The film “Get Out” is the latest horrorblockbuster in an eight-year run of lean,inventive films from the Hollywood producer.

One evening in March, Jason Blum, the 48-year-old chief executive of Blumhouse Productions, arrived late to the Bel Air mansion where he was scheduled to speak to a gathering of wealthy supporters of the Sundance Institute. He was quickly ushered into a large den, where deep couches and chairs were packed with graying donors, and glass bowls in the shape of popcorn bags were filled with king-size Butterfingers. Another speaker, the director Dee Rees, had already begun her talk. Blum is tall, square-jawed and near movie-star handsome and has made a habit of turning cheap horror movies — most recently “Get Out,” the directorial debut from the sketch comic Jordan Peele — into engines of often record-breaking profits. Blum listened intently as Rees described the hard location work on her third film, “Mudbound,” a complex period drama about racial conflict in the postwar Mississippi Delta that received a standing ovation when it had its premiere at Sundance in January. Rees finished and returned to her seat.

Blum was up next, but rather than heading to the front of the room, he made his way toward Rees, tripping over the donors in the audience in his haste. “I’m sorry,” he said when he reached her. “We’ve never met, but” — he opened his arms wide — “I gotta give you a hug.”

The director and the producer embraced, and Blum took a step back. “I saw your movie,” he said. “And it was one of the most powerful movies, and afterward I had a meeting with Common” — the rapper-turned-actor — “and I kept saying: ‘You’re black. And I’m white.’ ”

Blum stopped. His eyes welled up. “You’re black, and I’m white,” he repeated, his voice cracking. “Anyway, I really, really loved your movie.”

Rees shifted in her seat, facing the room as Blum, still overcome, swayed. Everyone else seemed very still, until Rees beamed at him. “I just want you to know,” she said, “last week I saw ‘Get Out’ in TriBeCa and. . . .” Nearly everyone who saw “Get Out” has some version of the story Rees then told. About how, in the darkened, packed theater, this unexpected horror movie about a black man visiting his nominally woke white girlfriend’s family had tapped a surprisingly deep emotional current. It also became one of the best-reviewed horror movies of all time, and among the most profitable — nearly $200 million and counting on a production budget of $4.8 million. Rees said she stood and applauded at the end. “So, thank you.”

“No, thank you,” Blum said, and proceeded to the front of the room, where he delivered his own remarks, about reconciling the primal Hollywood struggle between art and commerce. When he finished and the room began clearing, he and Rees found a corner where they could continue their conversation.

Rees, it emerged, was a serious horror fan. She told Blum about two recent movies that she especially admired, “Hush” and “Creep,” and Blum said that as it happened they were also Blumhouse projects. Rees said she had an idea for her own low-budget horror picture — one location, tiny cast — set in a small town not unlike the one where she has lived for the last year. Blum listened carefully.

“You’ve got me and my wife, two black lesbians, and when we first moved in, we fought every day over all these little things: ‘Why is this over there? Did you move that?’ ”

Blum leaned in, nodding. This was promising.

“Maybe it was a ghost,” Rees continued. “Or maybe it was some other force — like us not wanting to be there or fitting in.” Blum was nodding more rapidly. “Anyway, that’s my horror-movie pitch,” Rees said.

“It almost makes me nervous,” Blum said, then leaned back and looked up. “The idea of working with you.” He paused. “But anything you want to do, I’m in. I’m in, I’m in, I’m in.”

To save time and money, Blum does a lot of his work as a producer — making calls to actors, directors and studio heads — in the back of a gray Ford cargo van that he has equipped with wide plush captain’s seats, two large video displays and window blinds that are nearly always drawn shut. Often, in the middle of a call, the van will stop, the automatic sliding door will open, the aggressively bright Los Angeles daylight will pour in and there Blum will be: at some suburban theater for a test screening of one of his movies; at the lot of Universal Pictures, which markets and distributes most of those movies; outside his downtown apartment, where he lives with his wife, Lauren Schuker Blum, a journalist turned screenwriter, and their 2-year-old daughter; or at the office building in Filipinotown that once housed Cat Fancy magazine and now serves as the headquarters of Blumhouse Productions, which since he started it in 2000 has made 82 movies.

