3The Blair Witch Project
If you're a struggling actor, how desperate would you have to be to reply to a listing that goes something like:
"WANTED: A group of actors to spend eight cold days in the woods shooting a fake documentary. This is an independent project. There is no script. You will be traumatized and your reaction will be captured on camera. After the movie, you must avoid the public eye and we will tell people you are dead."
"Oh, no problem, dude. I was planning on doing that anyway."
Would you even expect to come back from that kind of project alive? It sounds like a snuff film intended to be sold on the streets of Thailand.
It Seems Obvious Now ...
Combining everything we hate about shaky-cam, viral marketing and reality shows, the no-budget The Blair Witch Project would make nearly $250 million worldwide. Or, to put it another way, it made back its budget 10,000 times over. The 25 grand they spent making the thing wouldn't even cover a month's worth of catering costs on most studio films.
And that's just for George Lucas. OOOOOH, BAM!
It did it all with a unique hook and an ingenious marketing plan, creating a viral Internet campaign back in 1999, when most studios were still trying to figure out what the Internet even was. They promoted the faux-documentary as a true story, indicating that all of the characters had been killed (actors were prevented from doing publicity until close to release to keep up the illusion). Their website was full of hidden clues and extra materials -- the template for the "alternate reality games" filmmakers like J.J. Abrams now do with every release.
"I'm sorry. I have a legitimate problem, and I'm seeking help."
The filmmakers clearly had a plan, and with so little invested, how could it fail?
But at the Time ...
Actually, The Blair Witch Project was about the most stupid thing writers/directors/producers Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick could have done.
"Jackass auditions were closed."
First, you have to realize that a studio didn't fund this. So when we talk about $25,000 being "no-budget," that's true if you're talking about Disney or Paramount. That's not true for a couple of dudes who had no careers to speak of. And that was the situation in October of 1997 -- the filmmakers behind Blair Witch were an unsuccessful pair in their late 20s and mid 30s, both deeply in credit card debt. So what did they do? They conceived of a highly experimental Hail Mary final project that would drive them tens of thousands of dollars deeper into debt. The project had literally no commercial prospects -- a no-name cast, no specials effects and no distribution lined up. The film was shot on hand-held cameras that weren't even in widescreen and that, by the way, caused motion sickness for the audience. For them, it was like trying to bail out a sinking boat by vomiting in it.
The same handprints were found in theaters after the movie finished.
But those two couldn't bring all the stupid to the table alone. They needed to find a cast of three alleged film students who would agree to go camping, in the cold, on camera, with little food and supplies (the filmmakers wanted their physical distress to look genuine). Needless to say, they didn't exactly get the cream of the crop here. One of the stars would be the recently recovered heroin addict Joshua Leonard. Oh, and he would be the one operating the camera. During the early scenes, he couldn't get the camera to focus properly and wrecked a lot of the footage. Later in the woods, he rolled down a hill and broke the $10,000 camera.
We guess they're lucky he didn't sell it for smack.
Again, this isn't studio equipment here. Imagine you're these two filmmakers, trying this never-before-tried filmmaking method out in the woods, and seeing $10,000 of money you don't have go tumbling down a hill. Now imagine that the two other actors fuck up just as often, managing to get lost despite having walkie-talkies, compasses and clear directions on where they were supposed to go for the next day's shoot. And along the way, they're arguing with each other so much that director Eduardo Sanchez estimated 10 hours of fits and bitchfests were shot.
"YOU SAY MEAN THINGS TO THE FACE OF MY NECK RAARR!"
Never mind the unlikelihood that this movie would become as big as it did: the real miracle was that there was any footage that survived to make into a movie in the first place. But they edited their piles of tape down to a brisk 90 minutes, hoping to get a deal to show it on cable or maybe direct-to-video. Instead, a studio bought the rights for $1.1 million, and in its first weekend of wide release, The Blair Witch Project made back 35 times that amount.
"With Jurassic Park a surefire hit, I'm thinking about following it up with a subject no moviegoer can resist: the Holocaust. Also, it'll be more than three hours long. And in black and white. And much if it won't be in English."
"The real guy looked kinda flabby, so we'll have to sex it up with Liam Neeson."
It Seems Obvious Now ...
Well, of course Steven Spielberg can make that into a success. He could do a movie applauding the Holocaust and people would go see it. Seven Academy Awards, $321 million in worldwide box office later, not a single year goes by without another Holocaust movie featuring some big star or other. Why not? What subject is more ripe for drama than that?
That's right before he gets killed by Darth Maul.
But at the Time ...
Drama? Yes. Money at the box office? Shit, no. Look on a list of all the Holocaust movies ever made and the closest thing you find to a hit before Schindler's List is 1982's Sophie's Choice, and it had the advantage of being based on a best-selling novel (Thomas Kenneally's Schindler's Ark, the book Schindler's List was based on, was not a bestseller).
In interviews, Spielberg quoted an executive "that will remain nameless" as asking why instead of making this movie, Spielberg and Universal didn't just make a gigantic donation to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Why waste the money shooting a movie nobody was going to see anyway?
Replace that human shit with money, and you get the picture.
It's not like Spielberg's 1987 film Empire of the Sun had done anything to increase interest in the Japanese occupation of China during World War II (until this moment, did you even realize that's what that movie was about?). And no one who had just sat through that, The Color Purple, Always, Hook, or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom had much reason to expect the director of those five movies to know how to avoid making a movie where Nazi cartoons kill a bunch of Jewish cartoons. During a party, Fred Schepsi, one of Kenneally's original collaborators, yelled at Spielberg, "You'll fuck it up!"
"Though to be fair, I have no clue what I'm talking about."
Hell, Spielberg himself guaranteed that the studio would lose all their money. That's why they had suggested he just donate it -- it was basically just charity anyway.
Or so they thought. Schindler's List wound up as one of the top-10 highest grossing movies of the year. This 195-minute Holocaust depress-a-thon finished ahead of lighthearted hits like Free Willy and Groundhog Day.
You leave Bill Murray alone, Holocaust!