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Indie Horror Month – 25 Milestones in Independent Horror Filmmaking: Part 5

Welcome back to the last installment of Dread Central’s look back at the 25 milestones that shaped the landscape of independent horror filmmaking over the last 100 years. I apologize for the delay on the last five milestones as I had no idea just how busy I’d be while in Austin covering the South by Southwest Film Festival (which also champions the independent spirit of filmmaking most of the time) so I am glad to be back now and have the opportunity to pay homage to these last five moments in indie horror history.

We’ve already celebrated 20 milestones through 1987, and today we start in 1999 with one of the most innovative independent modern horror films that not only acted as a game changer in the horror genre but also was one of the first movies to effectively use the Internet as a marketing tool.

Indie Horror Month - 25 Milestones in Independent Horror Filmmaking: Part 5

1999- The Blair Witch Project Breaks Records:
Back in 1999 the Internet wasn’t nearly what it is today and was still growing into a powerful marketing tool. Around the same time a brand new horror film named The Blair Witch Project was just wrapping up, and unbeknownst to the Haxan Films production company that financed the project for around $35,000, their world was going to change forever.

The Blair Witch Project was created as a recovered footage film about three filmmakers that went into the Black Hills in Maryland in search of the Blair Witch and were never seen again. Once the film premiered at Sundance Film Festival, Artisan snatched up The Blair Witch Project for $1.1 million, seeing the film’s potential to become a massive hit. The indie studio spent $25 million dollars to market The Blair Witch Project in a ground-breaking campaign that suggested that the events seen in the movie were real. The campaign was implemented by Steven Rothenberg at Artisan and worked on many levels – there was the film’s main website, a television special focused on the whereabouts of the “filmmakers” in The Blair Witch Project, and Rothenberg was even so bold as to get missing persons posters up inside post offices nationwide.

The genius marketing campaign worked, and The Blair Witch Project became an instantaneous success. The film rolled out in limited release at first, creating fervor amongst moviegoers with its midnight screenings (this writer sat in line on two occasions for more than three hours each time before it opened in wide release) and eventually went on to make $248 million in worldwide box office receipts. Although the film’s leads didn’t quite make a name for themselves after The Blair Witch Project (aside from Josh Leonard becoming increasingly well known on projects like “CSI: Miami”, “Hung” and Bitter Feast), filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez have gone on to enjoy successful careers within the genre. Since 1999 Myrick has produced some indie genre faves like Rest Stop, Otis and Alien Raiders, and since Blair Witch Sanchez has directed Altered and Seventh Moon and served as producer on Midnight Son.

Undoubtedly, The Blair Witch Project left an indelible mark on both the genre and pop culture in general and became a prime example of the power of the Internet, as demonstrated by the importance of an inventive and unforgettable marketing campaign.

2002- Eli Roth Infects Fans With Cabin Fever:
Genre fans may not have known exactly who filmmaker Eli Roth was when Cabin Fever was released in 2002, but there is no doubt that once the credits were rolling after the flick, we knew exactly the kind of disturbing sensibilities he would bring to the genre.

The Cabin Fever story starts back in 1995, when Roth was working as a production assistant on Howard Stern’s Private Parts. He penned the Cabin Fever script with NYU roommate Randy Perlstein, which was inspired by a skin infection Roth once suffered from while traveling abroad. Roth, who refused to compromise on the film’s unsettling nature with its gritty violence and use of nudity, was unable to get Cabin Fever off the ground through the studio system, who shunned the project based on its content, so the aspiring filmmaker set out to make the movie on his own terms.

After finally raising the initial $50,000 in 2001 with the help of the producers Lauren Moews, Evan Astrowsky and Sam Froelich, Roth set off to make Cabin Fever with an up-and-coming indie horror cast including Jordan Ladd (Grace), Rider Strong (Tooth & Nail), James DeBello (The FP), Joey Kern (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead)and Cerina Vincent (Murder-Set-Pieces). The rest of the budget was raised while Roth was in production on the feature and eventually capped at $1.5 million, which is pretty impressive for an independently funded project.

Roth used the same template as The Blair Witch Project when promoting Cabin Fever on the Internet, which started a small fervor amongst the online horror community, catching the attention of Lionsgate Films, who saw the potential for the film to make a splash with horror audiences worldwide. They acquired the movie for $3.5 million during the 2002 Toronto Film Festival and released it in September 2003.

Despite the fact that most mainstream horror films were almost on a PG level compared to Cabin Fever, the film’s shocking nature did nothing to deter audiences. Cabin Fever went on to gross $33 million internationally and launched Roth into the forefront of the horror genre, and he also became a bit of a pop culture icon himself as well.

Cabin Fever also raised the profile of the then up-and-coming Lionsgate Films, whose stock more than quadrupled after the film’s release in 2003, and Cabin Fever became the distribution house’s biggest moneymaker of 2003.

Roth followed up Cabin Fever with the highly successful film Hostel, which was released in 2006, and then Hostel II in 2007. The writer/director proceeded to shock everyone once again by turning in an award-winning performance as Donny Donowitz in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds in 2009. His influence over the horror genre is still felt today as much of the success of the 2010 film The Last Exorcism can be attributed to how vocally supportive producer Roth was in order to get the project noticed by genre fans and mainstream audiences as well. His support paid off as the film opened in the #1 position and ultimately earned over $40 million in US box office receipts.

2004- James Wan and Leigh Whannell Take the World by Storm with Saw:
It’s actually hard for me as a horror fan to imagine the world without Jigsaw being an iconic character, but such was the horror genre before 2004.

