Island eradications are always high-stakes, high-wire endeavors — you get, more or less, one big shot at taking out a whole species. Then you wait, sometimes years, to see if the invader has truly been eliminated or has, instead, come back. The coming back from the dead is called the Lazarus effect. Often all it takes is one pregnant female or a breeding pair to undo years of planning and millions of spent dollars. In the ants’ case, one stalwart queen stowed away underground could undo everything Boser had been plotting. ... How do you eradicate tens of millions, if not billions, of tiny insects that live under several dozen square miles of extremely rugged terrain? Killing each ant would be an impossible task. But kill the queen and you initiate a colony collapse, for the queen is the only source of new ants. Only, Argentine ant colonies often boast several queens, so even the ant’s central weakness required a comprehensive plan of attack: Boser needed to poison all the queens at once. If she did that, Santa Cruz would be one step closer to perfection.
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 ... 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. ... 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.