STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Well, a low-budget movie had a big-budget start last weekend. "The Visit" earned more than $25 million, which is pretty good considering it was made for $5 million. Director M. Night Shyamalan took a shot at low-budget filmmaking. Here's Steve Henn from NPR's Planet Money team.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: The plot of "The Visit" is pretty straightforward. A beleaguered single mom packs up her kids so she can head out on a long overdue vacation.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM TRAILER, "THE VISIT")
KATHRYN HAHN: (As Mom) My parents asked if their grandchildren could visit them for a week. Here we are.
OLIVIA DEJONGE: (As Becca) This is where our mom grew up.
HENN: Mom heads off to Florida in search of beaches while the grandparents watch the kids and get increasingly creepy.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM TRAILER, "THE VISIT")
PETER MCROBBIE: (As Pop Pop) Bedtime here is 9:30. It's probably best you two shouldn't come out of your room after that.
ED OXENBOULD: (As Tyler) 9:30?
DEJONGE: (As Becca) 9:30.
HENN: Things quickly go from bad to worse, kind of like M. Night Shyamalan's career over the past decade. But this movie is a bit of a redemption. Some critics actually liked it. Shyamalan's last theater release, "After Earth," had this enormous budget, $130 million, a huge star, Will Smith, but it was a disaster. It was panned by critics, hated by audiences, and Shyamalan must have noticed that some of the most profitable films these days are made on the cheap. So he decided to go back to his roots, and this horror film was edited and released with Jason Blum. Blumhouse Productions, his company, is famous in this town for making some of the most profitable horror films of all time - movies like "Paranormal Activity" and "Insidious." And Jason? He has some strict rules.
JASON BLUM: Should I give you the three rules of how to make a cheap movie?
HENN: Yeah, I want the three rules.
Rule number one...
BLUM: Not too many locations.
HENN: "The Visit" is shot mostly in one Pennsylvania farmhouse and one Florida hotel. OK, on to rule number two.
BLUM: Not too many speaking parts.
HENN: Don't let extras talk.
BLUM: Now, the funny thing is if an extra speaks, you have to pay an additional $400. So you'll notice in - not just in our movies but definitely in our movies, too - like, when the waiter doesn't say anything or, like, this post office clerk doesn't say anything, there's a reason - 'cause as soon as they do say something, you got to give them a check for $500. So you don't want extras to talk 'cause it really costs you.
HENN: I actually tracked down an extra from "The Visit," a guy named Michael Mariano.
What is your role in this film?
MICHAEL MARIANO: Hairy Chested Contestant.
HENN: His part was to slather himself with oil - baby oil - at a party while middle-aged women ogled his middle-aged, pudgy body. And, no, Mike was not allowed to talk.
How much money did you end up getting paid?
MARIANO: (Laughter) Yeah.
HENN: If he had even uttered an innocuous hey, babe, it would've cost an extra $500. So Mike, with his hairy chest, stayed silent. And now on to rule number three, the most important rule, big stars.
BLUM: The producer, the director and the actors - everyone works for as little as is legal to pay them.
HENN: On a Jason Blum film, the stars and the director are like entrepreneurs. They don't make any real money up front, but if the film does well, the payout on the back end can be huge. "The Visit" is already profitable, and Shyamalan is looking at a very nice payday. But Blum says that is just one of the draws for a director thinking about making a micro-budget movie. Blum says working without a huge pile of cash to spend actually may make many movies better.
BLUM: Scary movies are hurt, in my mind, by big budgets. I think the less money that you spend, the more time you spend on storytelling and forcing people to imagine things that are scary, and that's always much better than showing.
HENN: And with "The Visit," Shyamalan did just that. There were no explosions, no CGI ghosts - just one director and an audience of millions facing their fear. Steve Henn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.