Halloween may be fast approaching, but it’s a tough time to be a horror movie fan. The most recent R-rated horror films have flopped at the multiplex.
“Crimson Peak,” the $55 million gothic horror film from director Guillermo del Toro, opened on October 16, but made less than $13 million its opening weekend despite mostly positive reviews. This put it in fourth place, three spots behind “Goosebumps,” the PG-rated Jack Black horror comedy aimed squarely at tweens.
“Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension,” the sixth installment in the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, did even worse, opening on October 23 and making only $8.6 million by the time the weekend was over. Luckily for all involved, its found-footage premise kept the production budget to a relatively low $10 million, so at least it doesn’t have to recoup $55 million.
The news of these movies’ lack of earning power must be disheartening to anyone who was a fan of the horror genre in the 1980s. Back then, Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees brought their “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th” franchises to inflation-adjusted grosses of $657 million and $773 million, respectively, all while earning R ratings befitting their copious servings of gore.
Plenty of beheadings on cable
So what happened? Is the R-rated horror movie no longer the box office attraction that it used to be?
Ray “Rayzilla” Cannella, Curator and Head of Programming for the Screambox horror movie streaming service, said that the genre is currently facing a combination of technological and market forces that make it hard for these movies to break out theatrically.
“The blood and guts are on the Internet and TV now,” Canella told Fortune. “Between legacy TV and OTT services, horror fans are scratching that itch in the privacy of their own homes.”
For those not in the know, “OTT” refers to over-the-top content, delivered over the Internet. If you binge-watch your favorite series on Netflix, you’re indulging in an OTT service, just as you’re doing when you watch the latest “Game of Thrones” beheading on HBO Now. And really, why would you leave your house to see it in the theater when you can indulge in it endlessly on your couch?
This being the case, horror movies that can’t play to mainstream, PG-13 audiences are best served by having low production budgets. Canella said that “Crimson Peak’s” price tag was uncharacteristically high for the genre, and recent history has shown that major studio distribution for R-rated horror movies is becoming increasingly rare.
“Eli Roth’s ‘The Green Inferno’ is a good example of how difficult it is for independent horror films to get any sort of meaningful theatrical distribution in the United States,” he said of the cannibal grindhouse film, which languished for two years without a distributor. “The film was finally ‘self-distributed’ by Blumhouse and Universal Studios to only 1,000 screens domestically.”
As for “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension,” another factor doomed it to lousy box office receipts. According to Box Office Mojo, its distributor, Paramount Pictures, plans to send the film to such video-on-demand (VOD) outlets as Amazon Instant Video as soon as it’s playing in less than 300 theaters.
According to Deadline, this decision prompted several major theater chains, including Cinemark and Regal, to refuse to exhibit the movie. This in turn led to it opening in only 1,350 theaters, while its predecessor, 2014’s “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones,” opened in over 2,800.
Lex Gore, a contributor to the horror movie publication Fangoria, said that the true popularity of these films will be revealed when they’re available to home audiences. She surmised that the movie’s “Victorian ghost story vibe” may have left young filmgoers cold, prompting them to wait until it’s available as a $2.99 video-on-demand rental.
“It’s just not the kind of movie that teenagers are going to rush out to see in the first two days,” she told Fortune. “‘Crimson Peak’ will probably do decently eventually on video.”
These existential struggles are no doubt frustrating to horror fans, who would likely love nothing more than to plop down in a theater seat and watch the undead feast on human flesh. However, horror fans are nothing if not tenacious, and they’ll likely be just as happy giving their moviegoing dollars to whatever service will show the movies they want to see.
“Horror fans have plenty of content to enjoy on cable and the Internet, especially since the MPAA and the FCC — with regards to cable anyway — aren’t around to interfere and censor,” Canella said. “Horror has almost always been the redheaded stepchild of the theatrical distribution cabal.”
Daniel Bukszpan is a New York-based freelance writer.