3 Lessons Hollywood Should Learn From the Success of ‘The Conjuring’

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So, how was your weekend? It’s getting a little too hot, right? Were you stuck mowing a lawn or something? Spending time in the sticky heat with relatives you aren’t that wild about? Eating some subpar cookout food? Well, rest assured, no matter how lousy your weekend was, you had a better time than Ryan Reynolds’ agent. The likable and unlucky young actor starred in not one, but two films that landed with a thud over the weekend: he was the lead voice in the animated film Turbo, which came in third place (failing to top its family competition Despicable Me 2, out three weeks), and he co-starred in R.I.P.D., which debuted in seventh with a miserable $12.7 million. With a $130 million pricetag (plus marketing costs), that makes R.I.P.D. the latest big-budget bomb in an overcrowded summer. Meanwhile, the modestly budgeted horror film The Conjuring quietly zipped into first place, with the best opening ever for an original R-rated horror film. There are lessons to be learned here!

A couple of weeks back, we asked what Hollywood could take from the well-reported tanking of The Lone Ranger, White House Down, and After Earth. The following week brought another big disappointment in the form of Pacific Rim (grossing $38 million against a $190 million budget); this week gave us R.I.P.D. And the summer’s not over: The Wolverine, 2 Guns, Elysium, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones could all end up in that same summer scrap heap, casualties of a season in which too many studios spent too much money making too many movies that competed for too much of the same shrinking audience.

But let’s not learn just from the mistakes — let’s learn from what has gone right, and hopefully Hollywood can move forward from there.

1. Stop underestimating horror. Last month, the big box office surprise was The Purge, a $3 million horror movie from Universal (distributor, by the way, of R.I.P.D.) which grossed an astonishing $34 million in its opening weekend and has doubled that in the six weeks since. The Conjuring made $41 million this weekend — more than double its $20 million budget. These movies are inexpensive and lucrative, a combination that means high profitability when they land, and a minimal loss when they don’t. This is not a new lesson. From the classic monsters of Universal to Roger Corman to Halloween to The Blair Witch Project, horror films have been a consistent source of easy money, for one simple reason: the audiences that like them aren’t there to see expensive stars or elaborate effects. Horror is economical because the genre is the star. And to that end…

2. All the money in the world can’t buy a good premise. The Purge made its money because it had an intriguing hook that was easy to sell: a night when all rules are off. I’d like to see that, people thought. I wonder what they’re gonna do with that. Meanwhile, The Conjuring offered up that reliable old horror standby of “based on a true story,” a compelling plot, and a totally horrifying trailer. These weren’t movies that included giant robots and destructions of cities; the concepts piqued audience interest, and they showed up accordingly.

3. Believe it or not, there’s an audience for originality. An unfortunate takeaway is starting to emerge from this summer’s high-profile flops: that because they weren’t sequels or remakes or reboots, their failure proves that audiences aren’t interested in “original” titles, so we must retreat to (somehow) even more sequels and remakes and reboots. This is fundamentally silly: anyone who’s seen Men in Black can tell you exactly how “original” R.I.P.D. is. Ditto White House Down, which was both a Die Hard knock-off and, unluckily, the same movie as this spring’s Olympus Has Fallen; After Earth had the misfortune of looking exactly like Oblivion. Pacific Rim, even its fans must admit, is filled with generous helpings of Godzilla, Transformers, and even Top Gun. And hey, it’s not like The Conjuring is the height of originality: there are echoes there of The Amityville Horror, The Exorcist, and even director James Wan’s previous film Insidious. But its success proves that the idea of automatic failure for a film whose title doesn’t end in a numeral is, well, poppycock.

The summer is moving into the home stretch, and these weekly reports of another expensive failure do make Spielberg’s prediction of an impending “implosion” seem all the more prescient. But just as audiences were steering clear of R.I.P.D. and Turbo and Red 2 (poor Mary-Louise Parker comes out of this weekend looking better than Ryan Reynolds, but not by much), DC took the stage at Comic Con and announced a Superman/Batman team-up movie for summer 2015 — the same summer that will produce a second Avengers movie and the seventh Star Wars film. If you thought this summer was crowded…