How Hocus Pocus went from box office flop to cult film

How Hocus Pocus went from box office flop to cult film

There are few people born after the late 1980s who have not seen Hocus Pocus at least once. Indeed, it is more likely that there are very few that we have not seen it again almost every year, in conjunction with the arrival of Halloween. On the now defunct satellite channel Disney Channel also in Italy the film with Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy was placed every October. And this year, after years of indiscretions, unfulfilled expectations and fast program fields, the awaited sequel has finally arrived on Disney + (which is now the heir of that channel). Thirty years later, that colorful and bizarre film about three clumsy than ruthless witches is a kind of phenomenon of custom, firmly in the imagination of a generation and beyond. The amazing thing, however, is that when it was released in 1993 the film was doomed to oblivion due to a sensational box office flop.

A difficult start

The story of Hocus Pocus it actually started all uphill. The first project dates back to 1984, when director Mick Garris, one of the masters of horror known for films such as Critters 2, Sleepwalkers and several adaptations by Stephen King (The Shadow of the Scorpion, The Shining), was asked to make a film titled Disney's Halloween House, which was to exploit the popularity of the many horror attractions of the amusement parks (initially meant only for the Disney Channel, its potential prompted executives to promote it in theaters). The film, however, entered the so-called development hell (ie when the hypothesis of a film enters a limbo of delays, second thoughts and rewrites) and at one point was rejected even by Steven Spielberg's Amblin.

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It took almost a decade for the idea to be developed that initially came to producer David Kirschner while playing with his daughter: at the sight of a stray black cat the story was invented according to which the feline was in actually a boy condemned to take that form by three evil witches three centuries earlier. It took several rewrites to make the story more comical, then focusing on teenage protagonists, but in the end the script, to which author Neil Cuthbert had added in the meantime, caught the attention of Bette Midler herself, who wanted to all costs to make it (the role of the main antagonist she played, in fact, was originally conceived for Cloris Leachman, the Frau Blücher of Frankenstein Junior).

After a rather fast production, with the involvement of director Kenny Ortega (the same who would later direct High School Musical and Michael Jackson's last tour, never made), the film was released in American theaters on July 16, 1993. Read the last sentence again: Hocus Pocus, a movie that screams Halloween from all sides, with witches, black cats, magic books, zombies, cemeteries and cobwebs, was launched in the height of summer and therefore very far from that end of October in which vague like sprites to say "Trick or treat?". The decision, still incomprehensible from a marketing point of view, had disastrous results: it was the public who deserted the theaters, with the hypothesis of a loss by Disney of about 16.5 million dollars.

Not that the weekend when the film hit theaters was an easy one: Jurassic Park, released the previous June, continued to grind records at every box office, with The Partner with Tom Cruise also absorbing the majority of viewers; in addition, in the exact same days as the release of Hocus Pocus, Free Willy, the story of the dolphin who became a Nineties icon, also made its debut. Disney herself harmed herself with a theatrical re-release of her first animated film, Snow White. Even the reviews of the time were rather lukewarm, speaking of a fake film, dull and mediocre, despite the appreciation for the cast. In short, everything would have made us think of a sensational oblivion for the three Sanderson sisters, the same to which they had been condemned after their burning in Salem (and the only happy at the time was Leonardo DiCaprio, who had been offered the role of the young Max, but refused to film Happy Birthday Mr. Grape)

A cult phenomenon

And instead, like a spell out of Winifred's spellbook, Hocus Pocus was reborn from his own ashes. The second occasions, in the life of the nineties film titles, often came from the dear old VHS: the film was released on videotape in January 1994, starting to be timidly noticed in video rentals, and even more it managed to sneak into the schedules of the various American channels . The real turning point, however, came in 2002: that was the year of 'arrival on DVD. Although it is difficult to have precise sales statistics, the title reached the top of the home video charts every October and at the same time was extensively replicated, especially in all the Disney channels around the world. If viewers had ignored this story in the cinema, it would instead flock to their home televisions.

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Despite this constant testimony of unexpected affection, Disney took a long time to decide to plan a sequel. Since 2014 Midler, Parker and Najimy had expressed a clear desire to return to their roles, but this only materialized in October 2019, when Hocus Pocus 2 was officially announced, destined for the Disney + streaming platform. As proof of the goodness of the operation, in October 2020, when the great cinematic novelties were suspended or postponed due to the pandemic, Hocus Pocus returned to over 2,500 American theaters, earning 1.9 million dollars and finishing second after Christopher's Tenet Nolan, released that summer.

Those same spectators between the eighties and nineties now finally have the opportunity to see the wacky Sanderson sisters in action, in the hope also that constant hope that nostalgia is not a self-destructive trap that we inflict on ourselves . But after all, it is precisely in the nostalgia that dominates our entertainment industry that we can find meaning in all this phenomenon: Hocus Pocus is the perfect survivor of an era in which films - and in general all other entertainment products - had a available not just a few days or weeks to find one's audience, but different and unexpected ways to gain mainstream attention.

Today, to play it safe and take advantage of already loyal audiences, the various streamers reformulate cult titles in sequels, remakes and reboots of various kinds, but at the same time they throw into oblivion films and series that are not immediately successful. Like his Black Flame candle, however, Hocus Pocus took his time to carry out his spell. And the magic, hopefully, will continue.

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