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You might overlook horror films as low-brow cinema, but they offer a fantastic entry point for new directors.
Despite their often gruesome content and lack of Oscar nods, they’re a beloved genre with a dedicated fan base that won’t hesitate to watch, regardless of reputation.
Not only are horror films cost-effective to produce, but they also allow for creative experimentation, thanks to their low-budget nature.
You don’t necessarily have to start with a feature. You can shoot horror short films as proof of concept, leading to bigger opportunities further down the line.
David Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creating, Shazam! and more) is a good example of a filmmaker who gained recognition from his work with horror short films.
And let’s not forget that successful horror films can spawn franchises, promising a secure fan base and the opportunity for repetition for decades.
In this article, I’ll argue why horror films offer a fantastic entry point for new directors.
Here are some key takeaways from the article:
- Horror films can be made on a low budget, reducing the financial risk.
- Low-budget horror films like Lights Out, The Blair Witch Project, and Paranormal Activity catapulted their directors into the limelight and more career opportunities down the line.
- Horror films have a strong following and their sub-culture, providing a built-in audience for indie filmmakers.
- Horror movies are not just about the chills and thrills but can work as a social commentary, allowing you to say more with less.
- Learning the rules of the horror genre is essential for indie filmmakers, as it can help create more engaging stories, sharpen your filmmaking skills, and learn how to build tension.
- Horror films offer a unique storytelling experience, playing with deep-seated fears and insecurities.
So now let us explore these in more detail.
Horror is Cost Efficient to produce and can potentially offer a great ROI
Horror films are incredibly cost-efficient to produce compared to other genres.
Paranormal Activity (2007) had a production budget of only $15,000! When it was bought by Paramount Pictures in 2007, they upped the budget and created a new ending, which added another $200,000 to the budget.
At the time of writing, Paranormal Activity has grossed approximately $195 million worldwide.
The Blair Witch Project had an original budget of only $60,000 and a final production cost between $200,000-750,000. So far, it has earned around $250 million worldwide in box office sales!
Not all horror movies are guaranteed to make blockbuster sales, of course. And these budgets might seem like a lot of money.
But it’s peanuts compared to studio blockbuster budgets, which means the financial risk is much lower.
So you’ll have a better chance with your pitch because investing in horror films is an easier pill to swallow for financiers who are always looking for a great return on investment (ROI).
Get creative and sharpen your filmmaking skills while keeping the cost down at the same time
A minimal budget forces you to be creative, cutting unnecessary expenses.
The horror genre offers a lot of freedom to play with the artistic effects of the filmmaking trade. Not every frame needs to be a painting, and you don’t need the big lighting setups of Sir Roger Deakins or Lawrence Sher.
Here are some ideas you can reduce the cost of your next horror movie:
- Use a small cast. Fewer actors = lower cost. Check out this article on the best place to find actors for your new film.
- Horror movies can often be shot with a small crew, reducing costs. See if you can find an experienced crew to fill multiple roles on set.
- Use a single location. A basement, a bedroom, or the local woods might be just what you need.
- Use a single light to light your scene. Not every scene needs the perfect lighting setup. What’s left in the dark is often the most scary part. A single lightbulb hanging from a naked wire might be just what you need.
- Use practical effects instead of CGI. Practical effects are much cheaper than CGI. Here’s a guide on how to make your own fake blood.
- Don’t spend a lot of money on camera gear and lenses. Found-footage horror movies like The Poughkeepsie Tapes or The Blair Witch Project use camcorder style to great effect. The movie 28 Days Later used Canon XL-1 for that gritty look.
- Focus on showing emotional reactions to threats instead of dialogue. It’s much cheaper to film a girl running scared through the woods than a long dialogue in a crowded restaurant with a camera setup.
- Focus on building suspense rather than the gory effects. Sound design is very important, so don’t cut down on this.
The horror genre will demand you get creative to keep the costs low, which in turn will sharpen your filmmaking skills.
You can tap into the vast number of fans or the horror genre
As an emerging director endeavoring to make a mark in the film industry, you may find a unique advantage in the horror genre.
Because of the already established and devoted fanbase, you are given several options you can use to your advantage if you understand how to tap into it.
Here are some things you can use to your benefit in the production and marketing of your first horror movie:
Horror fans are more forgiving and open to new directors
Horror film enthusiasts are a dedicated and passionate group. They seek out new films in the genre, often showing loyalty to directors who cater to their tastes.
This guarantees a ready audience for your film, provided it caters to the genre’s expectations. In other words, you should know your horror tropes and the ins and outs of the genre.
Horror fans love creativity and new directors thinking outside the box
The horror genre offers massive scope for creativity and innovation.
