Hammer Films, one of the world’s oldest movie producers, is moving into top gear after being revived. The British company is setting out its plans for growth in the horror market that grosses as much as $1 billion a year globally.
After films such as The Woman In Black with the Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe, which grossed $130 million worldwide and is one of the biggest indie-horror movies ever, Hammer is planning to release its next title in 2020 as it steps up production. It is also showcasing its archive of some 300 movies and more than 10,000 photos with events such as The Night Of 1,000 Vampires on October 28 at the London Palladium. The Halloween-themed event ties in with a sell-out concert by the punk band The Damned, which named after a Hammer movie. Hammer has also just signed an agreement with StudioCanal for global distribution of its catalog.
Hammer started in 1934 and is known for its popular gothic-horror films of the 1950s to the 1970s, such as Dracula, The Curse Of Frankenstein and The Mummy, which spawned numerous sequels. Its regular stars included Peter Cushing, Sir Christopher Lee and Oliver Reed. Bela Lugosi and Bette Davis also featured. Hammer’s terrifying blood, gore, extravagant costumes and sets were presented in color, enraging censors and delighting audiences. In the 1970s, it launched television series such as Hammer House Of Horror and Hammer House Of Mystery, which starred David Carradine, Diana Dors and even Pierce Brosnan.
Horror films made worldwide currently gross as much as $1 billion annually. Last year such movies had a 7.5% market share and took some $900 million, according to The Numbers.com. The chief executive of Hammer, Simon Oakes, is optimistic that the company is in a unique position to capture a significant market share.
Oakes had worked for John Malone’s Liberty Global for many years and was looking at different film channel ideas. Horror was an obvious area, and Oakes loved Hammer: “I realized it was one of the very rare brands in the media industry which is in the vernacular: You refer to a thing as ‘like a Hammer film.’ It has global potential like no other.” In 2007 he helped resuscitate the company with private-equity money, taking control of the library, archive, brand and name.
After a 2008 online vampire story, Beyond The Rave, came a remake of a Swedish film called Let The Right One In. The result was Let Me In (2010), says Oakes: “We gave Chloë Grace Moretz, as a child vampire, her first major role and it got a great critical response.”
In 2011, Hammer released Antti Jokinen’s The Resident, starring two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Hammer legend Christopher Lee. Wake Wood (2011), which Oakes describes as “a sort of folklore movie,” was filmed in Ireland. It starred Aidan Gillen, Eva Birthistle and Timothy Spall.
The comeback breakthrough was Hammer’s first feature-length ghost story, The Woman In Black, in 2012: “ It was synchronicity, because it’s a famous novel and play. Jane Goldman came on board to write the screenplay. I took a big risk by casting Daniel Radcliffe, who was finishing the Potter series. It proved lucky. Our key demographic is 16 to 30 years old. It became the most successful British horror film of all time.”
The paranormal thriller The Quiet One in 2014 is about an unorthodox professor (Jared Harris) who leads his students in an experiment to create a poltergeist. It was followed by Hammer’s first sequel in 41 years, The Woman In Black: Angel Of Death, whichbegan terrifying audiences in 2015.
The Lodge had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It is now scheduled to be released in February 2020 by Neon.
Oakes wants to step up production to more than one title a year: “You have to be cognizant of the budget. Our sweet spot is between $8 million and $12 million, depending on the cast. Hammer, in the 50s, 60s and 70s, made a movie every six weeks like a repertory group and the average budget was about £250,000 [$320,000].”
While Hammer is looking at remakes too, some ownership is complex, though the characters are in the public domain: Frankenstein’s monster, mummies, Dracula, mobsters, psychopaths, and even cave girls. Hammer is also extending the brand with a publishing imprint with Random House, a streaming platform and social-media presence.
Horror is the seventh-highest grossing movie genre, and its films are both among the highest-profile and most profitable, especially with franchises where a character reappears. Other companies had success with The Blair Witch Project, made for $60,000 and grossing about $250 million. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre also made back a multiple of its production costs. Horror does especially well in the run-up to Halloween – witness the success of R-rated Joker this year.
Other British producers are looking at genre films, with the old Carry On! comedy franchise being revived.
Oakes notes that only a third of Hammer films were horror. It even took on comedy: Up The Creek (1958) starred Peter Sellers. Hammer tackled crime thrillers, sci-fi noir, war films and historical epics; titles included Dick Barton Strikes Back, Quatermass, The Abominable Snowman and The Hound Of The Baskervilles. Martin Scorsese called Frankenstein Created Woman one of his favorite films; Quentin Tarantino owns one of the only surviving 16mm prints of the 1967 classic. Stephen King has written of his love for X The Unknown (1956).
One can bet the Hammer horror will keep growing, long after tonight’s Damned show. Zombies, vampires, werewolves and others take note.