How a fake film poster launched a major horror franchise

Friday The 13th
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When the first advert for Friday The 13th appeared, it didn’t have funding or a script – but suddenly it had a release date.

In July 1979, producer/director Sean S Cunningham made a bold move that could have easily led nowhere. Instead, it launched one of the biggest horror franchises in history.

Cunningham had experienced unexpectedly huge success in 1972 when he produced The Last House On The Left, written and directed by Wes Craven. Last House was made for $90,000 and the two filmmakers didn’t expect it to go anywhere. In Craven’s words, “our attitude was that we were going to do this tiny little film for a company in Boston, and it was only going to be shown in two or three theatres up there. Nobody was ever going to see it, and nobody was ever going to know that we did it.”


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How wrong he was. Partly due to a fantastic publicity campaign (featuring the poster line ‘to avoid fainting keep repeating – it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie’…) the film grossed $3 million in the US alone, setting Cunningham and Craven up as legitimate movie makers. The Last House On The Left is a non-heightened, ultra-violent exploitation horror movie, a rape revenge film the likes of which had never been seen before by a mainstream audience. It is still a very tough film to watch today, even with a modern audience more accustomed to onscreen violence.

Cut to 1978. By this time, Cunningham had just directed two family friendly sports comedies, Here Come The Tigers and Manny’s Orphans (a.k.a. Kick), both of which received lukewarm responses and nowhere near the financial returns of Last House. He was looking for his next venture.

Cunningham didn’t really fancy returning to horror, but needed a project that was guaranteed to attract a big audience (and therefore a big box office). Then something happened@ John Carpenter’s Halloween was released in October 1978 and just exploded, taking $70 million on a budget of just a few hundred thousand.

Sean Cunningham thus got together with two regular collaborators, Victor Miller and Steve Miner, and they batted ideas around for a film that could be similar to Carpenter’s monster hit. Miller came up with the idea of a scary Halloween-like slasher movie set around a summer camp before it opens, and so began writing what was then known as Long Night At Camp Blood.

And so we come to Cunningham’s bold move.

The year before he had come up with the title Friday The 13th, but had no idea what the actual film could be about. He now realised his random title could be a perfect fit for this new project, thinking he was bound to be able to sell a horror movie going by that name. In July 1979 he decided to test his theory. He took out a full-page advert in movie industry magazine Variety over the July 4th weekend, advertising a movie that not only hadn’t been made, but didn’t even have a completed script.

The advert shows the title crashing through glass (which they would replicate in the actual opening credits of the film) and the tagline ‘The Most Terrifying Film Ever Made!’. It states that the movie is ‘currently in production’ and ‘available in November 1979’. Take a look…

Cunningham has said that not only was it to see if distributors would be interested, but also it was his way of checking to see if anyone else had made a movie with that name. He sat back, waiting for either a cease and desist or offers of thousands of dollars to arrive. Luckily for him, it was the latter.

He started getting telexes from different foreign distributors all around the world asking for the film, and eventually managed to secure the entire $500,000 budget from distributor Hallmark Releasing. Boston-based Hallmark had released some of Cunningham’s earlier films, including The Last House On The Left, and was very keen to repeat its earlier success.

This time, Cunningham would direct Friday the 13th himself, and gathered together a group of fresh faced youngsters to play the teens being stalked by an unknown figure, including a young Kevin Bacon. He also hired special effect genius Tom Savini to create never seen before inventive death scenes to dispatch the youths.

Savini had just helped to dismember many zombies (and humans) in George A Romero’s classic Dawn Of The Dead, and was the perfect choice for Friday The 13th’s effects, which would include throat slits, an axe to the head, an arrow appearing through a neck and a very effective decapitation.

These fun kills would be the talking point of the movie when it was finally released in May 1980, resulting in many repeat viewings. The folks at Hallmark were not disappointed – the film went on to take $59.8m at the cinema and began a franchise that currently consists of twelve films and one of the most famous movie killers in history with Jason Vorhees. Although as anyone who has seen the opening scene of Wes Craven’s Scream can tell you, there’s actually very little Jason in the original 1980 film.

Craven meanwhile would start his own horror juggernaut in 1984 when he made A Nightmare On Elm Street, and the two series’ monstrous villains would eventually meet in 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason, produced by Cunningham.

The future of the franchise is currently in limbo/ Cunnigham and Victor Miller are engaged in an ongoing legal battle over who retains the rights to the original film, and at the end of January 2021 Cunningham also filed a lawsuit against New Line, Paramount and Warner Bros over profits from the 2009 remake.

But one thing we can say – if it hadn’t been for that original Variety advert we wouldn’t have met everyone’s favourite hockey mask-wearing, machete-wielding, big screen superhuman psychopath.

Poster image: FridayThe13thFranchise

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