Crazy Rich Asians," also considered kind of a low-budget movie that was a huge hit. It cost $30 million to make, three times "Halloween's" budget, and it made about $173 million in the U.S. That's not that much more than "Halloween" has already made.

GARCIA: So to figure out what it is about the horror genre that makes it so profitable, we called up Nina Gregory, our old friend. She's a senior editor at NPR's Arts Desk.

NINA GREGORY, BYLINE: I think there are a few different factors when you're talking about a movie making money. Just like any product, you make money by selling the product and by keeping the cost down.

VANEK SMITH: According to Nina, a lot of things that tend to make movies expensive are kind of easy to avoid in a horror movie. Reason number one? Location, location, location.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH'S "TOCCATA AND FUGUE IN D MINOR, BWV 565")

GREGORY: And so when you limit things, like one location - say, a haunted house - you're saving money.

GARCIA: Yeah. A lot of times, horror movies are set either in one place or in just a few places. Like, think of "The Shining" and "Psycho" or the movie "Get Out" - just not a ton of moving around, not a ton of locations. It's easier to do this with horror than it is with, like, say, an action movie.

VANEK SMITH: Now, reason number two that horror movies can save money?

(SCREAMING)

GREGORY: Things that cost money - when you're making a movie, many things cost money. But locations and actors talking costs money. So (laughter)...

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) That seems reasonable. So like...

GARCIA: Hate it when they do that.

(LAUGHTER)

VANEK SMITH: There is just not a ton of banter in a horror movie, (laughter) you know?

GARCIA: Lot of sneaking around quiet hallways, yeah.

VANEK SMITH: Exactly.

GARCIA: Where talking'll get you killed.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, and think about the killers themselves. In "Halloween," Michael Myers, the killer, does not say anything. Ditto for "Blair Witch." And in a lot of ways, the less a monster says, the better. You don't want a chatty monster. That's way less scary.

GARCIA: Right. Like, if Jason had, like, a kind of talkative personality, it'd just be way less scary. Right.

VANEK SMITH: Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well (laughter).

GARCIA: Yeah. It's like, dude, shut up. Now you're just annoying me (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Right, right. Now we're all falling asleep.

GARCIA: I used to be rooting for him and against the kids.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: Now I'm rooting for the kids.

VANEK SMITH: Now I'm just kind of hoping the - now the kids are falling asleep.

GARCIA: (Laughter) Yeah. And so anyways, that absence of talking also helps keep costs down because you have to pay actors more when they have a speaking part. So the fewer the speaking parts, the cheaper the film. Reason number three, nothing to fear but fear itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PSYCHO")

JANET LEIGH: (As Marion Crane) (Screaming) Oh, no.

GREGORY: I think one thing about horror films that make them scary good business is the business of scaring people to begin with because so much of fear lives in our brain that what's not seen is often more terrifying than what is seen.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, I love that. So like, the nature of fear itself makes it conducive to low budget.

GARCIA: I love how she just snuck in the scary good business part. Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: I know. Deadpan.

GARCIA: We noticed. We noticed. Fear is cheap. A lot of times, a movie is scarier when you see less. Michael Myers, the killer in "Halloween," you don't see his face. He's just wearing a mask. By the way, not a very expensive mask, it turns out.

GREGORY: Michael Myers wore an inside-out Captain Kirk mask that director...

VANEK SMITH: Is that true?

GREGORY: (Laughter) Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: Really?

GREGORY: John Carpenter said that he bought it at a magic shop on Hollywood Boulevard (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: It's Captain Kirk?

(LAUGHTER)

VANEK SMITH: This whole time, it was Captain Kirk (laughter)?

GARCIA: This changes everything. Not nearly as frightening.

GREGORY: And the most important part of his costume, though, was a knife. No big, dramatic explosions - a simple knife.

GARCIA: And most of the great horror movie villains have really kind of budget looks.

VANEK SMITH: That's true.

GARCIA: Yeah. Like, think of the killer in "Scream," Jason's hockey mask. In "Get Out," the monsters are just people, the most frightening of all.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) That's right.

GARCIA: You know? You never actually get to see the Blair Witch or the ghost in "Paranormal Activity."

VANEK SMITH: In fact, a low budget look can actually make things scarier. Within the horror movie genre, the most profitable of those movies are these so-called found-footage movies, like "The Blair Witch Project" and the "Paranormal Activity" movies.

GARCIA: And that's kind of the final point about horror - movies, lots and lots of movies. Horror is more conducive than almost any other genre to sequels. Often there's just not a plot that you have to move forward very much or, like, a character arc that you have to, like, reckon with that's ongoing. You just have to bring a monster back and bring in new people who also don't speak who then get killed by the new monster - or by the old monster, who's back.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: So if a movie (laughter) does hit, you can just cash in for years.

GREGORY: So you see these horror films like "Paranormal Activity" come out and do so well, and then they're - they'll make 20 more of them. You know?

GARCIA: Yeah. I think I lost track of how many "Nightmare On Elm Streets" (ph) there were.

GREGORY: Five thousand.

GARCIA: Or "Nightmares On Elm Street" (ph)? I don't know. There was one about Freddy haunting the set of the next sequel.

GREGORY: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Are you serious?

GARCIA: How ridiculous is that?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) He's trying to cross over out of films into our reality.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The only way to stop him is to make another movie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Oh, my God.

VANEK SMITH: There are nine "Nightmare On Elm Street" movies so far, six "Paranormal Activities" (ph). "Halloween," though, takes the cake. This movie is the 11th. There have been 10 follow-ups to the first "Halloween" movie. The director of the original movie, John Carpenter, told NPR that he's actually on board with all of these "Halloweens" (ph).

JOHN CARPENTER: I love what "Halloween" has done for me. I love the movie itself. And every time a sequel is made, I get paid, so I can't dislike it. Even if I don't like the movies, I like the paycheck.

VANEK SMITH: THE INDICATOR is produced by Scar-ius Rafieyan (ph) and Corpse-stanza Gallardo (ph).

GARCIA: And it is edited by Paddy Hearse (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CARPENTER'S "HALLOWEEN THEME")

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.