1989 and 1999
Notable Crop: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, The Sixth Sense, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, American Pie, Wild, Wild West, The Blair Witch Project
By 1999, the Internet had graduated the fringes of college campuses and work to become an integral part in everyday life. Almost every big budget movie had its own web site for promotion, but it still seemed like Hollywood had trouble actually using the Internet to promote their movies. Until 1999.
Unknown to almost every Hollywood operator except the Wachowski brothers, the summer of 1999 actually began on March 31 when The Matrix opened. Originally seen as sort of a sci-fi appetizer to tide audiences until the opening of The Phantom Menace, The Matrix wound up wowing audiences and one-upping the George Lucas franchise in the effects department.
Even after The Matrix finished its run, the movie took on a new life on the Internet in discussion boards and fan sites as fans discussed what could be done with the movie concept in sequels. All of this fandom eventually made The Matrix the perfect vehicle to introduce the DVD and signal the eventual end of the VHS.
For as good as the Internet was to The Matrix, it was equally toxic for The Phantom Menace. Back in 1983, if people had a major complaint against the inclusion of the Ewoks, they were basically resigned to griping about it with their friends. But in 1999, every single fan with a dial-up connection who was pissed at the inclusion of Jar Jar Binks, or dismayed by the wooden acting could take to the Web and voice their frustration with millions of fans who were feeling the exact same disappointment.
Of course, if the Internet was just a soundboard for disgruntled fans, its impact would be slight. What the Internet did was enable filmmakers with smaller budgets and no access to a marketing team to compete with massively hyped films like Wild Wild West and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Enter The Blair Witch Project.
Weeks before release, audiences were told that what they would be seeing is a documentary about three unlucky filmmakers who ventured into the woods of Maryland to interview people about the Blair Witch. One year after they vanished, their footage was discovered. It was a helluva premise.
Even at the time of its wide release when word started to get out that it was a movie and not a documentary, some in the audience still weren’t too sure if what they saw was real or fake. And though the movie may not have been the most suspenseful or well executed, the marketing (which relied heavily on the Internet) was a stroke of genius, enabling a movie that cost well below a million dollars to gross more than $150 million in the U.S. alone.
Finally, the summer of 1999 ended with another sleeper. At the beginning of the summer, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense wan’t even on the radar for most moviegoers. It was an unassuming thriller that relied more on the sense of unease than blood-and-guts gore for chills (and by doing so, grabbing the coveted PG-13 rating). Of course, the most talked-about selling point of The Sixth Sense was the “twist” ending.
The movie was so beloved that fans and critics started to practice a great amount of restraint on the Web, taking great pains not to ruin the film’s ending. Pages devoted to the movie explicitly warned people not to read further unless they had seen the movie. While The Sixth Sense didn’t exactly invent the concept of the spoiler, it certainly provided a template on how the Internet should handle such cinematic twists.
Notable Crop: Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, When Harry Met Sally, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Dead Poets Society, Do the Right Thing, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Road House, Ghostbusters 2
Superman and Superman II were classic superhero blockbusters, but for the majority of the ‘80s, superhero movies vanished from the sumer movie landscape. That was until it was announced Tim Burton was set to helm Batman, perhaps the most beloved of all comic book franchises.
The buzz for Batman took on a life of its own. The hype stretched into comic stores as people debated the choice of Michael Keaton in the title role. Weeks before the release, Batman merchandise became inescapable. MTV jumped on the bandwagon, putting Prince’s “Batdance” in heavy rotation. The hype surrounding the movie became a news event in itself as reporters were dispatched to theaters, interviewing people who were waiting in line for hours. It was an event. And woe to the person who was left out during opening weekend.
This orchestrated layout of hype—engaging fans, fashion, Hollywood celebrity, fast food, and toy makers—produced a bonafide box office smash. It set the stage of how movies were to be sold to audiences. The next year, Warren Beatty tried a similar approach to promote his project, Dick Tracy. The result: about $100 million less in box office receipts. If the years were switched, if Dick Tracy were to have come out in 1989 and performed just admirably, the way movies are promoted today may have been drastically different.
While Batman was changing the multiplex, a sleeper hit from that summer was changing the art house. Steven Soderbergh released an independent film with an inescapable name from a small studio called Miramax. Sex, Lies, and Videotape titillated audiences with the title, which was soon used by TV studios as a teaser in everything from political scandals to sitcom episodes.
Interest in the film came so quickly that people began to venture into smaller, indie theaters normally populated by film geeks and college students. Those who were able to find such theaters found a film that actually contained very little sex. But what they saw was a different style of filmmaking. The modest haul of $26 million gave Miramax an amazing amount of clout and opened up the indie theater to mainstream audiences. Almost 25 years later, films like Moonrise Kingdom and Little Miss Sunshine are now as much a part of the summer moviegoing experience as the superhero movie.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.