We all have small beginnings, especially within the film industry. For movie directors, before the jump into larger budget films, they have to demonstrate what they’re capable of via indie/smaller budget films. For some, it takes one mere film before a big production studio notices them. For others, it could be a couple of more films. Part of making it within the film industry is just sheer luck at times. But over the last few years, big-budget films, in this case $100 million plus, especially within the superhero genre, are bringing in indie horror directors and giving them the opportunity of a lifetime. There are a handful of horror directors who have made the jump into the superhero genre, but within this article I’m going to take a look at James Wan, David Sandberg, Sam Raimi, Scott Derrickson, and James Gunn. Some notable, honorable mentions include Tim Burton, who directed Beetlejuice and Batman (1989) and Zack Snyder, who also started off with a zombie/horror film titled Dawn of the Dead and later went on to direct Man of Steel, Batman vs Superman, and Justice League
To begin, we will take a look at the horror films that the aforementioned filmmakers directed. In the order in which the directors are listed, a few of the movies they wrote and/or directed include: Saw, Lights Out, Evil Dead, Sinister, and Slither. It’s important to note that none of these directors made the jump into bigger budget films after the aforementioned movie. However, it did demonstrate their filmmaking ability and subsequently, they were either brought on by a movie studio to direct another horror flick or were given the funding and financing for their next film, due to the critical and/or box office success. In addition, the films listed are not the only horror films made by some of these directors. For example, after Saw, Wan directed Dead Silence, Insidious and Insidious Ch. 2, and The Conjuring 1 & 2. But we’re going to focus on Saw due to the fact that it’s the smallest film in terms of budget and it was Wan’s first feature.
The combined budget of the five films listed is approximately $24.4 million dollars, with the bulk of that budget coming from Slither with $15 million. The combined box office of the films, however, is approximately $356 million, with Lights Out earning the most with almost $149 million. Overall, not taking into account each film specifically, that is a good profit. Horror films over the years have proven to be one of the most profitable genres. This is because the budgets are relatively small and horror will always draw an audience, so the turnaround could be quite substantial.
Aside from box office, the aforementioned films were also critically acclaimed. Horror films, like any movie, rely on a good word of mouth. Furthermore, in the film industry, that critical acclaim is sometimes more important than the box office success. Movie studios are more likely to give the reigns of a big film to a director whose movie was critically acclaimed but didn’t make that much money over a director whose movie was not critically acclaimed but was a box office success. Thus, directors like Wan, Sandberg, Raimi, Derrickson and Gunn were starting to be courted by studios for other, more costly films, but not necessarily superhero ones just yet.
Another positive aspect of the aforementioned horror films is the originality factor. When Saw came out, it was something that was never really seen before. The same is true for Lights Out and others. In fact, for Sandberg, the original Lights Out was a short film on YouTube before it got noticed by producer Lawrence Grey and James Wan. People want to see new ideas, new stories, new films. They want to be surprised and of course, scared. And what scares the most? What we don’t know, what we can’t see, when we don’t know what’s coming next. The originality of many of these indie horror movies is what attracts big producers and movie studios when looking for either a writer or director for their next project.
In this article I will mostly focus on big-budget, superhero films. However, it’s important to note that many indie horror directors have been handed the reigns to franchise films, such as The Conjuring franchise and The Fast and Furious, as is the case with Wan. But let’s look at the similarities between horror and superhero films. Superhero films can be quirky and certainly quite different than the usual action spectacle. Horror films rely on being different and unique to bring new scares. In addition, superhero films love to use humor. In any film, humor is an important element but more so in superhero movies due to the fact that it fits the genre. First of all, we’re watching super powerful beings in suits saving the world, so there’s always going to be some sort of unfathomability in regard to that and for many, it’s quite funny. So therefore, humor fits. For horror, humor is oftentimes used as well. Whether it’s from a cliché act that a character does, like walking alone in the dark, or a joke that someone said, humor adds balance to the darkness and morbidness that horror films present. In addition, humor adds character. As humans, we use humor as a way to get through situations, especially the darkest ones. So it’s only right that it’s used within the genre.
Now that we discussed a few of the similarities, let’s explore why these indie horror directors are being courted by movie studios for superhero films. One of the reasons why is simply the filmmaking process. Directing horror movies is not as easy as it sounds. Horror films often have a limited, small budget. Directors have to be as efficient as possible and sometimes, that leads to the directors being innovative and getting as much done as they can in a short period of time. Movie studios and producers find that attractive because, if the filmmakers worked with the smallest budget and let’s say the movie becomes either a box office success and/or gets critical acclaim, that shows them that they can work with what they’re given. In order words, they made it work. Working in the horror genre prepares the directors to essentially, more or less, work in a variety of genres. Furthermore, people, usually outside the film industry, think that horror movie sets are dark, scary, and serious. That is not the case; in fact, from what I’ve heard,horror films are fun and lighthearted, which similarly, superhero film sets are as well.
Just briefly, I’d like to talk a little bit about Marvel and DC, two of the most popular superhero genre studios, and their track record with bringing in horror film directors. It all started with Spider-Man, directed by Sam Raimi. This was one of the first times in which a horror filmmaker was given the reigns to a superhero property and the payoff was massive. The Spider-Man trilogy is one of the most respected and loved by the superhero audience and still holds its ground today, even after two new live-action spideys. For reference, the superhero films that the listed directors made, in order in which they’re listed, are Aquaman, Shazam!, Spider-Man 1-3, Doctor Strange, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 & 2. No need to get into specifics, but those movies were highly successful, both critically and box office wise.
In addition, the fans loved them. As of this moment, all of the films have sequels and the next chapters going into production, except of course, the Raimi Spider-Man. And what’s ironic is that Raimi is now set to direct Doctor Strange 2, the first one being directed of course by Derrickson. It’s a small world; Raimi is set to make his return to the superhero genre for the first time since 2007.
Succinctly, the reason why big budget films, especially superhero movies, are courting indie horror directors is due to the fact that they demonstrated they can work with a budget and be as efficient and innovative as they can. They’re also used to being in a fun, lighthearted set, and horror and superhero movies share many aspects and similarities, including humor. For up and coming filmmakers, there are quite a few lessons to be learned. The main one is that everything has small beginnings. You must start small, directing indie movies, not necessarily horror films, but just get started. Direct something. Write something. You never know who might notice and say, let’s give this guy or girl a shot. You need to take the first step in order to take a big leap later on.
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