If you can bring fresh ideas and unique storytelling to your movie, the horror fanbase will likely embrace it.
This allows you to stand out and establish a strong identity early in your career.
Horror fans love the gritty look of shoestring-budget productions
Horror fans are famously forgiving of low-budget productions – in fact, it’s part of the aesthetics in many horror movies.
This means you can potentially achieve success without a Hollywood-sized budget.
You might also like this article on the most expensive movie sets.
If you can deliver suspense, terror, and a compelling story, your film can earn respect and admiration within the horror community.
Check out this article if you’re looking for cheap movie props online.
With a well-defined target audience, marketing your film becomes significantly easier.
You can focus your promotional efforts on platforms where horror fans congregate, such as horror film festivals, online forums, and social media groups.
Higher probability of viral success
Horror movies are known for going viral, especially if they contain unique, shocking, or disturbing elements.
A viral horror film can quickly catapult a new director into the limelight.
Horror Movies work great as Social Commentary
Horror isn’t merely about thrills and chills; it’s also about shining a light on society’s dark corners.
It’s a genre that allows for the exploration of themes like denial, mental illness, and coping with grief and tragedy, often overlooked in conventional drama.
Horror movies as a commentary on the dangers and fears in society
Horror movies frequently reflect the anxieties and fears within a society at a specific moment.
For example, during the Cold War era, alien invasion films were rife, symbolizing public apprehension about communism and foreign intervention.
More recently, you might have noticed an increase in pandemic-related horror films, mirroring our collective fears of disease and isolation.
Horror movies as a social commentary on the Zeitgeist
Horror films often comment on the societal norms and values we take for granted.
They may challenge these norms by presenting alternative realities or outcomes that make us question our beliefs.
Take George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” as an example.
While on the surface, it is a zombie apocalypse film, it also addresses issues of racism and class conflict, forcing us to confront these uncomfortable realities.
You might also like this article on the best zombie films ever!
Horror movies can bring marginalized communities into the light
Horror films frequently explore the concept of ‘the other’ – individuals or groups deemed outside or different from societal norms.
This can be seen in films featuring monstrous figures such as vampires, witches, or mutants, representing marginalized communities, stigmatized behaviors, or feared ideologies.
By doing so, horror films allow us to examine our prejudices and question our preconceived notions.
Horror movies are a great way to critique power structures
Horror movies often critique power structures and authority figures.
In many horror films, the true horror is not the supernatural or monstrous creature but the institutions, be it the government, the police, or the medical industry, that fail to protect their citizens.
This critique allows us to reflect on our trust in these entities and their societal roles.
Use Horror Movies to Polish your Filmmaking Skills and learn how to build tension.
Horror movies provide a unique platform for emerging directors to hone their filmmaking skills, particularly in creating tension and suspense.
Understand pacing and keep the audience in a tight grip
Horror movies require a strong command of pacing. This is crucial to building tension, as it manipulates the audience’s expectations and anticipation.
You must learn when to slow down and allow suspense to build and when to break the tension with a scare abruptly.
A good example of a movie that does this to perfection is Alien (1979). Study how the fact that we rarely see the monster and the group’s reaction to the unknown threat makes it so scary.
This craft of pacing can be applied across all film genres, making it a valuable skill to master.
Use camera angles, blocking, and composition to your advantage
Horror films heavily rely on visual storytelling. It’s about showing, not telling.
This challenges you to communicate your story effectively through visuals, using camera angles, movements, and compositions to create a sense of unease and dread. T
his will help you refine your visual language as a director. Check out this article on camera movements, shots, and angles to learn more.
Deeper character development
Horror films allow you to explore complex themes and emotions. They often deal with fear, trauma, and the darker side of human nature.
This can push you to delve deeper into character development and narrative structure, helping you create more compelling, layered stories.
Leveraging the established horror movie fanbase could be a strategic move for your directorial debut.
It offers a ready audience, easier marketing, budget leniency, creative freedom, and a higher chance of viral success.
However, remember that this genre also demands a deep understanding of its conventions and audience expectations.
As a director, you must balance innovation with these genre-specific requirements to succeed.
And while horror films are undoubtedly designed to entertain and scare, they also serve a deeper purpose.
They reflect our societal fears, challenge our norms, critique our institutions, and force us to confront our prejudices.
So, the next time you watch a horror movie, look beyond the scares and gore.
You might find that the true horror lies not in the supernatural or the unknown but in the mirror it holds up to society.
Directing a horror film can be a powerful learning experience. It can sharpen your pacing, resourcefulness, visual storytelling, and thematic exploration skills.
As you master these skills, you’ll find yourself better equipped to create engaging and impactful films in any genre