`Witch' near record profit

Movies: The low-budget horror film has already made undreds of times its production cost

August 11, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"The Blair Witch Project," the mock-documentary horror film set in the woods of Western Maryland, has become one of the best investments in movie history.

The no-budget horror movie is poised to cross the $100 million mark in box office this weekend. With its minuscule budget, it's given its backers a better dollar-for-dollar return than such ballyhooed moneymakers as "Star Wars: Episode I -- the Phantom Menace" or "Titanic," which have made more money but cost vastly more to create.

At its current gross of $80.2 million, "Blair Witch" has already made several hundred times its production budget. "Titanic," which cost $200 million to make, only made 9.2 times its budget.

"Blair Witch" has already far surpassed last year's budget-to-earnings champ, "Life is Beautiful." That film, which cost an estimated $9 million to make, grossed $140 million worldwide, a mere 15.6 times its cost, according to Weekly Variety, the trade publication that tracks budget-to-box-office champs every year. (Only production budgets and theatrical box office receipts are used in these comparisons. Revenues from television, video, merchandising and other ancillary sales are not included in a movie's earnings.)

Some recent impressive performers include "The Full Monty," which made more than 58 times its cost; "Trainspotting," which made 20 times its budget; "The Brothers McMullen," which made 67 times its $200,000 budget, and "The Wedding Banquet," which made 23.6 times its $1 million budget.

It's not certain what film holds the cost-to-earnings record, because budgets are notoriously movable targets and box office receipts have been tracked with exactitude only since the early 1980s. Weekly Variety has been tracking budget-to-earnings ratios for five years.

The cost-to-earnings ratio is especially meaningful for independent films, which rely more heavily on theatrical box office to make their money back. Big Hollywood movies, on the other hand, can often make up for red ink with those lucrative TV, video and ancillary deals.

"The Blair Witch Project," which involves a trio of film students who become lost while searching for a legendary witch in the Maryland woods, was directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, who financed the film mostly on credit cards. When the movie opened July 16, it earned more than seven times its budget its first weekend out, even though it was shown on only a handful of screens. The movie expanded to 2,100 theaters last weekend.

Myrick and Sanchez originally filmed "The Blair Witch Project" for around $35,000. When they premiered the movie at the Sundance Film Festival last January, it was immediately bought for $1.1 million by Artisan Entertainment. The studio went on to give the filmmakers money for shooting new scenes and sweetening the sound. The film's final budget has been reported as anywhere between $100,000 and $200,000, which would mean it has made 802 or 401 times its budget, depending on which figures are being used.

Profitability is a famously squishy concept in Hollywood, where revenues are eaten up by percentage deals with actors, deals with theaters and the costs of prints and advertising. But any way you slice it, "Blair Witch" still stands to make a handsome return on its initial investment. Observers project grosses between $130 million to $150 million.

The lessons of "Blair Witch" are not being lost on executives in Hollywood, Charles Lyons wrote in a recent Variety. In every major studio, the people in charge are questioning bloated budgets and star salaries, as well as the new marketing power of the Internet, where "The Blair Witch Project" began building interest more than a year ago. Some are even commissioning studies to figure out what has made it so successful.

"Is this little film going to revolutionize filmmaking?" Lyons wrote. Knowing Hollywood, we'll probably learn the answer this time next year.

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