Jordan Peele knew "Get Out" had a shot. The reviews were glowing. The tracking was strong. The buzz was decidedly buzzy. All signs pointed to at least a decent-sized success for a modestly budgeted movie with no major stars.
Still, on the eve of the release of his debut feature, the writer and director couldn't keep his mind from occasionally falling down a rabbit hole into a version of the movie's "sunken place."
Was America really ready to embrace a brazenly button-pushing, darkly satirical horror film about racism?
"Using the darkness of my imagination, there were so many ways this movie could go wrong," Peele recalls now. "I thought, 'What if white people don't want to come see the movie because they're afraid of being villain-ized with black people in the crowd? What if black people don't want to see the movie because they don't want to sit next to a white person while a black person is being victimized on-screen?' All those questions were in my mind."
Peele had nothing to fear. Since its $33 million opening a month ago, the story of a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) who discovers the ultimate horror behind the smiling faces of a liberal, white suburban family has become a pop-culture phenomenon. Defying the laws of box office gravity that typically bring horror films crashing to earth shortly after their debuts, "Get Out" has grossed more than $136 million domestically to date — a staggering return for Universal Pictures and Blumhouse Productions on a movie that cost just $4.5 million to produce.
Arriving in theaters at one of the most politically charged moments in memory, the film immediately became an object of fascination well beyond its box office receipts. Op-ed writers and cultural critics have probed what the movie's success says about the state of race relations at the dawn of the Donald Trump era. Moviegoers have shared countless "sunken place" Internet memes and other "Get Out"-inspired fan art across social media.
For Peele, previously best known as one of the stars of the Comedy Central sketch series "Key & Peele," it's been a heady experience to say the least. "I wish I could pretend to be more humble," Peele, 38, said with a laugh. "But I'm the biggest 'Get Out' nerd of them all. I'm definitely levels deep in the fun of analyzing the film."
For longtime box office observers, the continued potency of "Get Out" has been a wonder to behold. "This has really been lightning in a bottle," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at the box office tracking firm comScore. "Typically horror movies might have a big opening weekend but they usually drop like 60 or 70 percent in their second weekend. They're like candy — high calorie, low nutrition. But this is a high-nutrition movie."
Indeed, propelled by exceptionally strong word of mouth, "Get Out" dropped just 15 percent in its second weekend and has continued to hold strong. It has remained in the top five at the box office for four weeks running, performing well not only with the kind of younger audiences who typically drive the box office of R-rated horror films but across a range of demographics, including people who normally give scary movies a wide berth.
"I've been encouraged that everybody is turning out for this movie," said "Get Out" producer Sean McKittrick, who first heard Peele's pitch for the film a few years ago over coffee and immediately agreed to help make it. "Another filmmaker we're working with told me he couldn't get his grandmother-in-law, who's in her 80s, to stop talking about this movie. Her retirement community took a bus to go see it."
At a time when horror films are often dismissed for their over-reliance on gimmicky premises and cheap jump-scares, "Get Out" has been cheered for giving audiences something meatier to chew on. While films including "The Babadook," "It Follows" and "The Witch" have helped elevate the genre, none has had the zeitgeist-tapping timeliness of "Get Out," and none has crossed over to mainstream success with anything close to the same degree.
"Horror is like any other genre — there are bad horror movies and great horror movies — but I think the great part of horror movies is discounted by the coastal elites, and it shouldn't be," said Blumhouse founder and CEO Jason Blum, who has also scored a major hit this year with M. Night Shyamalan's horror thriller "Split." "Horror has been kind of a forgotten genre, but what I'm doing — and will continue to do — is to say let's not forget about it because it can be really important and relevant."
But if anyone in Hollywood feels tempted to try to cash in on the formula for "Get Out," Blum warns it won't be so easy. "If your starting point is, 'Let's get into the "Get Out" business,' I'd say you should stick with action movies," said Blum. "It's fundamentally so against my DNA to say, 'Well, this movie worked — now let's go make a horror movie about immigration!' You can't just replicate it that way."
For Peele — who spent years on "Key & Peele" honing his ability to dissect issues of race through cutting, absurdist satire — the most gratifying thing about the success of "Get Out" has been watching the film spark cathartic conversations that might otherwise not have happened.
"I think people are scared to talk about race and when we suppress things — ideas, thoughts, feelings, fears — they need to get out in some way," he said. "I think 'Get Out' is a film that satisfies the need to think about, discuss and deal with race but it does it in a way that's more comfortable because it's fun."
While the success of "Get Out" may inspire others to tackle similarly sensitive subjects in the context of a diverting popcorn movie, Peele knows better than anyone what a delicate balancing act that involves. "I wouldn't be surprised if people are trying to figure out the next horror movie about race or racism," he said. "But it will probably be tough, just because I know how tough it was figuring out this one."
Peele has his own ideas for a few more "Get Out"-style "social thrillers" that he'd like to make, wrapping other thorny issues in the package of a fun, frightening night at the movies. But for now he's still riding the high of this one.
"Everything happened with this film so unbelievably perfectly," he said. "I feel so validated that this voice that I've been feeding and trying to define for so long has been able to be shared with the world and the world gets it. I'm just enjoying the moment, soaking it all in. It's all a dream come true."