Blum has more or less always been a producer — his first feature credit was in 1995 at 26, for his college roommate Noah Baumbach’s first movie, “Kicking and Screaming.” Since then, Blum has worked on a variety of independent films, including a contemporary adaptation of “Hamlet” in 2000, with Ethan Hawke in the title role. But for the last eight years, Blum has primarily made horror movies, few of them costing more than $5 million, and some of them — including the “Insidious” and “Purge” franchises, as well as the M. Night Shyamalan comeback, “Split” — grossing into the hundred millions.

Horror movies occupy a special place in the hearts of producers. They are cheap, their fans don’t demand well-known actors and the ratio of risk to reward can be astonishing. “Night of the Living Dead” cost $114,000 to produce in 1968 and has since grossed at least $30 million; “The Blair Witch Project” cost $60,000 to produce in 1999 and has since grossed $249 million. Blumhouse’s own “Paranormal Activity,” shot in one house with two unknown actors and almost no crew, cost just $15,000, yet its box-office return since its 2009 release has been $193 million, a return on investment of about 1.3 million percent.

Blum’s approach represents a particularly enterprising way out of the dilemma in which Hollywood finds itself in the age of endless “Transformers” sequels and “Spider-Man” reboots. A typical blockbuster can cost around $200 million, with another $100 million for marketing. At that rate, the studios can’t afford to make a lot of movies, which means the ones they do make can’t fail. This year Disney will release just seven movies, and all but one of them will be a sequel or a reboot. Blum, by contrast, makes a lot of movies on small budgets, and many of them never even go into wide release. Because the production cost is low, he can consider other options for movies that don’t seem likely to break big — ones that don’t require an additional multimillion-dollar marketing commitment but could still recoup the initial investment with maybe a little extra as well. Some Blumhouse productions appear on a few hundred screens, often targeted at narrow fan niches. Others might appear in a festival or two then get sold to a streaming service like Netflix.

Some projects fizzle — “Jem and the Holograms,” for instance, had the worst opening weekend of 2015, just $1.4 million. But when Blum sees a glimmer of something bigger, he can pole-vault his low-budget films into wide release with the help of a major studio. “Get Out” is a critical success thanks to the specific genius of Jordan Peele, but the reason you saw it in a packed theater is that Universal spent $20 million to $30 million on marketing. (The day after Blum spoke to the Sundance donors, he delivered a rented ice-cream truck to Universal’s marketing department, as a thank-you.)

Blum’s low budgets give him plenty of leeway for experimentation. He recently produced some not-so-scary movies, including “Whiplash,” which won three Academy Awards, and documentaries, including “The Jinx,” which won two Emmys. At the moment, Blumhouse has four movies in release and two more coming in the next five months, six more wrapping and scheduled for release next year, a dozen soon-to-be in production and another few dozen with screenplays or awaiting screenplays, including Blum’s decade-long white whale: a movie based on the very quiet 1965 John Williams campus novel “Stoner.” The company also recently started its own television studio, with a series in production based on the “Purge” franchise, and another, for Showtime, based on the journalist Gabriel Sherman’s biography of Roger Ailes.

Blum said he got into television because he wanted to say yes to good ideas, and there were a lot of good ideas happening in TV. Making space for artists, talking to them about their ideas, other movies, shows, art, “that’s maybe what I love the most,” he said. “It’s where you get the best tips.” By way of illustration, he told me a story about his father. Irving Blum was an art dealer whose Los Angeles-based Ferus Gallery was the first on the West Coast to feature a solo show by Andy Warhol. One day, Blum said, Irving went to visit Warhol, who had recently started drawing comics. Andy, he said, where are the comics? Warhol told Irving that there was another guy doing comics now, and they were much better than his, much better than any comics he’d ever do, so he’d stopped. “And that’s how my dad discovered Roy Lichtenstein.”

Irving spent his days with the likes of Frank Stella, Dennis Hopper, Steve Martin and Christopher Isherwood, who in his diaries described life in the Blum house as “exactly like living in an art gallery.” The family moved to New York when Blum was 5, and his parents divorced soon after. His mother, Shirley, an art historian, relocated up the Hudson, to Dobbs Ferry. His father stayed in Manhattan, on the Upper East Side. Blum lived what he calls “a double life” — weekdays in Dobbs Ferry were normal, quiet, suburban; weekends in the city were fast, loud and filled with artists.

