Dead Genres and How To Revive Them: The Serial Killer Thriller
There’s a truism in Hollywood that certain genres are dead. In this 4-part series of blog posts, we’re going to look at these genres Hollywood wisdom says are dead, why their death is the prevalent theory, and what it may take for any writer to revive them with their own script.
Fourth up is the serial killer thriller, which was a mainstay in years past but has now migrated to television (perhaps most notably in the first season of TRUE DETECTIVE). As a sign of how far this once-mighty genre has fallen, per BoxOfficeMojo, there were ZERO serial killer thriller films released between 2014 and 2017. And the ONE serial killer film released in 2017, THE SNOWMAN, was a critical and commercial failure.
Way back in 2007, ZODIAC, HANNIBAL RISING, MR. BROOKS, SAW IV, and UNTRACEABLE all came out in the same year. Ten years later, THE SNOWMAN was the first serial killer film to be theatrically released during a three-year-window.
What happened? Television was a significant factor. In recent years, we’ve had MINDHUNTER, TRUE DETECTIVE, THE FALL, DEXTER, THE FOLLOWING, HANNIBAL, THE ALIENIST, BATES MOTEL, and SCREAM.
The star-driven serial killer film has gone out of vogue. What this means for a writer aiming for this “dead” genre is that any producer reading a script in this niche is going to instantly think “dated.” Any spec screenplay going for this niche is going to have to immediately prove itself as contemporary and fresh, more so than perhaps in another, more currently popular film genre.
But hope is not lost for the serial killer thriller. Denzel Washington and Rami Malek have recently been announced as the two stars of LITTLE THINGS, an upcoming cops/serial killer film. Fans of this genre had better hope this film is produced, released, and financially successful, because the last outright “hit” in the genre that wasn’t based on a huge franchise (like SAW or the Hannibal Lecter films) was arguably IDENTITY way back in 2003 (at 90 million worldwide gross against a 28 million budget).
Knowing that the commercial legacy of this genre is limited, a smart writer would manage the budget reasonably (a giant budget serial killer movie does not align with the market history of the genre).
But perhaps the bigger and tougher question that must be answered is why a feature spec script in the serial killer genre can’t be a TV series? This may explain why so much of these narratives have gone to TV. There’s more time to build the characters and the sense of dread, as well as the mythology of the killer, in television.
When writing a serial killer film, define strong answers to “Why now?” What makes your serial killer story necessarily contemporary, confined to the length of a feature film, budget-friendly, and worthy of giant stars? Find those answers, and you can revive this “dead” genre.
Do you think the serial killer feature is dead?