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'Annabelle' producer: Return on investment for horror films is huge

From left: producer James Wan, producer Peter Safran and director John Leonetti on the set of
From left: producer James Wan, producer Peter Safran and director John Leonetti on the set of "Annabelle."
Gregory Smith

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Peter Safran is no stranger to the business of genre movies in Hollywood: he's produced such hits as "The Conjuring" and "Buried," and his most recent producer credit is on "Annabelle," the prequel to last year's "The Conjuring."

Leading up to the weekend, the film world was buzzing with the speculation that "Annabelle" could out-perform David Fincher's "Gone Girl." And while "Gone Girl" finished with $38 million, "Annabelle" came in a close second with $37.2 million. We talked to Safran about what it means to have gone neck-and-neck with "Gone Girl" and the economic reasons why Hollywood loves a genre movie.

There's no sure thing in Hollywood, but some horror and genre titles right now seem to have the potential for an incredible return on investment. What's happening there?

Well, actually, this year has been a very weak year for horror in general. I think there has not been a breakout hit. So, for us, the audience was certainly primed for something that they can get behind. Horror in general is a pretty good bet in the sense that it's a relatively low-cost investment and it still has an unlimited upside.

It's low-cost because you're not spending a lot of money on digital effects or actors? Why do you save so much money?

There are a couple of factors that play into it that allow us to make it for a modest budget. First of all, you certainly don't need to spend money on stars — they're not star-driven vehicles. And in fact, if anything, having a big star in a genre movie can [have a negative effect] because it feels less real. Secondly, you don't spend a lot of money on visual effects; anything you can do in-camera tends to be better and scarier because it feels more real. And then, finally, [horror films] tend not to be filmmaker-driven — with very few exceptions, like a James Wan movie, the audiences just don't care. All they care about is, Is it scary? And if they're scared, it works, and that's it.

You talked about genre films not doing particularly well this year. Does that kind of set that stage for "Annabelle," that people are hungry for a movie that's going to work?

I think there's no doubt. I think people are always hungry for a good genre movie, a good supernatural thriller, and I think the fact that there hadn't been one to satisfy that craving for this entire year certainly teed us up to take advantage of it.

What does it mean to actually be neck-and-neck with "Gone Girl"?

I think it's extraordinary for us. When you look at these two movies on paper, you have a $5 million genre movie with no stars and you have a $70 million movie directed by one of the greatest filmmakers working today, starring Ben Affleck and based on a best-selling novel. It's an extraordinary feat to even be in the conversation.

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