I was in LA for 72 hours last week for work. While there, I had some time for an iced tea with a good friend of mine, and as we do when we get together, we talked about the state of Hollywood. He asked me what I thought about James Wan and Jason Blum joining forces, and I looked at him blankly, not comprehending what he meant. Then he sent me to the New York Times, which broke the story, and I found myself agog.
It seems that Wan’s Atomic Monster production company is merging with Blumhouse, which is only the biggest purveyor of horror currently going. Blum, an alum of Miramax from its 1990s glory days, has made movies that have generated north of $5 billion in ticket sales over the last couple of decades, and he’s unquestionably the top name when it comes to the production of horror movies. His shingle has been at Universal for years, which is only appropriate because no other studio is so synonymous with that genre.
Go back 90 years to the dawn of the Talkie age and see the list of movies the studio cranked out — Dracula, The Mummy, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, etc. The list goes on and on. Universal has always been connected with horror, and that has continued through the ages. Please recall, just a few years ago, when the studio tried to resurrect its monster roster with a shared universe, starting with the Tom Cruise-led The Mummy and featuring future starring turns from Oscar winners Russell Crowe and Javier Bardem, and a then red-hot Johnny Depp, who was to have played the Invisible Man.
Unfortunately, when The Mummy underperformed and drew largely negative reviews from both critics and audiences, the whole plan went awry, everyone went their separate ways, and yet another planned shared universe went the way of the Dodo. Long live Marvel.
In the interim, though, Blum’s company kept churning out quality horror — and, let’s face it, plenty of garbage, too, but that’s just part of the business model — including Jordan Peele‘s Oscar-winning debut, Get Out and his buzzy follow-up, Us. Peele is also under the Universal umbrella, as is The Black Phone’s Scott Derrickson (another Blumhouse production, by the way), and one-trick pony-turned-low-budget-horror-auteur M. Night Shyamalan. And now, it appears, so is James Wan, the man who built the lucrative Saw and Conjuring franchises.
Wan’s various films have grossed north of $3.5 billion through the years, and while he is currently known for blockbusters like Aquaman and the seventh entry in the Fast & Furious franchise, he never abandoned his horror roots, unlike so many of his peers who have graduated to blockbusters and never looked back.
After all, it was Saw that put Wan on the map, and The Conjuring that built his empire. And those are just the ones he directed. Most of his prodigious output as a producer is in the horror genre, too, so when you put him together with a behemoth like Jason Blum, you’re essentially putting Kevin Durant on a team that is already championship-caliber, and now can’t really be stopped.
Allow me to explain the reference, voiced to me by the aforementioned friend, for those unclear. The NBA used to be a league of rivals who relished the chance to play — and beat — each other, and who would never in a million years join forces with those rivals in an effort to win titles together. For them, it was far more fun to beat the other guy’s brains in. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, for instance, would never have conceived of playing on the same team, because their rivalry was too strong. It took the opportunity to win an Olympic gold medal, at the end of their respective careers, to get them to wear the same uniform. Same with Michael Jordan. No way was he going to team up with, say, Isiah Thomas, even if it meant more titles. He was going to go out there and beat Isiah Thomas at all costs.
In more recent years, though, players have begun to eschew this competitiveness and teamed up together instead so as to maximize the number of titles they might win. LeBron James did this when he left Cleveland for Miami and the chance to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and Durant did it when he joined Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors. In both cases, multiple championships were won before the players went their separate ways, and while it was good for the men in question, purists threw up in their mouths a little and declared that it just showed how far the game had fallen.
Now, I will admit that it’s sort of a false equivalence to compare the trend in the NBA to something like this Blum-Wan convergence, because, unlike sports, Hollywood is not a zero-sum game. Both guys on their own can sell plenty of tickets without the other being negatively affected, unlike the NBA, in which only one team can win the championship each year.
In the days of yore, though, there was real competition between actors or directors who wanted to outperform each other. A perfect example is one that has also been in the news a bit lately — the 1980s rivalry between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. These days, they’re buddies who have actually starred in films together. But back then, they were sworn enemies, and it was great fun to see their movies go head-to-head against each other.
That kind of rivalry clearly doesn’t appeal to Blum and Wan, nor should it, really. We live in different times, and if there are millions of dollars to be made by working together — Blum is surely hoping for billions — why not grab it? Especially if the result is almost certainly going to be good for horror fans, who can now look at an increased output from the combined company since Blum has said he wants to at least double his current output of 3-4 movies per year.
Perhaps a friendly rivalry can develop within the larger company that will now exist — Atomic Monster is expected to continue operating as its own entity under the Blumhouse umbrella — and continue to lift the bar in what has been a renaissance year for horror movies. It’s hard, actually, to think otherwise, because the whole point is to maximize opportunities to create quality genre entertainment.
Speaking of opportunities, this confluence of prolific talent could succeed where Tom Cruise, et al, failed some years back. The combination of Wan, Peele, Derrickson, and even Shyamalan, under Blum’s watchful eye, could resuscitate that Monster Universe, giving us high-quality updates of the classic tales that scared audiences 80 and 90 years back. The possibilities are sort of endless, as are the kinds of stories these talented filmmakers could tell.
Universal has corralled itself a murderer’s row of genre creators who just so happen to specialize in the most popular and comparatively profitable genre there is. It’s time for them to capitalize on it.
Neil Turitz is a journalist, essayist, author, and filmmaker who has worked in and written about Hollywood for more than 25 years, though he has never lived there. These days, he splits his time between New York City and the Berkshires. He’s not on Twitter, but you can find him on Instagram @6wordreviews.
You can read a new installation of The Accidental Turitz every Wednesday, and all previous columns can be found here.