It’s no secret that I’m an admirer of Jason Blum, both the horror films like Split, Get Out, and Happy Death Day he releases through micro-budget horror label Blumhouse and his against-the-grain business model which prioritizes a bet-on-yourself mentality and has proved to be one of the most sustainable models in the entire industry in recent years. I’ve written about him in the past here, here, and here, to name a few.
However, even I was surprised to learn Blumhouse is behind a new Benji movie. It’s not that Blumhouse has never ventured outside of horror before, lest we forget Whiplash or Jem and the Holograms (actually, most everyone’s already forgotten that last one). It’s just…Benji? Really? The dog movie about an adorable mixed-breed stray that finds a home and then always ends up saving everyone?
Well, thank you, random 1974 girl. Benji, a dog movie? “Oh, no that dog has emotions. That dog is fantastic.”
Brief history lesson from last century: Once upon a time, Benji was kind of a big deal. Benji, the first film in what turned into a nine-film series spanning decades, won an Oscar (for Best Original Song) and was the 9th highest-grossing movie of 1974. That spawned multiple sequels, a short-lived TV series, a couple of documentaries, and even a video game.
Now, Blumhouse has gone off-brand and into kids movie realm with a new Benji for Netflix. Here’s the trailer:
That…yeah, that’s a kid movie alright, the type of thing I’ll probably watch with my 5-year-old niece at some point at her insistence.
So, what gives? Why would Blumhouse, coming off its most lucrative year ever thanks to Get Out and Split, go in for something like this?
Blum answered that question quite eloquently at SXSW last week, and the interview has now been made available through the Recode Media podcast. The full quote is below, but the short version is they did it for what it signals to the industry.
The man who invented it, came up with “Benji,” is still alive. He’s 79, 80 years old. And in the early ’70s, he wrote the script to “Benji,” brought it to Hollywood. They laughed him out of town, said get out of town. And he said, “I still believe in this.” It’s kind of like “Paranormal Activity.” Put up his own money, made the “Benji” movie, brought the “Benji” movie to Hollywood. Everyone did exactly the same thing as “Paranormal Activity.” Laughed him out of town. On the finished movie, he went back and he distributed the movie himself. The movie was like the “Paranormal Activity” of 1972. It was in theatrical release for a year. It did like, $36 million — which today is $200 million or whatever the hell it is. And the family went on to make many movies and a “Benji” TV series.
He had a son named Brandon Kemp, who’s my age. And Brandon came into my office two years ago and told me that story, and said, “I want to write and direct the ‘Benji’ movie, but I want to do it 100 percent on my terms. I and my family understand who Benji is. My family understands how to make this movie. When I go to other places, they tell me Benji has to talk now, or Benji has to do this, Benji has to do that. We know what Benji has to do, and we know you’ll protect Benji.” And it sounds so funny. And we did. And we did. And we made a pure “Benji” movie, exactly like he wanted to make. I’m very proud of it. It has nothing to do with being scary, but everything to do, but everything to do with … We have two brands. We have our consumer-facing brand, which is scary movies. We have our industry-facing brand, which is, we protect the artist.
And in this case, the artist was Brandon and “Benji.” And we gave him total freedom to work within a limited parameter, to do exactly what he wanted to do with “Benji,” which a studio wouldn’t have let him do. And that movie, we sold to Netflix.
In the rest of the interview, Blum also addresses Netflix and the shrinking theatrical window, inclusion riders, why he has no interest in making a $100m movies, and how ego is one of the biggest things driving Hollywood’s ongoing failures. It’s well worth the listen, or, if you’d rather read the interview, there’s a transcript over at the Recode Media website.
The reason I chose to highlight and share this portion of the interview is because with so many of the economic forces in the film industry right now pushing studios toward brands and toward treating filmmakers as disposable cogs in a machine it’s refreshing to see the head of such a successful production company choosing to make a completely off-brand movie like Benji just to signal to the industry how much they support artists. For those studios and companies which don’t have the Marvels, Pixars, DCs, and Harry Potters to throw around, simply focusing on building trusting relationships with artists might seem passe but it’s exactly what Netflix and the other streamers are doing right now to continue the great brain drain away from the legacy studios. Blumhouse, which does have some IPs of its own thanks to The Purge and Insidious, hasn’t forgotten how to do that.
Benji was just added to Netflix today.
Source: Recode Media