Graham: Word-of-mouth hits fall by wayside

Blockbusters rule Hollywood. But where are the tiny breakthroughs that come out of left field and shock the world?

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
Awkwafina, center, in "The Farewell."

The lines looked more like fans trying to get into a rock concert than a movie. 

Twenty years ago this month, "The Blair Witch Project" caused mass hysteria when it opened in just a few theaters across America. Driven by online buzz — which, at the time, was a brand new thing — and old-school word of mouth, the film became a sensation, and locally had people wrapping lines around Royal Oak's Main Art Theater. 

A few years later, in 2002, a tiny film about a big wedding made a super-sized splash on screens. "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" opened in April, grossed around $600,000 its opening weekend, and then picked up steam over the ensuing months. The film chugged along at the box office, adding more viewers every week, bucking industry trends and shocking Hollywood. It finally hit No. 2 at the box office over Labor Day weekend and hung around the Top 10 through November, 32 weeks after its release. 

Neither film was expected to do anything, but each wound up making a whole lot of noise. "The Blair Witch Project" earned $140 million on a budget of $60,000 and went on to become 10th highest grossing film of 1999, while "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" earned $241 million on a $5 million budget and became the year's fifth highest grosser.

Both films were word-of-mouth smashes. These days, word-of-mouth has gone all but silent.

As franchises have taken over Hollywood, the hits of the day are engineered to be hits. Some do better than expected, some worse, but the box office has become so top- heavy with sequels and superhero fare that it's difficult for anything unexpected to break through to a mass audience.

For viewers, this means less surprises and more of the same.

While "Blair Witch" and "Greek Wedding" were one-offs — their successes didn't directly lead to other hits — they showed studio execs the value of taking chances on smaller films. The success of something like "Avengers: Endgame," which last weekend became the highest grossing film of all-time, leads only to more Marvel movies, and films that aspire to be Marvel movies. (Marvel currently accounts for three of the year's five highest grossers, it's worth noting.)

With that kind of competition, indies don't stand a chance.

This weekend's "The Farewell," about a Chinese family lying to its patriarch about her terminal illness, has a lot in common with "Greek Wedding," and it has potential to catch on with moviegoers. It has grossed $2 million in limited release and is expanding to more theaters nationwide, but can it truly break out and catch fire with audiences? We'll see. 

The surprise successes at the box office the last few years have come with much higher pedigrees. "Crazy Rich Asians" was a winner last year, grossing $175 million on a reported $30 million budget, but it came with a built-in audience of fans of Kevin Kwan's novels. "A Quiet Place" well-exceeded expectations when it grossed $188 million last year, but Emily Blunt and John Krasinski aren't exactly newcomers to this whole movie thing. Few expected "Get Out" to run wild at the box office in 2017, but while Jordan Peele was an untested director, he was far from an unknown commodity.

There's a lower ceiling for what's considered a success among today's left-of-center hits; last summer's "Hereditary," a dark horror entry starring Toni Collette, blew away expectations when it grossed $44 million.

Word-of-mouth, left field smashes do exist in other mediums, Netflix's "Stranger Things" and the "Serial" podcast being two prime examples.  

But where are the movies that come out of nowhere and take Hollywood by storm? More films are being released than ever, so the potential for one to break through is there. But with audiences trained to only chase the big dogs, those hits are as elusive as the Blair Witch.