Special thanks to Jerry's VideoWHEN I WAS GROWING UP, MY FATHER SOLD SHOES FOR A living. Virtually the only thing I remember him telling me about his work was that nobody ever comes in to buy a pair of shoes — all they want you to do is sell them a pair of shoes.
That principle is on ample display this summer in the nation's multiplexes, where opening-week grosses and per-screen averages have been shattered repeatedly by a public willing — starved, famished — to swallow the hype. And hype is the one thing the studios can still manufacture with any degree of certainty. But from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace to Wild Wild West to Eyes Wide Shut, the hype on this summer's event movies has outstripped the artifacts in question: Audiences are openly hooting at The Haunting and Deep Blue Sea. Romantic comedies are in again. And The Blair Witch Project, “America's Scariest Home Video,” which last Friday rolled out from 1,000-to-2,000-plus screens, is now earmarked to break that mystical $100 million barrier.
Conventional wisdom credits the film's distributor, Artisan, for turning a scrappy little $40,000 feature shot mostly on video into a marketplace juggernaut. Artisan is the upstart distributor (reorganized from the former LIVE Entertainment) whose 6,600-title video library provides them with the deep pockets to bankroll a $26 million operating overhead and more than 200 employees. Since acquiring the edgy sleeper Pi last year, the company has largely been credited with discovering a hip new demographic — young and at odds with the sanctioned culture — which, a year later, it looks to own outright. Now, for better or worse, Artisan seems in the process of being canonized as the next Miramax, whose legendary marketing prowess is credited with numerous indie hallmarks (sex, lies, & videotape; Pulp Fiction) including Shakespeare in Love's Best Picture upset at this year's Oscars. Call it pandering or pluck, Artisan's brazen stalking of this sexy new demographic carries the faintest whiff of the studio system in the wake of Easy Rider (1969), when executives like Ned Tanen at Universal and Peter Guber at Columbia rose to power on their promised ability to translate the foreign language of youth culture. Of course, that little experiment also produced some of the most interesting films ever made under the studio aegis, so who's complaining?
MUCH HAS BEEN MADE OF ARTISAN'S SAVVY EXPLOITATION of the Internet, taking over the site created by Haxan Films, the five-man collective responsible for brainstorming Blair Witch, and using streaming video, scanned diary pages, man-on-the-street interviews, TV newscasts, faked file footage and false history to create the backstory which the film itself sorely lacks. Artisan's head of worldwide marketing, John Hegeman, who logged time at Orion and Orion Classics, as well as with MGM/UA during the last of its many financial comebacks, has been involved with some of the earliest film forays onto the Internet — a claim he is understandably reluctant about advancing for fear of sounding like the next Al Gore.
“I built the first Web site for a motion picture with Stargate,” he says, “and also developed the first studio-based Web site with The Lion's Den at MGM. So personally, I've been involved in this area since its inception.”
In addition, Artisan commissioned a one-hour special, The Curse of the Blair Witch, that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel the week the film opened, using most if not all of the mock-documentary footage the filmmakers shot before they abandoned that approach in favor of the raw “found” 16mm footage and videotape in the final version. Even that bold move was merely an extension of the seven-minute teaser aired on John Pierson's Split Screen series on the Independent Film Channel in August '97, as its season cliffhanger, and again in April '98, seemingly to test the credibility of the film's origins.
“Actually,” says Pierson, an unofficial early investor in the film, “the Internet presence started after that second broadcast, when I encouraged people to write in with their thoughts on whether this whole thing was real. By the end of the day, we had over 300 postings on our site.”
Perhaps far more effective — or insidious, depending on your point of view — is Artisan's lesser-known, grassroots efforts in individual communities, including so-called “street teams” that canvas key neighborhoods, target trendsetters and tastemakers, and generally go about the business of assimilating youth culture where they can find it. Senior vice president of marketing Amorette Jones was previously employed by the hip-hop label Loud Records, whose financial mainstay is the visionary Wu Tang Clan. And in fact, the rich Afro-Asian mythology of mastermind RZA (himself overseeing the soundtrack of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, the Jim Jarmusch hit-man thriller that Artisan promises to market as “an urban art release”) is not all that different in either its density or its ubiquity from what Artisan is attempting with The Blair Witch Project. “Everything we've done in this case is to build up the mythology of the Blair Witch,” states Hegeman unequivocally.
“I headed up Steve Rifkin's company [Loud Records],” says Jones, “where basically we specialized in street teams, and were hired by companies like Pepsi-Cola to go out and have this conversation and dialogue with youth culture . . . Now, with a company like Coke or Pepsi that's just looking for brand loyalty, there's not necessarily a clientele. But say, for instance, you take a Mountain Dew, whose parent brand is Pepsi-Co, and they're trying to gain a stronghold in a certain community. Then Mountain Dew can sponsor a van tour, going into the inner cities, giving away free product, sponsoring barbecues or community ball games on Saturday, giving away T-shirts or whatever as a goodwill gesture. And for those reasons, you then have the community being very loyal back to a company or product that they see as giving them goodwill. It's really an exchange . . . It's almost like a political campaign, really. You develop that loyalty with an audience.”
The assimilation of youth culture, for purposes of advertising, through its music, mores and icons is certainly nothing new. A recent Harper's article by Baffler editor Thomas Frank, whose book The Conquest of Cool presents a postmortem of this phenomenon as it pertains to the '60s, profiles a somewhat arcane, postmodern offshoot of corporate advertising called account planning, quickly gaining a foothold along Madison Avenue, whose rather evangelical premise is that consumers will express an almost grateful brand loyalty to those marketeers clever enough to seek out and address their lifestyle directly. The primary example given is Nike, which transformed itself from Michael Mooretracked, Doonesbury-tweaked Third World dungeonmaster to skateboard-friendly champion of the outré and disenfranchised for the price of a few well-placed T-shirts. Artisan denies knowledge of the account-planning cult, but its stated goals are remarkably similar.
Still, the primary similarity to Miramax may be that like the celebrated Weinstein brothers, Artisan's toppers — fellow presidents Amir Malin, long involved in ancillary markets and video deals, and Bill Block, formerly an agent with his own InterTalent and later ICM — at least in their choice of releases, exercise what looks suspiciously like personal taste. In the upcoming months, they will release Steven Soderbergh's The Limey, after Out of Sight was a much-lamented disappointment for Universal, and Atom Egoyan's Felicia's Journey, after The Sweet Hereafter's cumulative gross plus one thin quarter would almost cover the price of a cup of coffee. They will re-release Gregory Nava's El Norte; have commissioned The Usual Suspects screenwriter Chris McQuarrie's directorial debut, the ultraviolent Way of the Gun; and have financed Roman Polanski's biggest-budget film in two decades, The Ninth Gate.
“Part of the responsibility of what we feel is we sometimes have to let those films out there,” says Malin. “Now, Bill and I can't do that day in and day out. But whereas other people at other companies may look at it as more of a widget business, that's where we differentiate ourselves.
“This may sound cocky,” he adds, “but Ghost Dog will be by far Jim Jarmusch's highest-grossing film ever.”