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Debra Goldman's Consumer Republic

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Blair Witch's fame rests on keeping reality at bay
Last weekend, when The Blair Witch Project opened in 500 more theaters, the slow-build marketing strategy that is the envy of Hollywood came to its triumphant conclusion.
What began last year as a handful of bits and bytes of insider cybergossip is now in the ticket-buying hands of the masses. Primed by many months of hearing about the "found" footage of three filmmakers who went into the Maryland woods to document a legend about a witch and were never seen again (think Hansel and Gretel with a camcorder and the F-word), half the audience will come out of the theater wondering what all the fuss is about. But never mind.
At this stage of the game, anti-hype is as useful a marketing tool as 10,000 chat-room testimonies to "the scariest movie ever made."
Like a flash of lightening on a dark and stormy night, The Blair Witch Project reveals the outline of the "ain't it cool" food chain from which state-of-the-art hits are made. This information ecosystem begins in the boundless deep of cyberspace, which harbors the plankton of cult devotion. In turn, insider enthusiasm feeds the Sundance Film Festival rumor mill, which nourishes interest in the movie's official Web site, which is then devoured by the omnivorous mainstream media that dishes out must-see red meat to the patrons of every small-town multiplex in the country.
Distributor Artisan Entertainment likes to brag that it spent a "mere" $15 million to market the movie. This might be pocket change compared to the TV money being pumped into The Sixth Sense, but it's still a lot to spend on a film produced for $60,000. Especially since it's been said that the publicity for the movie was generated free of charge by devoted fans.
But was this electronic word-of-mouth real? Although Artisan strenously denies it, longtime Hollywood observers say it wouldn't be the first movie distributor to lure MTV fans with phony postings from phantom enthusiasts. Or to paraphrase The New Yorker cartoon dog; on the Internet, no one knows you are a marketer.
On the other hand, the same ethos of Internet self-empowerment that encourages consumers to act as their own doctors, lawyers, travel agents, stockbrokers and merchants encourages them to be marketers, too.
"Let's sell those theaters out on opening weekend see it several times. Get lines forming around buildings. We must do this, people!" urged Jeff Johnsen, keeper of The Blair Witch Project Web site, before the premiere.
Is this the ventriloquism of a distributor, campaigning for must-have boffo opening-weekend grosses? Or is it real-life enthusiasm of some cyberschlub with too much time on his hands, aching to play a role in entertainment history?
It's not only impossible to tell, it may not matter.
Every aspect of The Blair Witch Project raises the question, "Is it real?" And the answer is always the same: "No." Start with the film itself, which requires its audience to suspend disbelief over a bottomless chasm of improbabilities. (Someone running in terror for her life is going to drag along an operating camera? Please.)
Then there's the "mockumentary" concept, which dresses a made-up story in the real-life data of police reports and eyewitnesses--and does it so well there are probably thousands out there who believe there is a legend of the Blair Witch, and a few who are convinced of the existence of the murderous crone herself. Still, I can understand why a believer might obsess about dark doings in the Maryland woods.
Far more telling are the fans who know the whole set-up is fake and yet make a beeline from the Web to the movie theater and back again, the better to understand what "really" happened in that house in the forest.
The Blair Witch Project, by the way, is a pretty scary movie--and not just for teens, either. To the contrary, it traffics in terrors that rattle the reptilian brain of Homo sapiens of all ages: the fear of being lost in the woods, alone in the dark, prey to the things that go bump in the night.
I suspect for the over-30 crowd (which was half the audience at the showing I attended) that "It's only a movie," as the old horror-film trailers used to exclaim.
But "Is it real?" is a burning question for The Blair Witch Project's teen target. As every market researcher will tell you, the young are looking for authenticity. They are an audience whose brand is "truth," as the Crispin Porter & Bogusky anti-tobacco campaign famously has it. Or to quote the Levi's ads, they're seeking "what's true." What's curious is where they are finding it.
In a world where no one can tell a real fan from a marketing ploy, The Blair Witch Project's open fakery gives its audience permission to believe.