“Witness” was expected to be the first American film directed by Peter Weir, who had made a small splash internationally with 1975’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock.” While studios were confident in his directing abilities, they were less confident in how he had never directed outside of his native Australia before. Because of that, the risk of people not wanting to see a movie by a relatively unknown director was high.
However, perhaps the most important explanation as to why studios were hesitant to pick up “Witness” initially was its setting. As you might recall, “Witness” is primarily set in an Amish community outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which eventually becomes crucial to its main conflict. According to Edward S. Feldman, studio executives expressed reluctance to this plot detail, even after the script was rewritten by Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley to tone down the Amish history. In his autobiography, the producer recalled what 20th Century Fox executive Joe Wizan told him as he rejected the new pitch.
“This is when I heard those immortal words, ‘Ed, we don’t do rural movies,'” wrote Feldman. “Wizan didn’t believe that movies about rural communities make money.”
However, after several failed attempts to get it greenlit, “Witness” finally found a home at Paramount Pictures. Needless to say, it proved Wizan’s original hypothesis wrong — this rural and controversial film grossed over $116 million dollars worldwide on a budget of $12 million. Well, you know what they say about hindsight — it’s usually 20/20.