Why 'Torture Porn' Is the Hottest (and Most Hated) Thing in Hollywood

Cheap Horror Films Spend Little, Get Big Results

By Published on .

Most Popular
LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- If you ever find yourself on the phone with the most hated man in Hollywood, one of the first things you'll notice is how disarmingly self-effacing he is. "I went to a special college called the Weinstein College of How to Be a Sleazebag," laughs Courtney Solomon, a partner in genre-film label After Dark Pictures.
After Dark Pictures felt the wrath of the MPAA when it inadvertently posted banned posters for the movie 'Captivity' all over Los Angeles.
After Dark Pictures felt the wrath of the MPAA when it inadvertently posted banned posters for the movie 'Captivity' all over Los Angeles.

Mr. Solomon, who's 35 but has an unselfconsciously boyish laugh, has been dealing with his own personal horror show lately: He's on his way to the dentist to -- finally -- deal with a toothache he's had to endure for the past two months. His days have been consumed by the furor over the marketing campaign for "Captivity," a horror movie that will be released June 22. I'm shocked we're speaking at all: For weeks, calls to After Dark's offices went unanswered. (Mr. Solomon said there were so many calls complaining, "we just stopped answering the phones for a while.")

Welcome to the era of "torture porn," the latest solution to Hollywood's runaway studio budgets and bloated marketing.

Banned ad goes live
In late March, owing to what Mr. Solomon insists was a printing mix-up, outdoor billboard ads for "Captivity" banned by the Motion Picture Association of America went up all over Los Angeles anyway. They showed the film's star, Elisha Cuthbert, with a black-gloved hand over her mouth and the word CAPTURE. Next to it, as her mascara-stained eyes look tearfully out a cage, is the word CONFINEMENT. In the next panel, titled TORTURE, tubes are coming out of her nose, draining blood. The last frame shows the actress hanging dead, lying on her back with one breast prominently displayed. The word in this panel: TERMINATION.

"Parents went nuts," said Mr. Solomon.

The press had a field day. Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote, "I felt like I needed to take a shower just from having been within a hundred feet of it."

The creative community gagged. Jill Soloway, an executive producer of HBO's "Six Feet Under," blogged on the Huffington Post that "it managed to recall Abu Ghraib, the Holocaust, porn and snuff films all at once."

Even horror directors backed away. Eli Roth, the director of "Hostel" and its forthcoming sequel, told Ad Age, "I don't care what excuse you make, I saw those billboards, and I was shocked. ... And it really makes it difficult for everyone."

Blood bath
If Mr. Roth sounds angry, it's because he is. He's in the midst of cutting "Hostel II," and the MPAA has been giving him a hard time. (Mr. Roth has some hard-won tips for horror filmmakers: Woman bathing in blood? OK with the MPAA. Woman bathing in blood while fondling her own breasts? Not OK with the MPAA.)

Mr. Roth is in no small way responsible for ushering in this highly profitable era with his 2003 film, "Cabin Fever." Made for just $1.5 million, it would go on to make $30 million worldwide as Lionsgate's first wide-release horror movie. "Saw," also released by Lionsgate, was made for $1.2 million in 2004 by producer Oren Koules. It would gross more than $103 million worldwide. Last year's "Saw 3" cost $10 million but managed more than $160 million worldwide. Suddenly, Big Hollywood was paying attention.
'Hostel II' director Eli Roth has learned a thing or two about the MPAA.
'Hostel II' director Eli Roth has learned a thing or two about the MPAA.

"Horror used to be a ghetto backwater thought to be not the provenance of big studios," said one top agent at Creative Artists Agency, who declined to speak for attribution for fear of upsetting studio chiefs. "They cynically look at this and say, 'Horror works, so we're bulletproof.' But whether they have any expertise in it is another question."

'The Reaping'
Take for example, Warner Bros. Pictures' recent stab at the horror genre, "The Reaping." In part because it starred Oscar winner Hillary Swank, it weighed in at close to $50 million, including prints and advertising -- costing well over 40 times more than "Saw."

