15 years ago this week film fans were abuzz over the release of a low-budget horror flick that had come from nowhere to take the multiplex by storm.
Shot with a handheld camera and made for a shoestring budget, the film captivated audiences’ imaginations and busted blocks to the tune of a whopping $250million at the box office.
That movie was of course The Blair Witch Project , a film that not only scared the bejesus out of audiences but changed the way they’d experience movies forever.
The brainchild of a trio of student filmmakers, the film is perhaps best remembered for popularising the found footage formula, inspiring an entire sub-genre of cinema that’s still wowing audiences today. But the way in which this magnum opus shaky cam cinema was shot is not The Blair Witch Project ’s most enduring legacy; it was the way in which the movie was marketed that really broke the mould.
After all, the world was a very different place back in 1999. There was no YouTube, there were no smartphones and no social media. You couldn’t poke your friends or Tweet your thoughts to a global audience. Hell you wouldn’t even be able to set up a MySpace account for another four years. Instead traditional marketing was king, and films with the largest advertising budgets, the sharpest trailers or the biggest array of bankable stars reigned supreme at the box office.
So how did a movie with a shoestring budget and a cast of amateurs become the year’s most talked about movie?
If the devil’s greatest trick was convincing people that he didn’t exist, then The Blair Witch Project ’s was fooling the public into believing that it did. For months building up to its release the film fed off of the myth that the events captured on camera had actually happened. The fact that many film fans weren’t familiar with the found footage formula helped of course, but the real magic came in the way the movie was marketed online.
Long before anyone had even coined the term ‘viral marketing’, the filmmakers were using the internet to get audiences to buy into the premise that The Blair Witch Project was a true story. A website was set up (something of a novelty for the time) which enabled audiences to read about the history and the mythology behind The Blair Witch. Filled with legends, journal entries and fake newspaper reports it pushed the idea that the events captured on film had actually happened.
But the filmmakers went further than that. They took to message boards to spread rumours, imposed a media blackout on their stars (who used their real names in the movie) and even doctored their IMDB entries to list them as “missing, presumed dead.” Their efforts were so effective that the cast’s family even received condolence calls from friends.
In essence the filmmakers staged a snuff film, a sleight of hand that ensured audiences were lining up to file into theatres. More importantly however it got people talking about The Blair Witch Project . The movie was everywhere. It graced the front covers of newspapers and magazines, took primetime spots on TV news and was one of the summer’s hottest discussion topics. Not since Orson Welles’ infamous broadcast of War of the Worlds had so many people bought into the idea that a work of fiction had actually occurred.
Unsurprisingly, Hollywood took notice. Found footage pictures were soon everywhere and low budget became the norm for the horror genre. The ‘based on actual events’ shtick also stuck, and today it’s almost impossible to find a frightener that doesn’t cling tenuously to true life. Whilst films like Paranormal Activity, Chronicle and [REC] are perhaps its natural successors, it’s fair to say that the film has left its mark on just about every blockbuster to reach the big screen in the past years since it first landed.
After The Blair Witch Project the internet became the lifeblood of the movie industry. Fast-forward to today, it’s almost impossible to imagine a film being released without the now ubiquitous social media activity, viral-ready videos and steady drip feed of online content. Word of mouth is now key to a movie’s success and viral campaigns, like the one first cooked up by this camcorder classic are the norm.
From big-budget blockbusters like The Dark Knight to Blair Witch acolytes like Paranormal Activity , studios are harnessing the power of viral marketing to turn movies into mega hits at the multiplex. And whilst the methods have evolved a little since 1999 the result is still the same, and the ever-increasing box office takings of modern movies is a testament to the techniques that The Blair Witch Project first developed a decade and a half ago.
Marketing Case Study: “The Blair Witch Project”
Posted by Roger Darnell · 4 Comments
By Roger Darnell
..Challenge.. From all reports, the feature film (and marketing) phenomenon that is known as “The Blair Witch Project” began with a group of dedicated, talented and resourceful filmmakers who were intent on using every asset at their disposal to make a successful film under their banner of Haxan Films. Cash was scarce among those assets, but by applying their passion, knowledge and capabilities, the group earned themselves a spectacular distribution deal with a Hollywood maverick, Artisan Entertainment, which fully appreciated the viral marketing strategy and execution that had led to their deal. With approximately $35,000 invested in the film by the time Artisan got involved, the distributor used an estimated $1.5 million to complete the extraordinary viral campaign – and to take it mainstream. Also, as the film opened, Artisan’s team intentionally limited the number of theaters where the film debuted, spurring demand and sustaining solid buzz for a horror film that is universally admired for its uncommon success.
