Filmmakers’ strategy puts the Internet in the starring role.
The mythmakers of Hollywood are supposed to be the masters of illusion. But it took a “mockumentary” with no budget and no backing from big-name studios–but a killer Web site–to show them what mythmaking and smart marketing really is all about.
Heard the joke about the two filmmakers who went into the woods with three unknown actors and a couple of hand-held cameras–and came out with $140 million in box office plus an ongoing horror franchise complete with sequels, videos, licensed merchandise and even comic books? We bet you have. The hype over The Blair Witch Project has become so pervasive that such cultural barometers as MTV and Saturday Night Live have taken to parodying the endless parodies of the little indie that could.
Though the buzz finally is dying down, Blair Witch continues to scare the hell out of the conservative marketing community in Hollywood. Why? While it’s now clear that Blair Witch was the first mega-hit born in cyberspace, it won’t be the last. And Hollywood marketers are scrambling to figure out if guerrilla marketing on the Web is a blessing or a curse.
“This film has shown motion-picture marketers the power of the Internet,” says Michael Wolf, author of Entertainment Economy and a consultant at Booz Allen & Hamilton in New York. “They’ve realized that an audience can have an experience with a film without even going to the movie itself.”
With the Web now acting as a kind of “national water cooler” for movie talk, as one industry expert puts it, the Internet can make or break new releases. If fans like a film, they act as “viral marketers,” spreading the buzz through positive word of mouth. Take Universal Pictures, one of the first beneficiaries of the post-Blair Witch environment. More than a month before the release of its romantic comedy The Best Man, fans who attended early screenings started sending out electronic chain letters praising the film. The Best Man quickly became one of the sleeper hits of the fall.
On the other hand, these days nothing can kill a so-so film faster than Web surfers firing off scathing e-reviews to friends or ripping the flick on any number of Web sites. Either way can set off a chain reaction. The result? Across the board, studio marketers are re-examining their Web strategies for 2000. As Wolf says: “Marketing on the Web is not a sure-fire tactic for success. But it’s becoming a necessary element in the marketing of any motion picture.”
Blame it on The Blair Witch Project. Was the premise original and groundbreaking? Sure. But experts say it was the innovative use of the Internet by directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez and studio Artisan Entertainment that first turned a grainy $35,000 flick into one of the most talked-about films in years. How did they do it? The Blair Witch team struck gold by flipping the standard movie marketing approach on its head and making the Internet the primary marketing tool rather than a secondary medium.
For the first time, the Web site was more of a destination and more entertaining–in some people’s minds–than the film itself. Rather than throwing up a Web site as an afterthought, the makers of Blair Witch made it their first priority. Rather than pushing the film with traditional advertising and promotions, they banked on word-of-mouth viral marketing on the Web. Rather than playing it safe and not messing with success, they kept updating it to keep rabid fans coming back for more.
If you think that means the film was an extension of the Web site rather than the other way around, congratulations. You’ve hit on the secret of Blair Witch’s success, according to the mastermind of the movie’s marketing effort. “Everything we did–including the movie itself–fed off the Web site,” says John Hegeman, Artisan’s executive vice president of worldwide marketing.
Give the indie studio high marks for smarts. But as Artisan home entertainment marketing chief Naomi Pollock notes, “Blair Witch was living and breathing in cyberspace” before it even had a distributor. Florida filmmakers Myrick and Sanchez were savvy enough to start the buzz in June 1998 by posting a spooky Web site that presented the disappearance of student filmmakers Heather, Mike and Josh in the Maryland woods as fact rather than fiction. Impressed with the idea, Artisan rolled the dice at the Sundance Film Festival and snapped up The Blair Witch Project for $1.1 million in January.
At the time, Artisan’s big-studio colleagues (some of who walked out on the screening) thought it was a mistake. The only thing scary about Blair Witch, riffed one competitor, was its price tag. Artisan executives, however, saw the potential in the raw, unpolished product. They went to work to beef up the quality of both the film and the Web site and ended up enjoying the last laugh.
A NEW URBAN MYTHOLOGY
The indie studio’s first move was to relaunch the Web site on April Fool’s Day. The new and improved site, which featured fake police reports, photos and the dark 200-year history of the Blair Witch herself, successfully created a new urban mythology. Of course, the whole thing was fiction. But the pseudo-documentary feel of the site hooked Web surfers who liked the idea of discovering something. “Most people use the Internet as a promotional tool to provide information about a movie,” Hegeman says. “We used it as a tool to establish the Blair Witch phenomenon. On the Internet, it’s easy to establish your own reality. That’s what makes it so much fun.”
As the buzz built through the spring, Artisan continued its Internet-first strategy. It screened the film at 40 college campuses around the country, and Web-savvy students spread the gospel on the Internet. Instead of breaking Blair Witch’s first trailer on Entertainment Tonight or other traditional TV programs, it chose the hip, movie-focused Ain’t it Cool News Web site. MTV came next, showing a five-minute segment on the film over and over–and prominently displaying the Web site address. As Web fever about the film heated up, Artisan kept surfers coming back for more by adding new links every week and teasing visitors with coming attractions. “A lot of studios create a Web site, people visit once and that’s it,” notes Hegeman.
Another thing that drew visitors to the Web site was its documentary-style feel and the absence of any movie hard-sell. Speaking about the film’s young Web-surfing audience, Hegeman observes: “They are very sharp, they know when they are being fooled and their b.s. antenna are always up. But they embraced this as a multimedia event because they were privy to it before anybody else.”
