The Blair Witch Project, a transmedia reference ?
by Olivier Godest, published on 10.03.2011
We often look for a reference project in terms of transmedia storytelling. It’s hard to find this rare gem that mixes different media, independently of one another; relying on participation and interaction; all of this with a limited budget and a success story.
It would seem that this reference could very well be a film that came out more than 10 years ago: The Blair Witch Project.
Cleverly mixing fiction and reality, the film’s crew had fun exploiting the specific qualities of each media to better immerse us into their universe.
On October 21st 1994, three cinema students disappear in a forest near Burkittsville in Maryland as they’re filming a documentary on the Blair Witch.
A year later, their video footage is discovered on the site of their disappearance…it’s the film projected to the audience: “The Blair Witch Project”.
But is this found video the re-transcription of a real documentary or a fiction ? Are these three students really dead ?
Horror film – 86 minutes
Promoting the release of the film in theatres by playing on the ambiguity of the “real/fake documentary” to anchor the audience’s feeling of fear.
January 25th 1999 : The film is presented for the first time during the Sundance film festival.
July 16th 1999: First theatrical release in the US (27 theatres)
A website is dedicated to the film also exists (it presents the “Blair Witch file” in a realistic way and purposefully plays on the ambiguity: “is it a film or a real documentary?”)
July 30th 1999: Amazing success of the film, particularly thanks to viral marketing developed on the Internet.
National release on the whole American territory (800 theaters in the second week, 1 100 in the third)
A marketing strategy at the heart of the system
The success of the “Blair Witch Project” heavily relies on the Internet site developed in parallel. The idea of this platform was to suggest that the film was the re-transcription of a real event. We are indeed talking about the “suggestion” and not a “lie”. At no time did the crew of the film say that it wasn’t a fiction…but they let the doubt float.
Eduardo Sanchez, the director of the film, had thought about this system beforehand, he imagined this site as the last link of the Blair Witch “experience”.
After its first presentation in January 1999, during the Sundance film festival, the film prepared its release in 27 theatres in the US. At that time, no poster, no advertisement, but a 15 000$ budget to create a website: www.blairwitch.com
The crew of the film then worked with Artisan Entertainment, a small distribution company. The marketing director, John Hegemen, didn’t have an advertizing budget so he decided to rework the Internet site created by the directors.
More and more spectators went to see the film, the directing style was surprising (over the shoulder, intimate camera, minimal image treatment, we really felt like we were discovering the “real” film of these three students). This original way of filming intrigued audiences, rumors began on the internet (a very efficient media for this, since the information that circulates there is not controlled): “Finally…is it really a fiction?”
Some said they could confirm that the images of the film were taken from real documents, the three students really did exist…collective imagination is often more powerful than we can imagine !
To find answers to these questions, one of the audience’s privileged destinations was, of course, the Blair Witch site, where they discovered a series of fake elements of proof echoing the film. Nothing was presented as real proof, but it fed the rumor.
Nice evolution ! We were not on a promotional website but truly in a continuation of the narrative universe. The website contained police reports, excerpts from one of the character’s diary or an interview of the mourning parents. Each week, new elements were added to the website. Expectations were stirred up, online discussions were going strong and the audience enjoyed working up their imagination.
The rumor increased! Those who didn’t see the film started hearing about it more and more, word of mouth started to spread. Two weeks later, the “Blair Witch” phenomenon had taken over the US, it came out on the whole territory.
The website of the film experienced audience peaks of up to 3 million connections a day and it registered more than 75million visits…
To wrap things up, the distribution company, Artisan, managed to sign a deal with the Science Fiction channel (The Sci Fi Channel) to help finance the “Curse of the Blair Witch”, another fake documentary. This one didn’t have dialogue or cost very much, it was created by the two directors from their location scouting footage. Airing the evening before the film’s release, this documentary beat all the channel’s audience records.
