Experimental horror film “Skinamarink” has been all the buzz on social media for months — and now it’s a sleeper hit at the box office.
“Skinamarink,” the first feature from Canadian director Kyle Edward Ball, has pulled in over $1.5 million at the box office in just over a week of release, according to Comscore.
Some film enthusiasts have compared the experimental movie, with its $15,000 budget, to found-footage horror classic “The Blair Witch Project” and David Lynch’s surrealistic 1977 midnight movie “Eraserhead.”
To be sure, “The Blair Witch Project,” which was a trendsetter for movies propelled by internet buzz, grossed $140 million in 1999 on a budget of less than $100,000, but the success of “Skinamarink” is helping define the current era of lucrative scare flicks.
According to data from Comscore, the horror genre generated about $700 million in domestic ticket sales in 2022, less than 10% of the $7.5 billion in total domestic box office sales. Much of these sales come from the most wide-released horror films that had budgets between $16 million and $35 million.
Shudder, a horror-focused streaming service owned and operated by AMC Networks, picked up exclusive rights to the film. The movie will premiere on the platform Feb. 2. “Skinamarink” currently has a “fresh” rating of 71% on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.
“Skinamarink” centers on two children who discover their father has disappeared, along with all the doors and windows of the home. The film makes use of grainy, hard-to-decipher shots of walls, furniture, television screens and ceilings to depict the eeriness of the abandoned, liminal home. It doesn’t show the characters’ faces. Ball told Vulture he intended the film to feel “as if Satan directed a movie and got an AI to edit it. An AI would make weird choices, like, ‘Yeah, I’m just gonna hold on this hallway of nothing for a while.'”
Some observers in the indie film industry saw it as a potential hit early on. Co-executive producer Jonathan Barkan, head of acquisitions at Mutiny Pictures, found the “Skinamarink” trailer on Reddit in late 2021 and took a gamble it would outperform many of its competitors and resonate with viewers.
While horror is seen by some as being a tried and true film genre that will return a profit, Barkan said making money with scary movies isn’t that easy. Independent horror films are released every week, and it’s very difficult to stand out among these releases, he said.
“For being a genre that is already typically a lower-budget genre, you have filmmakers who need to be very creative,” Barkan said. “They need to think, how can we stretch our budget? How can we do something really creative and still get across what we’re trying to convey, which is a sense of fear?”
Going viral with $15,000
Ball previously created and released short films based on people’s childhood nightmares for his Bitesized Nightmares YouTube channel. The channel, with over 11,400 subscribers, has pulled in a few thousand views for three- to five-minute horror shorts, as well as for his half-hour film “Heck.”
Ball used his childhood home in Edmonton, Alberta, as the film’s setting and his childhood toys for props. Ball stretched the $15,000 across equipment, lighting and film-editing software, in addition to film festival costs and legal documentation. He called in favors for casting and equipment, as well, according to Barkan.
There is “really no way to skirt around a certain budget” in all genres, though Ball took some creative alternatives to high-cost filming conventions, according to Josh Doke, an executive producer of “Skinamarink” and creative director at BayView Entertainment, which acquired Mutiny Pictures.
“A lot of filmmakers who are making a film, either for the first time or with a really low budget, they are trying to emulate … a Hollywood style with people in front of the camera who are talking and acting, and they maybe don’t have access to the best actors or the best lighting or the best equipment,” Doke said. “It comes off not looking quite like how they had in their head.”
Ball avoided some costs by not shooting characters head on and instead having them speak off-screen or showing only their backs or feet. “You don’t need George Clooney in front of the camera,” Doke said. Lighting in many shots came only from television sets or a night light.
After acquiring the film, Barkan worked to get it into the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, where he previously served as a jury member. This was the “first domino” in propelling its success, he said.
“It’s a stretch to say that there’s anything new under the sun or really original in our industry, but this really does feel like it’s not only experimental horror but experiential horror,” Doke said. “I think that what it does for people is it puts you right in the middle of a nightmare that you can’t wake up from.”
The world premiere attracted 22 reviews from critics, and it caught the attention of Shudder. This notice led it to film festivals in Europe, one of which saw its entire slate of films leaked.
While the production team tried to keep a lid on the film after it was pirated and file takedowns on illegal sites, clips of the film went viral on TikTok. #Skinamarink now has over 27 million views on the platform.
The film was originally intended for theatrical release around Halloween 2023, but plans were thrown out the window as demand to see the film grew rapidly.
“[Shudder] adapted it to embrace what was happening because there was no way to stop it,” Barkan said. “Rather than try to fight it, they worked with it.”
With internet buzz and illegal downloads surging around Thanksgiving, Doke said the film could not wait another 10 months to release. The movie opened Jan. 13 in North American theaters.
“Initially, we were talking about a fairly limited theatrical release through Shudder and IFC just because with a film of his size, you never know the interest, and getting a big theatrical release is always a challenge,” Doke said. “But the snowball just kept rolling down the hill.”
Shudder and the film’s production team agreed to an all-rights deal, meaning Shudder had not only streaming rights but also exclusives on subscription video and pay-per-view video services. Next, IFC Midnight, also owned by AMC Networks, was brought in to do theatrical showings prior to its exclusive release on Shudder.
“Once we saw the incredible response online, we knew we had to bring this film to as many theaters as possible nationwide,” Arianna Bocco, president of IFC Films and IFC Midnight, said in a statement. “Kyle has made a film for a new generation and has proved yet again what horror films and its community are capable of even with the smallest of budgets.”
What was expected to be 10 to 20 screenings led to 692 theaters predominantly in urban areas. Its first weekend “Skinamarink” grossed nearly $900,000. Last weekend, the film reached over 800 theaters and brought gross box office sales to more than $1.5 million — over 100 times its budget.
“To make a film for $15,000 and then to release it and get this level of attention and this wide of a theatrical release, and to reach this level of box office returns, is an incredibly rare feat,” Doke said.
–CNBC’s Sarah Whitten contributed to this report.
Disclosure: NBCUniversal, CNBC’s parent company, owns Rotten Tomatoes.