Box-office hit on a budget

The Purge's cast, including (from far left) Max Burkholder, Lena Headey and Ethan Hawke, worked for minimal pay.

UNITED STATES - How small was the budget for the new horror thriller The Purge, which imagines a future in which all crime is legalised for 12 hours every year?

So small that its star, Ethan Hawke, slept on producer Jason Blum's sofa for the five weeks of filming and worked for next to nothing, with no trailer on the set or a chauffeur to drive him there.

But the gamble paid off, both for Hawke and Blum (inset), who took no producer's fee either. Both are instead getting a cut of the profits from the film, which cost a scant US$3 million (S$3.8 million) to make but has now earned more than US$83 million worldwide - the biggest box-office-to-budget ratio for a Hollywood film this summer.

The Purge, which opens in Singapore on Thursday, also topped the box office when it opened in the United States in June, making it the cheapest summer flick to do so in 25 years.

Blum's production company Blumhouse specialises in low-budget supernatural horror flicks such as Paranormal Activity (2007) and Insidious (2010), which both went on to become lucrative franchises. And The Purge could be headed the same way, with a sequel now in the works.

At a press event for the film in Beverly Hills earlier this year, the 44-year-old told Life! and other press that he loved the idea behind The Purge, which follows Hawke's character and his family as they experience their seventh Purge, an annual ritual instituted by the government as a sort of cathartic release for society's criminal impulses.

The director, James DeMonaco, had originally pitched it to him "and then went off and tried to make it more expensively, which I was not interested in doing. And then he came back and we made it with my model".

Blum's model is to make a film for under US$5 million - which is peanuts compared to most studio films - but to make it in such a way that a studio will then buy it for a "wide release" at cinemas across the country, as opposed to a handful in a few major cities.

The best way to do this is by creating what is known as a "high concept" film, or one where the plot is easy to communicate and market, rather than, say, a dialogue-heavy drama whose effectiveness will depend on its execution.

"A lot of people are trying to copy this but it's a hard model to replicate. I'll talk to producers who want to do it and they're like, 'Let's talk about our fees', and I say, 'There are no producing fees.' They think 'no producing fees' means a small US$100,000 fee. But it's zero fee.

"It's not that US$100,000 will break the budget, but as soon as you do that, then everyone needs US$100,000 - the director, Ethan, the writer, the other producer, and so on. Then all of a sudden it's US$1 million before you're out of the gate."

So he persuaded 42-year-old Hawke, a close friend whom he had started a theatre company with when they were both in their 20s, to work for scale pay, which can mean as little as US$800 a day for a lead actor.

Lena Headey, the English actress from the hit TV show Game Of Thrones, was also roped in because she and Blum had a mutual friend in Game Of Thrones star Peter Dinklage. She as well as the director, crew and even vendors agreed to be paid next to nothing in exchange for a share of the profits.

That is how Hawke ended up "sleeping on my couch, 30 feet away from me", says Blum, adding, with a laugh: "My wife was really pleased about it!"

The actor has now reportedly earned a figure in the "mid-seven figures" from the deal, according to The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It is no accident that The Purge and other money-spinners have often been horror films, as the genre is often the best fit for this approach.

"We look for movies that are low-budget and wide-releases. So things that can be made relatively inexpensively - not too many locations, not too many speaking parts.

"Something that the head of marketing at a studio would read and say, wow, if you get this 90 per cent right, I know what the trailer is, I know what the poster is."

This is why so many of the big-earning but inexpensively made films at the cineplex in recent years have been scary ones.

"This never works for drama or comedy. I don't think you can make a broad, studio-like comedy, for example, without a massive movie star attached," says Blum. "We don't always succeed in getting a wide release, although our track record is a little better than 50 per cent, which I'm very pleased with right now."

Speaking to reporters shortly before The Purge opened in the US, Blum fretted about it going head to head with another new film, The Internship, "an US$80-million comedy with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson", which would have had far more money for publicity and promotion.

The Purge eventually trounced The Internship and Fast & Furious 6, another heavy-hitter, to rule the US box office that weekend, with US$36.3 million in takings compared to The Internship's meagre US$18.1 million.

Blum - whose company is currently working on sequels to Insidious, Paranormal Activity as well as The Purge, along with a new ghost movie called Jessabelle - says he "really loves doing these small movies". But it all began in a rather less happy place for him.

"I worked for Miramax and Harvey Weinstein in the 1990s, when I saw The Blair Witch Project, and we didn't buy it. Harvey never let me forget that," he says of the media mogul and studio head.

The supernatural "found footage" flick, which was made for less than US$750,000, went on to become a megahit that grossed more than US$240 million worldwide, forever changing the industry's attitude to budget thrillers.

The memory of that experience was in the back of Blum's mind when he decided to make Paranormal Activity, a labour of love that took three years to perfect before it was released and became a hit with more than US$193 million in box-office takings.

These experiences have confirmed his belief that "all you can do in the movie business is to like something and push it through".

"Sometimes I'm right and sometimes I'm wrong, but I like to say that I hold on if I think something will work."

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