Some of the titles in 1999 are very familiar. At the top of the box office was Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the first go-round at reviving the most successful franchise of them all, a process that began again last December with The Force Awakens. There are Disney hits, including Pixar’s Toy Story 2 (the fourth entry hits theaters in 2018) and Tarzan (one of the last successful animated Disney musicals before the genre’s revival with Frozen). But at the time, there were also a tremendous number of original films, a conspicuous lack of superheroes, and a number of low-budget, out-of-the-box successes that are still being vainly copied to this day.
The Blair Witch Project was the ultimate little engine that could, grossing $140 million against a $60,000 budget on the back of a “viral marketing campaign” that somehow took hold in a pre-YouTube, dialup internet age. It helped spawn a finely tuned economic model, with independent companies like Blumhouse Productions churning out a handful of micro-budgeted horror films a year, most of which are almost guaranteed to turn a profit thanks to their low financial outlay. Some of the year’s biggest profit-makers are tiny horror movies like Lights Out, which opened to $22 million last weekend on the oldest premise there is: Don’t turn out the lights, because there are monsters in the dark. Blair Witch will be aiming for a similar audience response.
Despite The Blair Witch Project’s success in 1999, it was overshadowed by an even bigger horror movie, The Sixth Sense, a simpler ghost story that remains the biggest career success both for its director M. Night Shyamalan and its star Bruce Willis. Dispensing with cheap scares or supernatural CGI, The Sixth Sense was the kind of old-fashioned chiller that built momentum through word of mouth, a then-rare horror film that found an audience in the otherwise action-packed summer months. After some lean years for the “classic” horror genre (i.e. anything that didn’t involve found footage), it’s now roaring back into popularity. The Conjuring 2 is one of the biggest hits of the year despite violating every rule of the lame horror sequel: It’s incredibly long (135 minutes), light on jumps, and heavy on religious allegory.
The rest of 1999’s hits also prove how drastically Hollywood norms have changed. That year’s Best Picture Oscar went to American Beauty, a dark adult drama that became a box-office sensation; these days it would likely struggle to even be released by a major studio. Most of the other big-budget dramas of 1999 likely wouldn’t thrive in today’s studio system: Fight Club, Eyes Wide Shut, Three Kings, Election, and Being John Malkovich. In 2016, those kinds of offbeat films are made for much smaller amounts of money and rarely get the wide releases they deserve—though the internet has made at-home viewing easier, which might help movies like Swiss Army Man, The Witch, A Bigger Splash, and The Invitation have a longer shelf-life.