Making matters worse, "The Reaping" received an R rating because of a scene where Ms. Swank's character threatens a child. That scene, said Brian Russo, the screenwriter of "The Reaping," probably cost Warner Bros. a PG-13 rating, and, therefore, an additional $20 million in box office. Worse, it grossed only $11 million in its opening weekend because it was needlessly fighting against another horror movie, "Grindhouse," the Robert Rodriguez zombie picture, "so there was probably some cannibalization there -- no pun intended," he joked glumly. "They did a great job with the creative marketing, but by any standpoint of revenues and costs, you can say it missed the mark."

Unlike big-studio horror movies, torture porn isn't just made cheaply; it's marketed precisely and frugally.

"Generally what studios do is just take a movie and basically bombard people," said Mr. Koules. "Hit them over the head with TV, radio, billboards. But there are six or eight really important horror websites, such as BloodyDisgusting.com and DreadCentral.com. We give them special blogs, we give them information, we let them release posters. So when Eli's movie comes and does $30 million opening weekend, people say, 'I didn't see it 10,000 times on TV?!' Well, that's because playing it in a 'Friends' rerun doesn't help anyone."

Budget slasher
Mr. Roth agreed. "What you'll find is that a studio will spend millions of dollars on a show like 'Lost' or 'Heroes' -- blast their movie -- while we'll put Flash animation on the horror sites, which are the same eyeballs. The same people that are watching the really expensive television shows on which to advertise are also on those websites, but it's not costing us millions of dollars for that ad."

Why is it so hard for big studios to run lean? Buffy Shutt, now the head of marketing for Participant Productions and the former marketing chief at Universal, Paramount and Columbia Pictures, has a theory.

"Part of it is studio bloat," said Ms. Shutt. "But really, when you're a little indie and not a big studio, you can afford to say to your producer, 'Don't make me buy ads in a TV show just because it's a show you happen to watch with your wife, and don't make me buy ads on billboards just because it's the route you drive on the way home.' Because, believe me, I've had to do both."

With only a couple of million dollars to spend on marketing, instead of the hundreds of millions spent on a blockbuster, filmmakers get creative with their creative. "Lionsgate sponsored an Ultimate Fighting Championship with 'Saw,'" Mr. Roth said. "And they have Tobin Bell coming in going, 'Are you ready for blood?!?' And they know that there are millions of people watching the UFC Fight."
Oren Koules, producer of 'Saw,' says websites play a key role in drawing horror crowds.
Oren Koules, producer of 'Saw,' says websites play a key role in drawing horror crowds. Credit: John Sciulli

Million dollar gash
But after the "Captivity" firestorm, the MPAA brought the hammer down. For the first time, the ratings board suspended its rating process for two months in order to punish After Dark and Lionsgate for their transgression. As a result, "Captivity" had to postpone its release, which set After Dark scrambling to redo all of its marketing plans -- TV, outdoor, online, at a cost of millions. Other purveyors of cheapie horror are both angry and terrified it'll cost them, too. (With good reason, apparently: Mr. Koules' newest project's title? "Tortured," about a young child who's abducted, tortured and killed. His parents do much the same to his abductor.)

Meanwhile, Mr. Solomon has his hands full with another hot potato. Having gotten new ads approved by the MPAA for "Captivity," he's in the midst of planning the marketing for what he calls a dark comedy about purgatory called "Wristcutters." He picked up the movie, made for less than $1 million, at Sundance last year. The marketing campaign calls for cardboard cutouts of characters jumping off bridges, electrocuting and hanging themselves -- in keeping with the film's teen-suicide theme. The signage was reportedly planned to go on telephone poles and even on trees in major markets.

"Then [Lionsgate CEO] Jon Feltheimer got about 1,000 letters from anti-suicide groups," said Mr. Solomon, who was also buried under protest-letter writing campaigns from groups such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Save (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education). The Virginia Tech massacre didn't help matters.

But Mr. Solomon was undeterred. In fact, taking a page from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," which reached out early on to Greek Orthodox churches, Mr. Solomon said he believes the suicide groups that have brought the most pressure to bear are, in fact, his most important marketing partners for "Wristcutters."

"It has a really strong anti-suicide message," he said, "and so we're sending screeners to all the groups and meeting with and screening it for several of them. We're not making them any promises, but we're telling them that we are going to listen to them and hear them out. We're not here to promote suicide -- even I don't go that low."
In this article: