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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Studios Bewitched, Besieged




HOLLYWOOD -- Studio executives are not yet insisting that moats and drawbridges be added to their stately homes, but it would be understandable if they were. For after the huge success of "The Blair Witch Project," trumpeted simultaneously on covers of Time and Newsweek magazines, movie industry players may be forgiven for feeling just the slightest bit besieged.


If ever a film's triumph could be called unprecedented, "Blair Witch's" is the one. Made for an estimated $35,000, its total domestic gross is expected to top out at $150 million (it has made $108 million after only three weeks in wide release), making it probably the most successful film from a cost-versus-box-office standpoint ever.


For studio executives, the scariest thing about "Blair Witch" is not what's on the screen, which is mildly spooky at best, but the extent to which consumers have embraced it. For the success of this film is the most tangible evidence yet that, for a sizable portion of the movie audience, what Hollywood does best is not only not working, it may even be counterproductive.


Worse still from a studio point of view, the "Blair Witch" crowd is composed largely of the under-30s crowd, who are the week-in-and-week-out core of the business' paying customers. If these kids' parents display a weakness for upscale sophistication, like "The English Patient," the studios couldn't care less; but to have their own best customers, their bread-and-butter demographic, desert them for 81 minutes of crude black-and-white footage is an "E tu, Brute?" moment of betrayal that has to hurt.


There are several reasons for "Blair Witch's" success, starting with its undeniably clever mock documentary format of footage supposedly left behind by three young filmmakers after their mysterious disappearance while on the track of Maryland's legendary Blair Witch. It's a gimmick that not incidentally allows the audience the always-welcome sensation of feeling superior to the trio of dense on-screen bumblers, who fully deserve whatever torments the witch visits upon them.


Just the fact that "Blair Witch's" subject matter encompasses the world of psychic phenomena is another reason it has gone over so well. Preceded by a generation that was fascinated by UFOs and made alien abduction books bestsellers, the "Blair Witch" audience is identical to the young viewers who have made similarly paranormal programs, like "The X-Files," into major television hits.


Artisan Entertainment, the company that distributes "Blair Witch," has made the care and feeding of this new, visually driven audience something of a specialty. Against industry expectations, it turned "Pi," another Sundance festival film whose strength was a distinctive look, into a $3.2 million independent hit, an enterprise that primed it for the "Blair Witch" experience.


The prime cause of "Blair Witch's" success, however, is not what it is, but what it isn't. Everything about the film, from how it was made and how it looks to how it was marketed, all but screams: "We're not from Hollywood;" and the extent to which this film's prosperity is a wholesale rejection of and a calculated slap in the face for studio business as usual shouldn't be underestimated.


Though many of the United States' biggest businesses routinely concern themselves with customer satisfaction, Hollywood does not. True to its nickelodeon roots as an offshoot of the tent show and carnival experience, the movie business doesn't care what you think of its product as long as it gets your money. The idea that paying customers might harbor feelings of simmering discontent from years of unsatisfactory experiences, that they might feel that coming attraction trailers that give away all of a movie's plot ought to be banned, is simply of no concern to the powers that be as long as people keep spending their money.


As the most media-savvy segment of the film audience, young viewers, who have been known to call trailers "warnings," are especially bombarded by Hollywood propaganda and notably cynical about what they actually get in return for their attendance. With The Who's lyric, "won't be fooled again," as their mantra, this audience is desperate for something different, desperate to, at the very least, be fooled in out-of-the-ordinary ways, which is "Blair Witch's" stock in trade.


While studio movies intent on reaching the young audience spend millions of dollars on saturation-bombing television campaigns, "Blair Witch," at least in part because it didn't have millions to spend, stayed away from TV and used a clever and convincing Internet site. It was almost an anti-campaign out of Vance Packard's classic, "The Hidden Persuaders," that managed to give huge numbers of people the simultaneous illusion that this film was their own personal discovery. Hollywood can bludgeon you into submission, but this kind of sophisticated manipulation is a different thing altogether.


In this topsy-turvy anti-Hollywood world, "Blair Witch's" aesthetic limitations became commercial virtues, its jittery camera work and grainy footage are signs of the kind of authenticity a burned-out-on-the-mainstream audience craves. The film's crudeness proves it is not a product of the system, its roughness is taken as a proof of honesty and sincerity.


Hollywood, obviously, is not going out of business just yet. There are still suckers born every minute, and even over-expensive and unsatisfactory films, like "The Haunting," can scare up tens of millions of dollars. But what "Blair Witch" unmistakably shows is how restless the core of the studio audience is, how eager they are, given even half a chance, to reject what's been business as usual for their entire lives. There is a lesson there, and unless Hollywood wants its product to become as irrelevant to popular culture as today's dinosaur-like Broadway musicals, it would do well to learn it.