..Approach.. Though the source of the idea behind their film remains something of a mystery, the Haxan group, including co-writers, directors and editors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, honed-in on their premise and began laying the foundation for their success over two years before their film began appearing in theaters. Together with their producing partners, they focused on their own passions and experiences, realizing that each had a fascination with unexplained phenomena which held a great promise for dramatic engagement within the groups of people that they could collectively reach, influence and (hopefully) incite into action. So, they carefully crafted a tale about three film students mysteriously dying in the woods, and with references to a legend about a Blair Witch, seeded the topic in popular internet-based discussion boards focused on independent film and horror-related topics, before eventually launching their own detail-laden website. The team kept their poker faces and shrewdly continued playing what cards they had, leveraging the connection with indie film pundit, Sundance Film Festival Committee member and host of a popular Independent Film Channel program John Pierson, to have him screen some supposedly “found” footage on his program and encourage viewers to discuss it on his website. When their film was slated for a midnight screening at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival’s premiere, the team plastered the venue city in advance with stickmen (part of the film’s occult mythology) and posters of the “missing” filmmakers. An exclusive article on the film also graced the cover of the Sundance edition of Filmmaker magazine. The first sold-out screening led to an all-night business session with Artisan’s representatives, and by morning, the Haxan team had themselves a deal. Over the months that followed, Artisan picked up the well-conceived marketing plan, infused it with money, and carried it forward in high fashion. First, the original website was expanded with new content. Next, the distributor eschewed advance reviews by film critics, instead rolling the film out on a 40-college tour nationwide, where campuses received the advance poster and stickman treatment to pump-up intrigue within the core audience. A murky “mockumentary” was also produced, which was promoted heavily and then screened on the SciFi Channel on the eve of the film’s theatrical debut. Finally, after taking these other steps to build the viral campaign to a crescendo, Artisan launched a staggered, cross-media campaign toward 17 to 28-year-olds who surf the net, using the web as the primary medium until the week of release and then using cable TV, independent weeklies and radio to promote the film. Only after its first week in release did Artisan begin running broadcast spots and ads in major newspapers.
..Results.. During its 17-week theatrical run which began in the summer of 1999, “The Blair Witch Project” became the most profitable horror film in history, earning over $140 million domestically and $240 million worldwide, while also smashing the record for the average per-screen theater take, which was previously held by none other than George Lucas’ “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.” With its box office coup, the team behind the film was lauded for delivering the world’s first successful internet marketing campaign for a feature film, and they also prompted a far-reaching shakeup within an industry obsessed with big name talent and huge budgets. The film won the 1999 Cannes Film Festival’s Foreign Film Award of Youth, its producers Robin Cowie, Gregg Hale and Michael Monello won the Producers Guild of America’s Nova Award for Most Promising Producer in Theatrical Motion Pictures, and the marketing campaign took home the Golden Trailer Awards’ Best Trailer prize for 1999. Despite the undeniable financial, business and critical accomplishments of the film, many consider that the key ingredient in its success was in the filmmakers’ brilliance in effectively and intelligently engaging their core audience in a compelling experience years before they ever began promoting their film.
Now in its third decade of developing highly successful marketing, PR and media strategies, the Darnell Works Agency is the go-to PR firm for creative agencies, brands and entertainment ventures. Offering unmatched writing talent and inside media-expertise, agency principal Roger Darnell sets his clients apart atop their industries. Already central to billions of positive media impressions worldwide, the agency’s collaborations with leading business executives and media luminaries continue soaring to new heights.
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Posted on 06.12.06 · Tagged with Advertising, Business, Case Study, Content Production, Creative Resources, Creativity, Directors, Entertainment, Entrepreneurs, Filmmaking, High Tech, Innovation, Inspiration, interactive advertising, Marketing, Media Relations, Optimism, Originality, Productivity, Research, Science, Social Networking, Storytelling, Strategy, Sundance, Talent, Tips