Friday the 13th, or, How to Start a Franchise with an Ad

After a director and a writer teamed up on sports comedies, they turned to horror... and made history.


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This is the story of a boy and his mother, and how the mother came to murder a bunch of camp counselors before the boy came back from the bottom of a lake to take over for Mom while wearing a burlap sack over his head, later deciding that a hockey mask was the better look for him. It’s also the story of two guys with a crazy idea, and how they turned an ad into a film series that spans decades.  

Of course, we’re talking about the Friday the 13th movie franchise.  

Friday the 13th Movie Ad from Variety.
(©International Variety & Cunningham Films, Ltd.)

The genesis of Friday came from producer-director Sean S. Cunningham and writer Victor Miller. Cunningham had prior experience in horror, having produced Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left in 1972. Miller had a varied writing background, which included advertising, television, prose, and film; he wrote two sports comedies in the late 70s that Cunningham directed. Inspired by the indie success of Halloween in 1978, the two began working from a story that was originally called A Long Night at Camp Blood. However, Cunningham saw the cache of tying the story to a similarly sinister date, and that’s when the unfinished screenplay became Friday the 13th. 

Cunningham went one step further. Wishing to stake a claim to the name, he commissioned an ad and placed it in International Variety. The ad, with the stylized title breaking through glass, ran in the spring of 1979, even before Miller finished the screenplay. By fall, the movie was filming; the predominantly young cast included Kevin Bacon, while the pivotal role of Mrs. Voorhees went to Hollywood veteran Betsy Palmer (remember, Jason’s mom is the killer in the first film, with Jason not appearing until the final jump-scare in the lake). As a result of the buzz around the ad and the desire to get in on what could be the next Halloween, several studios contended for the right to release the picture. Paramount bought the rights for $1.5 million, which would turn out to be quite the bargain. 

Friday the 13th opened on May 9, 1980, and it was reviled by critics. Audiences, on the other hand, voted with their wallets. The film turned into a huge hit for Paramount it was the third highest moneymaker for them that year, trailing only Airplane! and Urban Cowboy. It struck financial gold in international release, pulling in another $20 million. The films $59 million total haul would have been worth roughly $178 million in 2017 dollars. 

The studio knew they needed a sequel. Though Cunningham was more interested in the anthology route, producer Phil Scuderi thought they should continue the story and have Jason be the new killer. Associate producer Steve Miner agreed, and he ended up directing the sequel; it saw a grown-up Jason, wearing a burlap sack over his head, kill the original film’s final girl and go a new murder spree. Miner also directed Friday the 13th Part III (aka Friday the 13th 3D), which owns the twin distinctions of being in 3D and being the film wherein Jason begins wearing his signature hockey mask. 

Between 1980 and 2003, ten Friday films and one crossover (Freddy vs. Jason) were produced. A syndicated TV series, cleverly titled Friday the 13th – The Series, launched from Paramount in 1987; though it was overseen by frequent series producer Frank Mancuso, Jr., it had no other connection to the Jason films aside from the name. The action focused on characters trying to retrieve a series of cursed objects; the show did well in its first year and ran three seasons. In theaters, Jason continued on his merry murderous way, but the eighth film, subtitled Jason Takes Manhattan, showed seriously diminishing box office returns. 

Friday the 13th theatrical poster
(©New Line/Paramount)

Cunningham got involved again in the late 80s, helping New Line acquire the rights from Paramount after the eighth film. When Platinum Dunes took over the franchise in the late 2000s, Paramount and New Line remained partners (due to owning particular pieces of the franchise) and Cunningham continued as a producer; that group oversaw the 2009 reboot, Friday the 13th. Since then, the promise of new films has been bogged down in various stages in a legal morass, with ownership and copyright issues abounding. New players, like the production company of NBA superstar LeBron James, have also gotten involved. It seems that everyone wants there to be another film, but no one is quite sure who owns what to what degree, from the screenplay (whose copyright reclamation by Miller has been contested) to various pieces of the lore, each of which may belong to the studio under which each particular film was made. While screenplays have been written and filming plans have been made and scrapped, nothing is certain at this moment. 

What is certain is that Jason Voorhees will inevitably return. That is, after all, his thing. From a simple idea to a claim-staking ad, Jason emerged as one of the horror icons of the 1980s. Whereas the 1930s saw Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man step up as horror heroes, the ’70s and ’80s inducted Leatherface, Michael, Freddy, and Jason into the pantheon. The hockey mask went from simple sporting protection to an outright symbol of the horror genre.  

So we won’t count Jason out. Even if we don’t know which studio or creative team will make the next Friday, we know they’ll make a killing. 


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