A $0-budget film topping the box office? ‘Unsubscribe’ joins a fine tradition of Hollywood hoaxes

Cinema's been peddling fake news since before we were all born

During the lockdown, there’s been pressure to be productive. What did you achieve? Did you become fluent in Mandarin? Learn to bake something that doesn’t harrowingly resemble the Pillsbury Doughboy’s afterbirth? Developed a newfound interest in staring at the wall and contemplating the futility of existence? (Hey, it beats watching Netflix’s The Floor Is Lava).

Trumping all of our accomplishments with the certainty of Indiana Jones smugly rocking up to the Antiques Roadshow with the Ark of the Covenant however, are YouTuber Eric Tabach and director Christian Nilsson who topped the box office with a $0-budget movie. With cinemas mothballed due to COVID-19, they spotted an opportunity. Nilsson wrote the script for Unsubscribe in a day, before shooting the 29-minute film over Zoom, roping in a cast of friends, including Ozark’s Charlie Tahan. The pair then exploited a loophole in ticket sales known as “four walling”, essentially the self-publishing of the film world, where distributors rent out a theatre and buy the seats, retaining any ticket sales. A behind-the-scenes video of the wheeze shows the pair at their “sold out” premiere. Despite only two people watching it, it succeeded in becoming the Number One film in the US for one day in June.

 

While the trailer makes the film look a bit shonky (although murder via Zoom will hold appeal for anyone asked to list the Top 10 highest mountains one too many times on a deathless quarantine quiz), it’s in the fine, illustrious tradition of Hollywood hucksters.

Even as far back as 1910 in the silent movie era, canny producer Carl Laemmle wasn’t above whipping up publicity for The Broken Oath by circulating a fake news story that its star Florence Lawrence had been killed in a streetcar accident. When it was picked up by enough publications, he published adverts admitting he’d punked everybody, and she was starring in his upcoming film. In the 1950s with ticket sales dwindling arguably due to the advent of television, showman director William Castle became the king of the gimmicks and the godfather of interactive experiences such as Secret Cinema. For 1985’s Macabre, he spun box office gold out of a by-the-numbers horror film by giving each audience member a certificate for a £1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London – redeemable should they die of fright during the flick. The ruse was heightened by hiring actors to play nurses to stand in the lobby, and parking hearses outside. Somebody should bring the stunt back – Netflix could issue policies for anyone who dies of boredom during icky porny yawnfest 365.

Macabre
1958 horror ‘Macabre’ was one of the earliest box office grifts. Credit: Alamy

Married couple Michael and Roberta Findlay’s 1971 Manson cult-inspired exploitation film Slaughter was shelved for four years, before a producer identified a cash cow – marketing it as a real-life snuff film. A new epilogue was filmed, in a verité style, which suggested that after the main feature wrapped, the Slaughter crew disembowelled somebody for real. Renamed Snuff, all credits were removed from the film to enhance the fiction and fake protesters were hired to picket cinemas. Police reportedly investigated the ‘murder’ – only for it to emerge the whole thing was a ticket-boosting hoax.

The ‘video nasty’ era was a boom-time for hoaxes, as teenagers traded worn copies of VHS that were grubby and grainy, helping to disguise bad special effects, giving them an illicit edge and fuelling playground myths that they were real. The most notorious, 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust – which pioneered the ‘found footage’ genre with the conceit that the audience were viewing the recovered film of American documentary makers’ expedition into cannibal tribe-dwelling Amazon basin – even resulted in its director Ruggero Deodato being put on trial on suspicion of murdering his actors. Ingeniously, he’d had the cast sign contracts preventing them from appearing in any type of media for a year after the film’s release – to maintain the found footage illusion.

The Blair Witch Project
‘The Blair Witch Project’ took Hollywood by storm in 1999 with its ‘new’ found footage format. Credit: Alamy

It paved the way for the granddaddy of found footage flicks, 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, which generated belief in the story’s authenticity by creating fake websites, TV news clips and police reports at a time when the Internet wasn’t a morass of mistrust. For a time, the actors were listed as deceased on IMDb – their parents even started receiving condolence cards.

Of course, there are films which are actual hoaxes. Famously, Ben Affleck’s Argo traces the story of a bogus film shoot concocted by the CIA to rescue Americans trapped in Tehran, while the origin of 2011’s appropriately-named A Landscape Of Lies is far more entertaining than the end product. It was an on-paper-only film cooked up by criminals to scam the tax authorities. Yet when the taxman demanded to see the finished film, they hastily cobbled together a cheap’n’cheesy gangster film with a cast including Loose Women’s Andrea McLean, who were unaware of its illegality.

Argo
Ben Affleck’s ‘Argo’ is a film about a real-life bogus film shoot. Credit: Alamy

You might think that in the a world where Twitter has to fact-check the President of the United States (a job which is surely like being the Looney Tunes’ Acme Corporation’s Health and Safety Officer) and 5G conspiracy theories run rampant, that the appeal of silver screen gimmicky wool-pullers might wane. But the entertaining hoax will always have a place in filmmaking. Whether it’s Joaquin Phoenix convincing us he’s ditched acting for a career in rap or a  plucky YouTube duo performing a box office hack – they’re the grift that keeps on giving.

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