By the time Artisan broke a traditional advertising campaign in early July to support the film’s July 14 release date, the TV and print ads were strictly in a supporting role. The Net had done the job. And it’s still doing it. At press time, blairwitch.com had logged more than 180 million hits and 20 million unique visitors. If those numbers aren’t enough of an eye-opener, consider this: Artisan spent a paltry $1.5 million on the early stages of its Web promotional campaign and about $25 million in total marketing costs–less than half of what large studios typically throw behind blockbuster releases.
Movie marketers are starting to digest the lessons, say experts. For one thing, Blair Witch has become a road map for reaching young movie fans via the Web and appropriate media choices. “Two entertainment properties have changed the way TV networks and motion picture studios think about the Internet: Blair Witch and South Park,” says Wolf. “They now realize the need to advertise on places like MTV.”
Another lesson for marketers? The Web is one of the only places left where it’s the idea that matters, not the budget. Blair Witch’s meager budget proves a little goes a long way in cyberspace. “The Internet levels the playing field,” says Hegeman. “Creativity and ingenuity mean more than money.”
TRICK OR TREAT
When Artisan geared up for the home video/DVD release of Blair Witch, it continued to do things differently. The studio scheduled the launch for Oct. 22, close on the heels of Blair Witch’s summer success, to capitalize on Halloween. Rather than arranging tie-ins with blue-chip marketers–such as a major beer company, which the studio reportedly turned down–Artisan chose to link up with youth-oriented brands like Skechers. Artisan also is offering fans offbeat prizes like a trip to Sundance, an internship at the studio and a “trip for three” to the film’s Burkittsville, Md., location–video camera included. “We didn’t want to do a tie-in with Burger King. That would not be Blair Witch,” says Pollock.
Once again, marketing support is modest–Artisan’s total marketing budget is in the $10 million-$20 million range. But the studio expects to sell 6 million-10 million copies of the video and DVD versions of the film as the Blair Witch flywheel continues to turn, says Pollock. Blair Witch quickly has become the No. 1 seller on both platforms, according to Artisan. The film has opened in the United Kingdom, where it is breaking box office records, and now is opening throughout the world.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Blair Witch might be the most imitated film since Gone with the Wind. It’s impossible to keep track of the various parodies that have popped up on the Web and TV in just a few short months. Even Artisan executives have their favorites. Hegeman likes The Blair Warner Project, a spoof that purportedly reveals the whereabouts of the snooty blonde from the ’80s sitcom The Facts of Life.
While the filmmakers and Artisan are working on a sequel for next fall (which they decline to discuss), the Blair Witch team has yet to go after any of the companies lampooning its franchise. Why? Maybe the team realizes that the participatory nature of the Internet is what made Blair Witch a success to begin with. So why buck the trend? “Our attitude is: Great, go for it,” says Pollock. “The Internet is all about free speech.”
Successful as it’s been, however, the Blair Witch approach isn’t appropriate for every film. Part of its success is due to the fact that the product and the medium in this case fit together perfectly. “This probably won’t change the marketing of the big blockbuster movies,” says Pollock, “but there won’t be a single film from now on where the head of the studio won’t ask, ‘So what’s our Internet strategy?’ ” n
From Florida film school project to phenomenon, The Blair Witch Project (TBWP) and the Web have been intertwined. Here are some key dates:
AUGUST 1997: TBWP first is mentioned on the Independent Film Channel’s Split Screen show.
JUNE 1998: Filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez post the TBWP Web site.
JAN. 16, 1999: Harry Knowles mentions TBWP on his Ain’t it Cool News Web site.
JAN. 23: After screening at Sundance Film Festival, Artisan Entertainment buys film from Myrick and Sanchez’ Orlando, Fla.-based Haxan Films for $1.1 million
APRIL 1: Artisan relaunches blairwitch.com Web site. The updated site features “outtakes” from discovered film reels, the “back story” on missing film students and a history of the Blair Witch legend. As spring progresses, Artisan screens film at 40 colleges in top 20 markets.
APRIL 2: First TBWP trailers appear on Ain’t it Cool News rather than traditional TV programs. Screen savers sent to 2,000 journalists.
MAY 19: Second trailer appears on MTV. TBWP debuts at Cannes film festival.
JUNE 11: Third trailer, a 40-second teaser, appears before Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.
JUNE 23: First ads appear in alternative weeklies.
JULY 1 – 9: 75,000 promotional pamphlets handed out. Ads begin appearing in mainstream papers. Radio ads start airing. Comic book is released.
JULY 12: Sci-Fi Channel airs a one-hour promo featuring outtakes from flick. The special sets ratings records and is repeated a half-dozen times.
JULY 14 – 16: TBWP opens at New York’s arty Angelika Film Center, then at 26 more “downtown” theaters nationwide. Weekend box office is $1.5 million.
JULY 30: TBWP opens wide in 1,101 theaters. Weekend box office figure reaches $29 million.
AUG. 6: Release widens to 2,142 theaters.
AUG. 16: Time and Newsweek feature film on their Aug. 16 covers. The Blair Witch–A Dossier becomes bestseller on Amazon.com. Licensing blitz begins. Box office tops $100 million.
OCT. 22: Home video and DVD of TBWP released. Box office hits $140 million as film expands overseas. Sequel set for fall 2000.