Blair Witch and the Rise of Viral Movie Marketing

We take a look back at the way the web was used to make The Blair Witch Project a hit, and the era of viral film marketing it began...

In October 1997, a small group of young actors and filmmakers emerged from a state park in Maryland with approximately 19 hours of rough, handheld video footage. Those grainy images, edited down to around 90 minutes over the course of eight months, would eventually become The Blair Witch Project, a $22,000 movie which went on to make more than $248 million at the box office.

The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first found-footage film ever made, and neither was it the only such film released in the late ’90s. It certainly wasn’t the first piece of American horror to present itself as a true story, either – Edgar Allan Poe was passing tales off as fact in the 19th century. But there was one thing that was new about The Blair Witch Project: its marketing campaign.

Around six months before Blair Witch was first screened at Sundance in January 1998, directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick launched a website, which sketched in the background details of their story: in October 1994, three film students went off to make a documentary about a local legend concerning witches and a child-snatching hermit called Rustin Parr. The students failed to return, and a subsequent police search unearthed only a few clues as to their whereabouts – the most significant find being a buried duffle bag containing various audio tapes and videos, which formed the basis of The Blair Witch Project film. 

After Sanchez and Myrick sold the finished movie to distributor Artisan Entertainment in 1999, the filmmakers continued to update the site with new snippets of information – interviews, bogus news stories, images from the site where the students were said to have disappeared – with Artisan helping to perpetuate the low-key campaign. The site served as a launch pad for a cunningly-woven web of misinformation. The website was plugged on message boards, while entries on IMDb stated that the students behind the film were still missing.

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Gradually, word of these disappearances and the resulting footage spread, with speculation fanned further by Artisan’s refusal to advertise the film conventionally. Footage was shown in colleges. A documentary on the Sci-Fi Channel further blurred the line between fiction and reality. Brief, low-fi teaser trailers showed tantalizing snippets of footage – not least actress Heather Donahue’s terrorised face, an image which would soon become famous. Last, and most importantly, the trailers showed the address for the Blair Witch website.

All told, Artisan spent around $25 million on the campaign, and while news of the film’s hoax status was already beginning to circulate by the time The Blair Witch Project began its general theatrical run in July 1999, the marketing had already done its job. Word of it spread across the internet and seeped into newspapers and TV reports, turning The Blair Witch Project into one of the most talked-about films of the summer.

The film came along at just the right moment in the web’s history. Before the advent of YouTube and social media, the structure of the net in 1999 provided a platform for information to be shared, but not at the speed and efficiency we enjoy today. The Blair Witch Project‘s filmmakers found a way to use the web to their advantage, spreading their mythology at a time when verifying its accuracy was still difficult. In the process, the Blair Witch website racked up millions of hits, forming a community of people eager to see the movie, thus creating a new form of marketing that was as effective, and far cheaper, than traditional forms of advertising and promotion. 

That same year, an article in Entertainment Weekly argued that 1999 was the beginning of a new era in cinema, a point where movies changed forever. It’s certainly arguable that The Blair Witch Project made an extraordinary impact on filmmaking all by itself; its huge success sparked not only a feeding frenzy for more found-footage movies, turning a form of mock documentary filmmaking barely explored before 1999 into a densely-populated horror subgenre of its own, but also kicked off an entirely new way of marketing films.

In the new millennium, publicists began coming up with ever more ingenious ways of using the web to get people talking about their movies. Although few tried to pass their events off as fact, as The Blair Witch Project did, that film nevertheless demonstrated two important points about advertising in the modern age: that it’s possible to build up an entire back story around a movie before a it’s even screened in a cinema, and that if would-be cinema-goers feel as though they’ve stumbled on a piece of information for themselves, they’ll be more likely to talk about it and share it than if they’ve seen it loudly paraded through more conventional media.

To this end, the years since 1999 have been peppered with strange marketing campaigns, some far more successful than others. Films like A.I: Artificial Intelligence and The Da Vinci Code were advertised via a string of websites full of clues and little interactive games. The run-up to the release of 2008’s Cloverfield was marked with a slew of viral websites with only loose links to the film itself; like The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield‘s marketing was designed to create a mythology around Matt Reeves’ found footage monster movie, with a sense of intrigue built through fictional fizzy drinks and sound clips of a roaring monster. 

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These experimental approaches to publicity can sometimes have unforeseen results. A website designed to advertise Roland Emmerich’s disaster movie 2012, purportedly set up by an entity calling itself The Institute for Human Continuity, sparked a series of anxious messages to NASA from people terrified that the world was about to end. Eventually, NASA was forced to set up a website reassuring people that, despite all the rumors, the apocalypse wasn’t scheduled for the year 2012.

The best examples of viral advertising, meanwhile, can sometimes result in short films or pieces of design that are as engaging as the film they’re selling. Christopher Nolan’s Inception was advertised using a brilliantly coy campaign which focused on the film’s fictional ‘mind crime‘ technology rather than its specific events.

Anticipation for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was built up through a superbly-wrought campaign, which included a TED talk from the future, and an extraordinary mock android advert featuring Michael Fassbender’s David 8.

The promotion for X-Men: Days Of Future Past took a similar approach, with one website dedicated to Trask Industries and a campaign devoted to the theory that Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender again) may have been involved in the assassination of John F Kennedy.

These kinds of ‘transmedia’ advertising exercises, which take in social media, websites, images, online games, physical gimmicks and videos, have become such an artform in their own right, they’re almost reaching the point where they’re leaving movies behind altogether. David Cronenberg’s highly unsettling Body Mind Change project, for example, felt like the advertising for a science horror film that doesn’t yet exist. This year’s Deadpool, a superhero movie with a far smaller marketing budget than Fox’s X-Men franchise, romped to box office success thanks in no small part to star Ryan Reynolds’ expertly timed tweets, such as this image of Deadpool lying by a fire. Retweeted more than 50,000 times, it’s viral marketing, Web 2.0 style. 

Although the advent of technology such as smart phones and YouTube has made the online landscape vastly different from what it was in 1999, the impact of The Blair Witch Project is still being felt. The movie paved the way for the Paranormal Activity franchise, a found-footage horror that also had an online campaign to thank for its phenomenal success. Interestingly, director Adam Wingard’s new Blair Witch movie has taken a cunning new approach to keeping its secrets intact while at the same time using social media to drum up interest. Wingard’s horror follow-up was shot under the quietly suggestive title of The Woods, before its true identity was announced with a flourish this summer.

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Predictably, word spread of the new Blair Witch within minutes, creating the kind of fuss that would ordinarily require an enormous and expensive marketing campaign. Blair Witch can’t sell itself as a real story anymore, but it can still use the web to its advantage.

And while not all of these films have been worthy of the hype – 2012’s The Devil Inside took over $100m in cinemas, but made few fans in the process – it’s at least fair to say that the best examples of viral marketing have resulted in some genuinely surprising, exciting bursts of creativity.

Blair Witch is in theaters now.