If you’ve been kicking around the independent film market much, you probably hear a lot of the same themes again and again from sales agents and distributors about the types of genre films that are high in demand and routinely do solid business.
In addition to the ever-present action film, another genre that stands out more than most is the independent horror film.
Horror films are not quite as universally appealing as action films.
Although horror visually transcends language much the same way action does, it is not as readily embraced by more conservative or religious cultures. But regardless, a well-produced independent horror film has a better chance of overcoming the typical distribution challenges if certain conventions are met.
But what makes one horror film stand out among the rest?
I am going to break down for you what a quintessential horror film should and should not include.
Like most mainstream genres, there are sub genres that exist under the banner of horror – and there are many of them.
On a high level the two main genres we often refer to in distribution are “supernatural horror” versus “slasher horror”. Within those two categories there are many more sub genres.
For examples, ghost movies or exorcism movies fall under supernatural, whereas zombie movies or anything with psycho killers or cannibals would be considered slasher.
As a rule of thumb, supernatural horror tends to go over better than slasher worldwide worldwide. The blood and gore associated with a slasher film can be off-putting to buyers, especially if it’s grossly overdone or not done well. Supernatural horror films tend to be a bit safer for censorship and ultimately a bit more benign.
On the flip side, there are certain regions of the world that don’t culturally embrace anything supernatural. China is an example of a territory that will not buy a film that has supernatural components to it.
Slasher films can still be lucrative, but again, the amount of blood and the lines crossed or not crossed with regard to blood-oriented content are always concerns of distributors.
Another sub genre of horror that is always of interest to distributors is monster movies, but again, production value and execution is paramount.
2. Production Value
Like any film, having quality production value can make or break the film, but particularly in horror.
This is a genre that often relies heavily on special effects, whether they are practical or computer generated, lackluster special effects can ruin a horror film’s chances at being taken seriously.
Fortunately, we are filmmaking in an era where even a micro budget can produce quality effects.
Whether you are doing your effects in house on a program like After Effects or outsourcing to artists in Asia, there’s not a great excuse for not having special effects that are up to par.
3. Star Power
One of the beautiful things about horror films is that it’s a genre that doesn’t rely so much on star power, the way other genres do. The concept is truly the star of a horror film, yet having well-known names and faces in a horror film can definitely help.
Unlike genres like action where the right names are often beyond the typical independent budget, most of the actors that resonate within the horror community are extremely attainable on a lower budget.
Another great thing about casting for horror films is that actors not typically known for horror films can still fit right in and carry weight.
On the flip side, casting Robert Englund – better known as Freddy Krueger – in a drama isn’t going to move the needle. But cast a well-known dramatic actor in a horror film and it can definitely move the needle for distributors.
Much like any film, placement of the big-name actors is hugely important.
Even if an actor is shot out in an extremely limited period of time, strategically placing that star throughout the film is important.
Technically, you want to have your big name appear in no less than 20 minutes of the total run time of the film, but even that is towing the line.
Making sure your headlining name is spread out throughout the film and in a prominent amount of the total film is essential to the success of capitalizing on that name.
As mentioned above, more often than not, the concept of the horror film is the true star.
It’s very easy to fall into a pattern of regurgitating something that has already been done many times over – cabin in the woods, etc. It’s how you make that setup unique that will make something stand out.
If you’re producing a zombie flick, what is your unique spin on the genre?
Some sub genres, like exorcism, will always be in demand regardless of the lack of originality. A well-produced exorcism film will go into Redbox nine out of ten times because they are a staple of the outlet.
Even if you have a truly unique spin on an old concept, very often distributors will make your film look like films from the past. As long as the conventions of the film are aligned with the distributor’s wants, they tend to be interested.
For those of us who grew up in the hey-day of 80s and 90s action films, the genre is super appealing, and with a knowledgeable director doesn’t have to be an extremely expensive genre to work within. But the genre does tend to personify the monotony of very formulaic films.
Many filmmakers love to work exclusively in the genre and the fact that horror films can be done over and over on a micro budget make them very convenient films to produce. But the genre does tend to personify the monotony of very formulaic films.
And most importantly…
The points laid out above are the essential boxes that need to be checked to satisfy both distributors and audiences alike, but like any film, having an original and classical storyline with good characters will set you up from square one with the best chance for success.
If you have managed to find or create that, the rest is simply a matter of execution.
If you’re getting ready to start your next film, consider joining me on August 21st or 22nd in my free training, The Ultimate Film Financing Plan. In this training, I’ll share my Proven 9-Step strategy for building a compelling pitch deck that gets films funded. Click here to join.