The real reason ‘Blair Witch’ flopped this weekend

09.19.16 1 year ago

As I wrote last week, Blair Witch was looking like a decent success going into its opening weekend, with the majority of pundits predicting a finish somewhere in the mid-teen millions for the $5 million sequel/reboot. But as it turns out, audience appetite for the iconic title wasn't nearly as strong as many had anticipated.

In its debut frame, Adam Wingard's belated follow-up to the 1999 found-footage blockbuster The Blair Witch Project grossed an estimated $9.65 million, which is less than half of what some had predicted and only about a third of what the original film made in its first weekend of wide release. That number is also lower than the opening weekend of the much-loathed 2000 quickie sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 ($13 million), though that film benefitted from coming directly on the heels of one of the biggest cinematic phenomenons in history.

While those with a stake in Blair Witch (initially pegged as the standalone horror film The Woods before its true identity was revealed at this year's San Diego Comic-Con) may have overestimated the original title's enduring appeal (more on that later), it certainly wasn't helped by poor critical reviews (37% “Rotten” at Rotten Tomatoes, though Drew liked it) and a dismal D+ Cinemascore based on audience surveys. In sum: people probably aren't recommending this one to their friends on a large scale.

One thing that's potentially gotten lost here is the fact that – its critical reputation and status as a found-footage “pioneer” notwithstanding – the original Blair Witch Project wasn't exactly a beloved film when it was first released. While a critical success, the film only received a C+ Cinemascore, and despite its 86% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, its “Audience Score” sits at a mere 55% on the review aggregator. In fact, according to original Blair Witch star Joshua Leonard (whom I interviewed last week), he still gets heckled on the street by people who still feel gypped by a film that rode in on such an enormous wave of hype that it was destined to disappoint when it finally arrived. While that's admittedly a rarified anecdote, I think it would be a mistake not to believe that it speaks to something larger too.

Indeed, based on a very informal survey I conducted of The Blair Witch Project's IMDB user reviews, the film remains as divisive as it was during its initial release. While a smattering of users dub the 17-year-old film “A Real Horror Movie Classic” and “Most creepy and disturbing movie I've ever seen,” to cite two examples, a greater number are critical and even downright derisive, with one user terming the film “The 'Bored' Witch Project” (no points for originality there, but I see his/her point) and another writing, not unfairly: “Three amateur phukkin filmmakers stumbling around the phukkin woods of Maryland.” Meanwhile, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, largely viewed as one of the lamest cash-in attempts of all time in the genre (D- Cinemascore), also helped kill off some of the remaining fan goodwill pretty early on.

It's also a fact that belated sequels/franchise reboots tend to be a tough business in general. For every Finding Dory and Jurassic World, there's a long list of flops in that increasingly-common category. Just this year, we've seen the likes of Independence Day: Resurgence and Zoolander 2 flounder badly, while My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 – though a success relative to its budget – fell way short of its predecessor's monstrous success 14 years earlier.

Hell, this weekend alone saw a disappointing box office result for not one but two long-belated sequels, the second in the form of Bridget Jones's Baby, which similarly disappointed with only $8.2 million in its opening weekend (but which will likely make up a lot of ground overseas, as the last two installments brought in the majority of their grosses internationally). For beloved brands and franchises like Pixar and Star Wars, the time that elapses between sequels tends to heighten fan anticipation and buy-in, but too often risk-averse studio execs overestimate the nostalgic appeal of less-cherished titles that, while a hit in their day, often don't hold the same kind of allure in the current zeitgeist.

But I think the most important factor in the success of a belated sequel/franchise reboot hinges on how well and consistently the fanbase for the original film or films is cultivated in the interim, and it absolutely doesn't help when a property remains dormant in the overall pop culture between films. As Box Office Media analyst Daniel Loria told me when comparing Independence Day: Resurgence and Jurassic World earlier this summer: “The fact [is,] there hasn”t been even too much of the IP [intellectual property] going on in between – by that I mean TV shows, animated series, anything basically to keep this in the popular conversation and the popular imagination,” he said of the former. “Something [like] obviously Jurassic Park stayed around. There were a couple sequels… people spoke about it. [Independence Day] is [a film] that I think that is fondly remembered by a group of people, but I think a lot of [the Resurgence marketing campaign] has been starting over for it.”

I suspect that's the case with Blair Witch as well. While certainly remembered (not always affectionately) by those over a certain age, with the exception of the dismal Book of Shadows, the property has been dormant for most of the 17 years that have elapsed between the first film and Wingard's reboot. As it turns out, and as has been reinforced again and again over the last few years, nostalgia is almost never enough. You have to keep a title alive for audiences in concrete ways to ensure a greater chance of success once the inevitable followup does come around. And unfortunately for those behind Blair Witch, they learned that lesson the hard way this weekend.

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