Blum was good at math and bad at reading. He went to Vassar College, acted a little, watched Hitchcock a lot, roomed with Baumbach and then in 1991 moved with him to Chicago. Blum took a couple of summer classes at Northwestern University — microeconomics and Shakespeare — and sold cable-television subscriptions door to door. Baumbach wrote what would eventually become “Kicking and Screaming,” and Blum decided that if the movie was ever going to get made, he was going to be the one to make it happen. They moved back to New York City, where Blum — now working as a real estate broker — met Ethan Hawke, already an established young movie star, and Hawke hired him to run his nascent theater group, Malaparte. “My world in the city at that time was just chockablock with people dying to be artists,” Hawke recalls. “Nobody our age then said they were or wanted to be a producer. Nobody! Except Jason.”

In 1993, Blum took a job at Arrow Films, a small distribution company, buying genre movies for no more than $50,000 to license to cable and home-video companies. With a letter from his dad’s old friend Steve Martin, he also found the first backers for “Kicking and Screaming.” Then for five years he worked for Harvey Weinstein at Miramax. It was there, Blum says, that he learned how to do what it is that he does: “Get in a room and talk to the people who have a thing that is the most important thing in their professional life and convince them to give that thing to you.”

When he left Miramax to start Blumhouse in 2000, he stuck to producing what he knew, making a string of artsy indie movies — “Easy Six,” “The Darwin Awards,” “Hysterical Blindness” — that hardly anyone saw. But it was the horror movies that seemed to work, and so he began pursuing more and more of them. He also made one moderately high budget ($48 million) crowd pleaser, “Tooth Fairy,” starring Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, that was a minor hit ($112 million). But he otherwise stayed small, an atypical decision for a successful Hollywood producer. He found his niche, and it led him from “Kicking and Screaming” — an extremely white, male-dominated movie — to pursuing a filmmaker like Rees. Not out of a sense of racial justice or marketing acumen, but simply because, shallow as his niche might be, it is also very wide.

In his conference room, Blum has a huge vintage poster of the 1963 Roger Corman film “The Terror.” Blum is often described as a sort of modern-day Corman, because Corman was the independent producer who perfected the business of cheap horror and made a fortune cranking out movie after movie, some 400 and counting, in the process kick-starting the careers of, among others, James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Gale Anne Hurd, Martin Scorsese and Penelope Spheeris. Hawke gave Blum the Corman poster after Blum persuaded his old friend to take on a couple of horror roles (in “Sinister” and “The Purge”). Corman never let anyone tell him what was high art and what was low art, Hawke told me, because he saw no difference between the two, and neither did Blum.

A few weeks after Blum met Rees, I called her to see if anything had come of their impromptu pitch meeting. Something had, Rees said. They’d met for lunch and talked about a deal. She told me what was most surprising wasn’t that she was suddenly developing a horror movie centered on the domestic lives of black lesbians in rural America but that Blum had followed up at all. “I can’t tell you how rare it is that people mean what they say in this business,” she said. “He’s just letting me make the best possible version of what I want to make.”

This was perhaps a premature assessment for Rees, but Peele had told me the same thing, and many of Blum’s other directors seemed to agree. He was the rare producer who stayed out of the way.

When I asked Blum about his hands-off approach, he told me another story about that first Warhol exhibition, which featured the artist’s 32 iconic Campbell’s soup cans. The show was a minor bust. “Something like six people bought a painting for, I think, $100 apiece.” But then Blum’s father, the art dealer, had an idea. He tracked down each buyer (one was Dennis Hopper) and bought the paintings back so the 32 soup cans could remain a set — then waited 37 years and made a deal to give them to the Museum of Modern Art for an estimated $15 million. He found the right size for the project and the right market.

Producers want to give the audience what it wants, but the audience, often as not, is the last to know what that really is. Blum seems to give the audience what it wants by giving the artists what they want. But he also knows what he wants. In fact, the final version of “Get Out” differed from Peele’s initial vision. “We tested it with a darker ending,” Peele said, one without as much of a hero and more of a message. The audience didn’t go for it. “It was pretty clear from the test screening that they didn’t need to be slapped in the face.”

Peele had no qualms about the change. He raised and quickened his voice, an impression of Blum. “ ‘Buddy, buddy — you gotta do the happy ending! Give the people what they want!’ That’s what Jason does. He lets you do your thing, lets you be an artist, then gently reminds you: ‘Buddy, it’s entertainment. We’re in the entertainment business.’ ”

[The New York Times]