One of the first examples of Community Management applied to a movie
To find its audience, the film’s crew played on the illusion of reality. The directing style led us to believe that the three students really existed and they really created this “documentary”.
The website maximized that impression by showing annex documents, intended to reinforce a truncated version of the truth (the film was never “officially” presented like a real documentary).
The rumors created by this ambiguity started a word of mouth effect, feeding online discussions, communities started forming to find answers to these questions. The media chain took hold of the phenomenon, creating a powerful echo.
We also discovered the first steps of community management around the film’s release. The “Blair Witch” crew began by targeting the witchcraft community on the Internet. Its members appropriated themselves the concept, and didn’t hesitate to develop a network of online links leading to the official Internet website, today, we would talk about a very efficient natural referencing strategy.
A few punctual operations were also developed on American campuses, destined for students, through the exhibition of “found objects” or the distribution of flyers to find the three missing students.
Mixed reactions but the results are there
The reaction of the audience was mixed: some said it was genius, others denounced scandalous marketing. But the objective aspect of this article and hindsight allow for a less passionate analysis, overall, the “Blair Witch Project” was a real success.
Nobody is unanimous, but, in this age of Internet, wouldn’t the worst thing for a film be to create nothing but indifference? The” Blair Witch” crew made a real coup in the film industry (65 000$ production costs for 140 000$ box office revenue during the summer of 1999, a return on investment that had never been seen before).
The management of the online community was also a success (communities engaging in the promotion of the film, fans creating numerous sites to resolve the film’s mysteries).
More traditional media also participated in its success, relaying the “buzz” and rounding out a well thought out system by reaching a mass audience, led by a more targeted audience; success feeding success.
One of the answers to “where is the border that allows us to play between reality and fiction” is probably right here: interrogation and doubt are often much stronger than the answers that we can bring to them. And there lies the whole difficulty between hiding the truth, lying and playing on the ambiguity at stake.
In the case of a horror film like this one, the gratification for the audience also comes from this ambiguity that multiplies the feeling of fear (which is often the goal in this type of film) if spectators let themselves get carried away by the idea that all this “might be” true.
Nowadays, nobody is surprised by the idea of a website linked to the promotion of a Hollywood film, but the strategy of the “Blair Witch” crew is still ahead of many recent productions. Why ? Because Eduardo Sanchez and Artisan Distribution thought of the marketing system as a prolongation of the initial narrative: less intrusive, more impacting and mostly, more engaging for a thrill seeking audience.« We had created this whole mythology and I just kept massaging it and building more details into it. Really for us, it wasn’t about creating this whole new way of marketing films – people are on the web asking about this movie, how else are we going to get it to them ? » Eduardo Sanchez © BBC News
Today, a part of the Blair Witch crew has created a marketing agency called Campfire…I strongly suggest taking a look at their work if you don’t already know about it!
The facts are there, the success of the film no longer has to be proven. We can conclude that the audience was rather satisfied by the Blair Witch experience; even if though there was also a lot of dissention (which is not always a bad thing), it remains a film that undoubtedly left its mark.
The Blair Witch project has a lot of points in common with The Last Broadcast, a Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler project that came out in 1998. But we can also think of Cannibal Holocaust, shot in 1978. The format is also a fictional documentary. The marketing of the film was based on the real of fictional disappearance of the film’s journalists (back in the day, the director was even accused of having filmed real murder scenes).
The format had already existed, but it also inspired many films such as Rec or Cloverfield.
Ingenuity of the system
If we compare it with today’s means, the online strategy wasn’t very expanded. But it remains very clever. Development of the website for 15 000$ (very little for the time), more than 75 000 visits, a amazing result, especially for 1999. A community management strategy that was limited but precise, to create a base of ambassadors, who were the spearheads of the film’s promotion (referencing, link exchange, word of mouth, etc)
ROI (Return on Investment)
65 000$ production costs, 140 million $ box office revenue during the summer of 1999. Who can do better?