Jason Blum ’91 didn’t grow up watching horror movies. In fact, the producer of The Purge, Insidious, and Paranormal Activity first came to appreciate genres as a film student at Vassar.
“The first time I really got interested in genre movies was when I took [film professor] Sarah Kozloff’s class on Hitchcock. That was my first introduction to genre. He’s definitely my favorite scary movie director,” says the Blumhouse Productions CEO.
Blum brought his most recent film—Whiplash—to Vassar for a screening for film students. The drama tells the tale of a drumming student at a prestigious conservatory and the physical and emotional abuse his teacher doles out, expecting that his method will bring about musical greatness.
After a rousing round of applause following the movie, Blum sat down to answer students’ questions. One recurring theme was Blum’s business model in which he makes high-quality, low-budget films. It’s proven to be a profitable business: Blum’s eight most popular films have grossed more than $1 billion at the box office and each had a budget of under $5 million, says Associate Professor of Film Mia Mask.
“I want to try and make movies independently that studios release and release widely,” Blum says, noting that at first, people in the industry thought he was crazy. “After Sinister, and really, after The Purge, people were like, ‘Wow, this guy is onto something.’”
The success, Blum says, came after several jobs in the film business. His first came after gigs hawking cable TV door-to-door and selling real estate in New York City. For two years, Blum and fellow Vassar alumni Noah Baumbach ’91 and Jeremy Kramer ’91 tried to get the script for Kicking and Screaming made into a film. The script came to the attention of Steve Martin—Blum’s father was Martin’s art dealer—who liked the story and called Blum, asking what he could do to help. Blum asked for and received a letter from Martin, singing the praises of the script. The letter ended up as the script’s new cover, which was then sent to 200 contacts in the business.
“I sent it to everyone I had sent it to before. A year later, the movie got made. The Steve Martin letter got it into the right hands,” Blum says.
Along with the script’s new visibility, the letter also netted Blum his first executive job.
After working at a few film companies, including Miramax Films, Blum moved to Los Angeles when he turned 30 to further his dream of becoming a producer. He made several movies he says “nobody saw,” until he produced his first big studio movie, Tooth Fairy, which starred Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
“I hated producing it,” Blum says. “I kind of had this crisis where I was making little movies that no one saw, then I made this big movie that I thought was kind of what I wanted to do, but I didn’t like doing that. At that time, I saw the rough cut of Paranormal Activity, which was independently created but was distributed by a studio. I thought that was the coolest thing ever.”
Blum’s success with horror films has given him a desire to try his hand at other independent movies, including the well-reviewed Whiplash, as well as upcoming thrillers such as The Boy Next Door, starring Jennifer Lopez.
“I’m trying to keep up with scary movies but do other genres that fit that mold. What’s fun about it is that studios love it, but they also hate it,” he says, noting that his model takes away a lot of the studios’ purpose, which is to make expensive movies. Blum uses experienced people, working for scale, and gives his directors final cut privilege. “I always say to the directors, ‘I can’t promise you a hit movie, but I can promise it will be your own.’”
—Story and photos by Debbie Swartz