Cinema Jackpot! – SCREAM

by John S.

Cinema Jackpot! – SCREAM

Cinema Jackpot! is a series that reviews films with uncertain origins which ultimately became popular smash hits. Everyone loves a good success story. Join us as we explore how these movies caught lightning in a  bottle and triumphed.

(Cinema Jackpot! runs alternately with Movie Postmortems)


THE ODDS: By the early 90’s, the Horror Genre – the Slasher Sub-Genre, in particular – was weak and sinking. The strong trends set during the late 70s by Halloween and Friday the 13th in the early 80s – as well as their sequels plus other strong entries like Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, The Prowler, and Happy Birthday To Me – had faded considerably by 1990. The sub-genre had fallen victim to inferior knockoffs and diminishing returns as the years progressed, destined to end the decade on a much lower note than when it began with Friday the 13th’s massive success in 1980.

However, it wasn’t just Slashers that were flailing by the early-to-mid 90s: other sub-genres within the Horror Genre weren’t doing so great either. The only notable commercial and critical horror successes during this period was for Candyman and Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992. Other titles like The Guardian, The Lawnmower Man, Hideaway, Dr. Giggles, In The Mouth of Madness, and Village of the Damned – just to name a few – weren’t as lucky and either underperformed, misfired, or outright bombed. So iffy was the Horror Genre that many entries during this time were going directly to video.

So when a modest production titled Scream was incongrously scheduled for a Christmas 1996 release, expectations were not high. True, it was the latest offering from Horror Royalty director Wes Craven (Nightmare On Elm Street, Deadly Blessing) but given how dismal horror films had been doing at the box-office over the last few years, this didn’t exactly make it a sure thing. In fact, the promotion for Scream took great pains to avoid calling it a horror film, instead referring to it as “the new thriller from Wes Craven.” Right.

Scream began life as a script titled Scary Movie. Written by a then-unknown scribe named Kevin Williamson, the story was sparked by a real-life incident that saw Williamson house-sitting for a friend and being spooked one night by an open window and strange sounds. As Williamson wandered the house, terrified and carrying a knife, he called another friend who provided valuable moral support over the phone by mimicking the “kill-kill-kill/die-die-die” whispers from Friday The 13th, further frightening Williamson. That’s a true friend.

At any rate, Williamson took this experience and built a story around it which would eventually become Scary Movie. The premise: a masked, movie-savvy serial killer terrorizes a cozy Northern California town’s teens through phone calls and eventually in person, with traumatized heroine Sidney Prescott’s past somehow holding the key to the mystery. Williamson’s agent started a minor bidding war over the screenplay and when the dust settled, it was Dimension Films that won the battle. Eventually, Craven was attached along with young-stars-of-the-moment Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy, Drew Barrymore, and Neve Campbell (as Sydney).

As Scream’s national release fast approached nothing about it, um, screamed “big hit.” Budgeted at about $14 million, a domestic take of $30 million would have been seen as cause for celebration – which would have been a much better performance than most other horror flicks of the period. The only problem is, given how spotty the genre’s track record was for the 90s, there was no guarantee Scream would even make that much. Or even make back its $14 million production budget. Would Scream join the majority of 90s horror entries in the Misfire Pile?

THE GAME: Scream debuted in North America on December 20, 1996 – pulling in just over $6 million. At the time, it wasn’t a bad debut for a horror film. However, horror flicks were also historically known for taking a plunge in their second weekend in release after initial curiosity passed. There was no guarantee that Scream would have the sturdy legs necessary to make it to $30 million. The second weekend performance would dictate Scream’s fate.

Did it ever. Scream’s second weekend gross was just over $9 million. Put it this way: a small decrease of 10% to 15% between opening weekend and second weekend hauls indicates a film has strong legs and good word of mouth. For a film’s second weekend box-office to climb by 30% without a significant increase in theatre screens indicates one thing: a runaway hit blasting off. This was confirmed by Scream’s third weekend gross which further increased to $10 million. Reviews were also generally strong but it’s doubtful audiences paid much attention to them, likely putting more stock in the glowing recommendations of their friends. Scream was the word of mouth smash success of 1996.

By the time it finished its global run, Scream had grossed about $103 million in North America and another $70 million in international markets – for a staggering $173 million global total, making it one of the most successful horror films of all time. As good as a film as Scream actually was, you would still had to have been psychic to know in advance it would take the world by storm the way it did. To say it outperformed its best case scenario of a $30 million domestic take would be an understatement.

THE VICTORY: Scream’s unexpected popularity led to its similarly successful sequels Scream 2 and Scream 3, not to mention modestly successful variations like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, and their respective sequels. The Halloween franchise even threw an entry into the mix in the form of Halloween: H20. Other slasher films that got greenlighted in the wake of Scream include Cherry Falls, Valentine, Venom, and My Soul To Take. These films, to varying degrees, shared Scream’s knowing, post-modern take on the sub-genre which is a characteristic that separates them from the first wave of slashers from the late-70s/early-80s.

However, much more significant than simply reviving Slasher Films, Scream reminded Hollywood that horror can be big business. So much so that when the “Post Modern Slashers” started to inevitably yield diminishing returns, producers, writers, and directors were confident enough to start exploring other horror sub-genres, yielding sizable hits. Such as The Blair Witch Project which became a massive success in 1999 and single-handedly started the whole Found Footage Sub-Genre that would also give us the Paranormal Activity series.

The Ring in 2002 marked the first “J-Horror” remake and was soon followed by The Grudge in 2004 and others. Not to mention the actual remakes of the classic slashers starting with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003. 28 Days Later bravely rewrote the Zombie Flick rules (even if its creatures weren’t really zombies) leading to the popular Dawn Of The Dead remake and a sequel, 28 Weeks Later. And so on and so forth.

Essentially, Scream’s wild success kickstarted a chain reaction revitalization that revived the entire Horror Genre. From sub-genre to sub-genre, the growing ripple effect resulted in increased productions and some very successful entries – which caused even more ripples. Of course, there were still misfires (including Scream 4 in 2011) because the Horror Genre, like an adaptable chameleon, continues to evolve and so do audience expectations. However, these evolutions would not have been possible without Scream paving the way.

NEXT CONTESTANT: My Big Fat Greek Wedding – “Love Is Here To Stay – So Is Her Family”

In 2002, a modest and unassuming flick flew below the radar into theaters. Expectations were also modest and unassuming. However, the movie promptly became the Most Successful Romantic Comedy Of All Time In North America, beating out star-driven flicks like Pretty Woman and What Women Want for the title. Just like with Scream, you would had to have been psychic to predict My Big Fat Greek Wedding would make that big of a splash. But there you go…


John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.

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