Australian filmmakers James Wan and Leigh Whannell met while Wan was still a student at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. The two came up with the idea of Saw and promptly made a short film version of their concept as a pitch vehicle for the project. The short film’s pitch worked as it caught the attention of a brand new production company, Twisted Pictures, which was founded in 2004 by Mark Burg, Gregg Hoffman and Oren Koules. The trio greenlit the project before Wan and Whannell even landed in Los Angeles and raised Saw’s $1.2 million production budget.

As a horror film, Saw was quite sensational as it featured many non-genre actors (Danny Glover, Cary Elwes and Monica Potter), and its storytelling style and production design would go on to influence countless filmmakers for years after its release. The drama-inside-a-horror-wrapper concept clicked with audiences during its premiere at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival as the film became the most talked about project of the fest. Lionsgate Films quickly nabbed the project up and set off to market it as the film to see that year on Halloween. Lionsgate’s marketing push paid off as audiences showed up in droves in 2004 for Saw, nabbing over $103 million in box office receipts during its theatrical run.

With success like that, a sequel was inevitable; however, Wan would not be back to direct as he was moving on to focus on other projects like Dead Silence and Death Sentence. However, Whannell stuck around long enough to help polish the script alongside Saw II’s new director, a then relatively unknown Darren Lynn Bousman. From there the Saw franchise flourished with sequels running until last year’s Saw 3D (unofficially Saw 7), and since the first film’s release in 2004, Saw and its sequels have gone on to be named as the most profitable horror franchise of all time by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Saw’s influence on the modern horror genre still continues to this day. Not only did the project make both Whannell and Wan major players in the horror world, but it also launched the careers of filmmakers like Bousman and Kevin Greutert and screenwriters Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton. Its formula has been often imitated in the years since the first film’s release, but undoubtedly the magic of the Saw franchise has never been able to be duplicated by anyone since.

2007- Adam Green’s Hatchet Becomes New Face of Modern Slashers:
To be quite honest, my whole horror journalism career started because of Adam Green’s 2007 slasher throwback Hatchet so I will fully admit that I am a bit biased in including it in this countdown. So what I will do is stick to the facts on why it’s definitely worthy of being included, and you can see for yourself why Hatchet was a landmark moment in independent horror.

Before 2007 Green wasn’t the lovable mouthpiece of the horror genre like he is these days – he was a struggling director that was looking to make his first horror movie based on a yarn he used to frighten other children with growing up. He met cinematographer Will Barratt in 1997, and from their initial meeting the duo realized they both had bigger dreams than filming car commercials (which is what their first collaboration actually was). They founded ArieScope Pictures after creating the short film Columbus Day Weekend together in 1999 and set off to make Green’s directorial debut, Coffee & Donuts, on a micro-budget of $400 in 2000.

With one film under his belt, life-long horror fan Green knew it was time to breathe life into Hatchetface (or Victor Crowley as he’d become officially known as down the road) and set off to make Hatchet, his love letter to the very genre he grew up admiring and aspiring to be a part of. Anchor Bay Entertainment picked up the project for distribution and, in an unusual turn (for Anchor Bay at that time at least), slated Hatchet for a limited theatrical run in September 2007. Because of Hatchet, Anchor Bay got involved with distributing another Green-helmed project, Spiral, and also gave the film a limited theatrical release in the fall of 2007.

From there on out, both Green and ArieScope Pictures were forces to be reckoned with amidst contemporary genre fans. In 2009 Green served as a producer on another independent filmmaker’s feature film debut, Grace by Paul Solet, which ended up becoming an official selection of that year’s Sundance Film Festival. Green would then return to Sundance the following year for his 2010 chiller Frozen, which enjoyed its premiere during the prestigious festival. Later the same year Green was once again in theaters for the follow-up to his 2007 hit, Hatchet II, which was filled with controversy due to its unrated release.

In just a very short time Green has made himself somewhat of an iconic figure of modern horror alongside his creation, Victor Crowley. It’s hard to imagine what our genre would even be like today had Green and Barratt not taken a gamble on making movies together.

2009- Paranormal Activity Shatters Records:
It had been a long time since horror audiences were shocked by a found footage film, but writer/director Oren Peli found that lightning could strike twice in his debut feature film Paranormal Activity. Shot on a micro-budget of around $15,000 in his San Diego home, Peli’s film began creating a buzz when it hit the festival circuit in late 2007. After successful screenings at both the Screamfest Film Festival and the Slamdance Film Festival, the movie piqued the interest of both Miramax exec Jason Blum and several DreamWorks executives including Steven Spielberg. DreamWorks picked up the rights to distribute the film for less than $400k and in a limited college town release in September 2009.

From there Peli worked endlessly online getting the word out about Paranormal Activity and devised a brilliant marketing campaign with Paramount/DreamWorks (Paramount handling distribution on behalf of DreamWorks at the time) where fans needed to “demand” the movie in their town in order to have it played there. The marketing approach was a first for the industry, but the gamble definitely paid off, and eventually Paranormal Activity would go on to take in over $193 million in worldwide box office receipts, making it the most profitable independent film (based on return on investment) of all time.

Since Paranormal Activity’s release in 2009, Peli has become a huge presence in the industry. He’s currently working on the sci-fi thriller Area 51, which is slated to come out in 2011 (although there’s no official date just yet); recently produced James Wan’s Insidious, which hits theatres April 1st; and will also serve as producer on Rob Zombie’s return to original horror, The Lords of Salem, which is slated for production later this year.

Paranormal Activity’s staying power was proven in 2010 with the release of a sequel which grossed over $170 million, and a third film in the Paranormal Activity franchise has been announced with a release date of October 21, 2011, making it the new event film of the Halloween season.

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