Three unknown actors with great improvisational skill as leads, a 35-page rough script and only 8 days of shooting with a budget of $22,500 in hand—none of these could have guaranteed a successful film and yet The Blair Witch Project became one of the most successful films ever in the film history with a business of $248,639,099. From the moment of its big premiere in Sundance Film Festival as a midnight movie in 1999, it became phenomenal. People who had seen it were in awe and confused because they had not seen anything like this before. People who had not seen it by that time were persuaded vehemently to do so. The audience could not figure out whether it is a fiction film or just reality. Overnight the ‘Found Footage’ genre that was barely existed became a huge hit. What made it possible? There is no doubt about the credibility of the film. However, a unique online film marketing campaign was also there behind the success. Despite the modern deeper pocket in today’s film industry, it remained the third highest return of investment of any independent film could ever achieved. Not only the ‘found footage’ genre, The Blair Witch Project also launched online film marketing in Hollywood at the beginning of the 21st Century.
Online Film Marketing
With numerous social media channels ready to be utilized, it is difficult to imagine a time when there were no Facebook, YouTube or Twitter to help us out with our little marketing projects. It is almost as difficult as to imagine a cell-less world! When Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchecz started marketing their film The Blair Witch Project back in 1999, they had no such advantages like twitting about it or creating a Facebook page. Creating a website for a film was also quite new at that time and that is exactly what they did. But, let us dive into the story line of the film first before going into the marketing strategies of it in detail as these two go hand in hand in this case.
The Blair Witch Project shows the fate of three student filmmakers, Heather Donahue, Michael C. William and Joshua Leonard, as they go to explore and document a local legend known as Blair Witch in the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland in 1994. They disappear mysteriously. However, their footages (whatever they managed to shot) were found after one year and that is what we see as The Blair Witch Project.
The actors did hike in the Black Hills for days and they were made to eat less and rest less in order to make the acting look real. Most of the time the director duo Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick were not present in the ‘set’. The actors had to improvise the rough sketch of the script a lot as per the situations they were facing. They did not actually have a clear idea about the endgame of the project. Thus, the ‘found’ footages looked so authentic in the film.
The film’s final image is an ultimate movie moment one could never forget. Heather Donahue’s infamous panic-stricken, on-camera snot-drippage was too real to be acting for the audience.
The Blair Witch Project adopted the transmedia storytelling idea for its marketing. The content of the film/story was as such that the producers understood an audience involvement was necessary. They knew that the audience would want to involve. So they provided additional information to their website www.blairwitch.com. They talked about the legend itself. Then there was information about the actors. They posted crime scene photos like their abandoned car, tapes and photos of police searches etc. There were interviews of cast and crews. This additional information created enough hype for the audience to go and watch the film.
On the other hand, Artisan Entertainment, who bought the film after the successful Sundance premiere, comprehended that the website had to be the main platform for their marketing campaign. They spent almost 1 million dollars for promotion six months before the release of the film.
The most unusual of the strategies was the missing persons poster/ leaflets created for the actors. Not only that, the producers created fake IMDb accounts for them so that the posters and the campaign that the actors are missing, look authentic. Basically, Haxan Films (the original producer of the film) and Artisan Entertainment were more than successful to create a chilling buzz about the film that it is real and not ‘shot’. They avoided mainstream device of film ads, which resulted in the audience believing that this is something special and they just got to witness it.
The Success Story
On the opening weekend July 1999, Artisan took out a full-page ad in Variety Magazine, simply noting the website and the number of hits to date: 21,222,589. It was a simple but an unavoidable call to action. Moreover, the film was released only in 27 screens, which created an impression that it is difficult to get a ticket, and therefore, made the film more alluring. The rest is history.
Unique Marketing tips to be learned from The Blair Witch Project
Let us look back to the marketing campaign of The Blair Witch Project and try to learn from it.
Originality of the film as well as of the idea of the campaign. To use the story line of a local witch myth and serve it as a reality to the potential audience was exceptional. The fabricated stories about the actors going missing or the myths that were presented in the website were a huge successes only because the Internet was not a household sensation at that time. Making the most out of a new medium was the biggest strength of the campaign.
Attention to the detail:
The film fed off the myth by convincing that whatever was captured actually happened. Months before the release, a website was created where people could read about the history of the myth, local legends, journal entries and fake newspaper cuttings of missing people ads. They went on to the point where they made fake IMDb entries for the lead actors as ‘missing or presumably dead’.
Telling over selling:
The filmmakers focused on the story itself and did not try to sell it. They just let the story unfold and that story did all the magic by itself. The filmmakers banked on the mysterious plot of the film and spilled that in right amount on the Internet little by little. At the end, the film marketed itself.
No need to spill everything at once:
Although there were a lot of information available on the website of The Blair Witch Project, they never really told anything concrete about the film. The storyline dealt with supernatural, uncertainty and fear of the dark (realistic darkness encountered in to a wood or inside of an abandoned house as well as the dark side of human psyche). The marketing campaign went hand in hand with these themes so that the imagination can play a bigger role in audience’s mind.
Now, 15 years after Hollywood’s debut in online film marketing, if anybody tries to recreate the marketing magic of The Blair Witch project, they might not become successful. That would be because of the abundance of social media networks that are available in our fingertips these days. We do not have to search for news now; news finds us. With one single click people would have known that the missing people’s pamphlets or IMDb accounts of the actors were fictitious, made up, for the sake of marketing. However, that does not make the campaign any less innovative. On the contrary, this is the most important lesson one must learn from it: to be original and creative and to make use of a new medium if anything is available in front of us.