5 Ways Horror Movies Scare Up Cash

BOSTON ( MainStreet) -- Don't be afraid of things that go bump in the night.

Horror movie hatchet men, nightmare manipulators, killer sharks and blood-sucking caped creeps have long been doing their part to fuel the economy.

Decade after decade, Hollywood has found fun and profit with scary movies that range from psychological thrillers to gory splatter fests. Its biggest successes have often come from low-budget affairs that have become word-of-mouth hits.

The Blair Witch Project turned a $20,000 investment into $250 million in ticket sales when it was released in 1999. Paranormal Activity in 2007 was made for a mere $11,000, took in $183 million in worldwide receipts and spawned two sequels.

Made for just $325,000, the original Halloween in 1978 had a domestic gross of $47 million and a slew of sequels.

With the actual Halloween fast approaching, we took at five ways horror movies have been scaring up cash and affecting the economy.

They won't stay dead
Continuing serials and the occasional sequel have always been part of the strategy for movie studios. Horror movies stand out in terms of character-driven franchises that prove popular and profitable.

The classic Universal Studios horror films illustrate how valuable a property can be. Both Frankenstein (as the monster is better -- and incorrectly -- remembered) and Dracula premiered in 1931 and have been resurrected time and time again. Under the Universal banner there was The Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein (which added the Mummy and Invisible Man) and the timeless Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. We also had the Son of Dracula, Dracula's Daughter and House of Dracula and many others tapping a familiar vein.

Among the most profitable movie franchises of all time, many are horror movies, according to Nash Information Services, a consultant and analyst for the film industry.

The three Mummy movies starring Brendon Fraser earned nearly $460 million in the U.S. and $1.2 billion worldwide.

The four horror spoofs in the Scary Movie series pulled down $429 million domestic and $752.2 million internationally.

The five (yes, there were that many) movies featuring Hannibal Lecter pulled in $425 million domestically and more than $921.4 million worldwide.

Other notable worldwide grosses include the seven Saw movies ($862.5 million), nine editions of Nightmare on Elm Street ($448.2 million), a dozen Friday the 13th Movies ($465.2 million, with $383 million of that in the U.S. alone), 10 Halloween movies ($363.2 million), Final Destination (four movies totaling $501 million), Resident Evil (four films drawing in $674.7 million) and six Alien films, earning more than $1 billion.

Exploiting 3-D, and vice versa
The Vincent Price vehicle House of Wax debuted in 1953 as the first 3-D color feature from a major movie studio (Warner Brothers).

If you are looking where to place the credit (or blame) for the current 3-D movie craze, the tale of a mad and murderous sculptor (assisted by a young Charles Bronson as underling Igor) is responsible for kick-starting the stereoscopic fad. Dancing girls kicking at your face and a gratuitously inserted man breaking the fourth wall as he demonstrates a paddleball were among the treats for folks wearing the two-colored cellophane glasses.

The popularity of 3-D has ebbed and flowed since that movie caused a splash, but in every incarnation horror movies -- with their jumpy shocks -- have been a go-to genre.

At the 3D Entertainment Summit last month in Los Angeles, a boast by industry attendees was that 3-D box office was up 40% in four years.

"Theaters, frankly, aren't keeping up," Avatar director James Cameron told an event audience. "We need to double down on the number of screens. I think it's a question of it being a growth pain and not a contraction."

The Motion Picture Association of America's annual Theatrical Market Statistics Report for last year shows that global box office receipts for all films released around the world reached $31.8 billion, an increase of 8% over 2009.

The U.S./Canada market repeated its peak performance from last year but remained flat at $10.6 billion. The 3-D market was a key driver at the North American box office, making up 21%, or $2.2 billion of the total, doubling last year's performance and compared favorably with just 2% of the box office in 2008.

One in three people in the U.S. and Canada saw a 3-D movie last year, the report said.

Zombies capture the zeitgeist
Zombies, perhaps owing to their blank stares, have made a perfect canvas for others to overlay social commentary.

George Romero, writer/director of Dawn of the Dead, used a full-on infestation of the living dead at a shopping mall to satirize America's consumerism. The comedy/horror film Shaun of the Dead used the same creatures to make a point of how disconnected we are from each other in an age of non-stop TV and video games.

There is an even scarier prospect for anyone with financial interests -- those failing institutions called "zombie banks."

Can zombies serve as an economic indicator?

That's the idea explored by writer Bruce Watson and, subsequently, a Wired magazine chart that graphed the popularity of vampires and zombies against economic conditions. The theory: zombies tend to be more popular in good, growing economies; vampires reign in recessionary times.

Evidence: during the 2003-08 housing bubble, zombies were featured in more movies. Around the time of the Lehman Brothers collapsed, vampires became more prevalent in popular culture. We might also point out that the granddaddy of all vampire movies, Bela Lugosi's 1931 Dracula, was a hit among moviegoers otherwise counting their pennies during the Great Depression.

Vampires suck it up in a bad economy
Despite being potential bellwethers of a poor economy, vampires have been on a financial tear in recent years.

The series True Blood has a large and devoted following on HBO, as do the thin-skinned, sparkly creatures of the night featured in the Twilight series of books by Stephanie Meyer and their film adaptations.

In a story last August, the Hollywood Reporter estimated the money brought in by vampires since 2008: $3 billion in film revenue (including XXX-rated parodies), $1.6 billion in publishing revenue, $1.2 billion in DVD sales and $600 million each among merchandising and items that fall between categories.

The $7 billion total take (which is surely even higher with another year of the bloodsucker phase) was described as "near the GDP of a small nation."

From the screen to your cereal bowl
Not horror movies, as such, the best-selling novels and movie adaptations of the Harry Potter franchise are nevertheless stuffed with all manner of ghosts and ghouls -- not the least of which is Lord Voldemort, its Nosferatu (as in the 1922 German film that was the first vampire movie) inspired villain.

The eight-film movie franchise, the most successful in history, has racked up a staggering $7.7 billion worldwide and had a U.S. gross of $2.4 million and counting. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 opened to the biggest three-day weekend of all time, earning $476 million globally.

The books also continue to be perennial best-sellers, with more than 400 million copies sold in more than 200 nations around the world. Although the number remains a moving target, DVD sales are estimated to be over $3 billion.

At the peak, Mattel ( MAT), an officially licensed toymaker for the tie-ins, was selling upward of $160 million a year in Harry Potter products that were paired with earlier films. Branded video games, according to researchers at NPD Group, have accounted for more than $427 million in the U.S.

Harry isn't the only one working his magic with merchandising might.

Throughout the 1960s, Aurora model kits inspired by the Universal roster of beasties -- among them The Wolfman and Creature from the Black Lagoon -- were popular among kids. Action figures, bobblehead dolls, games, cereals (think of Frankenberry and Count Chocula as cartoon spin-offs of their more respected monster brethren) and Halloween costumes have perpetually stocked store shelves ever since.

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

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