EXCLUSIVE: At a $60,000 negative cost and a $248 million worldwide gross, the original Blair Witch Project remains an impossibly profitable no-budget found-footage genre film in movie history. Last weekend’s frightfully modest showing for the reboot Blair Witch marked the second painful attempt to recapture the magic.
It prompted the maker of the first one, Blair Witch 2 helmer Joe Berlinger, to offer up this social media posting this morning. Now, Berlinger is a renowned maker of documentaries that include Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster, and if he and Bruce Sinofsky hadn’t made those three groundbreaking Paradise Lost expose movies, the trio known as the West Memphis 3 would likely still be in prison or dead, for child murders they did not commit. So I reached out to Berlinger to ask why this seemingly inconsequential resume blemish still aches. It’s because this was his first narrative film, and let his explanation serve as a cautionary tale for directors whose ambition makes them vulnerable to shaky companies desperate to capitalize on monetizing a previous hit.
“I have nothing but respect for [Blair Witch helmer] Adam Wingard and I hope the film is great; I haven’t seen it yet,” Berlinger said. “Ironically, I was in Toronto and just couldn’t bring myself to go see it and relive the trauma. What trauma? The studio recut the film and inserted scenes of gore against my will and I didn’t have the courage back then to just remove my name from the film. And then to be eviscerated by critics on a cut of the film that I did not sanction was doubly painful. That’s not to say that my director’s cut would have garnered a better reaction from critics per se, by at least I could have stood by the film for representing my vision and if people hated that version, it would have been less painful because it’s what I would have wanted to be seen. But why I tweeted today is this: there is also this myth that the film was a financial disaster… In fact, it was still Artisan’s second highest grossing film in their history, the highest being the original BW. It grossed $48 million worldwide on a $10 million budget and did over $25 million on DVD… Pure gravy on DVD. I know because my DGA residuals on this film paid for my daughter’s college education. It was one of the first DVDs to be a dual disc of soundtrack on one side and movie on the other. That doesn’t excuse the rushed production, the desire to monetize and capitalize on the first film’s success by a new studio that was only interested in their IPO and the mediocre end creative result, but people talk of this film as a total failure and franchise killer. The first film, which I have tremendous respect for, was a phenomenon because of how it was marketed, as a real documentary, at a naive and early stage of the Internet. That was one of the themes buried in my film that got butchered.
“No film… not mine or Adam Wingard’s was going to do that kind of business,” he said. “Creatively, my intention was to do something very meta that made fun of the very idea of doing a sequel, but the studio butchered the film at the 12th hour. But my film still grossed $13 million opening weekend with a lot of hate being thrown my way prior to release; movie tickets were a lot cheaper in 2000 than now; I was released on less screens and with inflation and movie ticket prices taken into account, my grosses in today’s dollars were about $20M, per a Forbes magazine column yesterday. I was handed a lot of hate and told I killed the franchise.”
There was one bright spot, Berlinger said. “On the plus side, the Metallica film was a direct result of the failure of BW2, so I am ultimately grateful for the experience because Some Kind Of Monster was perhaps the greatest ride I have taken on a film and it wouldn’t have happened without the perceived failure of my feature debut,” he said.