CREDIT (Clockwise from top left): Artisan, Warner Bros., Lucasfilm, Buena Vista

Can we go back to 1999? It’s not just Charli XCX who’s feeling that way. Pretty much every movie studio would like to turn back the clocks 20 years. That annum deserves its iconic status, and that’s partly thanks to a quartet of box office successes that reached the level of phenomenon. Any film executive would kill to have one hit that fully enraptures the culture the way that The Matrix, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, The Blair Witch Project, and The Sixth Sense did, and somehow we got all four of those in one year (within five months of each other, no less). Their success stories are unique within the industry, and unique from each other. Is there any way that they could possibly be repeated now in a very different theatrical landscape? Let’s investigate!

THE MATRIX

The Phenomenon: Altered the landscape of science fiction and action cinema and set the course for the next twenty years of popular philosophy.
Can It Be Repeated? Almost certainly not.
It’s awfully unforgiving out there for original sci-fi features. The Wachowski siblings themselves can certainly attest to that. Even if an entirely new space opera or future-set actioner could manage to gross $200 million, or even $100 million, that is only the first step in the Matrix formula. More than any other successful flicks from 1999, we’re still living within the phenomenon of this particular movie, thanks to how far-reaching and wide-ranging its influence has been. Some would even argue that we’re actually living in the Matrix and have been for some time. For a new film to have as powerful an effect, it would have to blue-pill us out of our current paradigm.

STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE

The Phenomenon: A highly recognizable brand name that dominated the discourse for months and whose success was basically guaranteed.
Can It Be Repeated? Yes, but with caveats.
The Phantom Menace formula is basically the entire game plan for current studio franchise filmmaking. It wasn’t the first modern blockbuster, but it might be the most influential, at least from a business perspective. At least seven (and arguably as many as nine) of the ten highest-grossing movies of 2018 follow the Phantom Menace blueprint. But with a Phantom Menace style blockbuster now coming out every other month, instead of once per summer, they can’t be all be a long-reaching phenomenon the same way.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT

The Phenomenon: A thorough marketing strategy that sought to convince audiences that what they were watching was legitimate recovered documentary footage.
Can It Be Repeated? Yes, but it’s tough.
The phenomenal success of The Blair Witch Project went beyond just the mere found footage angle, which is now just about as common as jump scares in mainstream horror. The marketing approach was guerilla and far-reaching, as it included a missing person poster and a companion mockumentary. It may seem like audiences are now too savvy to fall for the same thing again, but I believe that a lot of people like to be fooled. There’s a reason why the appeal of urban legends has persisted over many years and across various mediums. As long as a marketing team is willing to be remarkably devoted, a Blair Witch Project-level of success is possible. The 2016 sequel Blair Witch offered a hint of how this could work, as it was marketed under the title “The Woods” until it premiered at San Diego Comic-Con. But what if a movie dared to not reveal its title until the first showing on Opening Day? And also requested that its audience not give anything away once they got home? It would take a team of magicians to pull it off, but there are marks out there waiting to be fooled.

THE SIXTH SENSE

The Phenomenon: A sleeper original story buoyed along by perhaps the most famous last act twist in movie history.
Can It Be Repeated? Yes, actually!
It might sound ridiculously optimistic to claim that the success of The Sixth Sense is repeatable, considering that – SPOILER ALERT! – spoilers are now everywhere you turn. But I think people overestimate how long the twist was kept fully hidden after The Sixth Sense came out, and they underestimate how adaptable people are today to still avoid spoilers. The dead people twist didn’t work because people were so polite, it worked because it gobsmacked us from out of nowhere. If a previously unheralded filmmaker sneaks up on us with a really clever idea, it could happen again. The more challenging aspect of this formula is the originality. Major studios just don’t invest on untested ideas as frequently as they used to. Even if they did, it’s not like every twist-laden script would result in a phenomenon, but the odds for at least one breaking through would be worth betting on.