The Blair Witch Project: The Marketability of Reality

Paper by Sean Gaudefroy.

By 1999 the horror genre had lost its sting, becoming bland with films driven by large budgets that produced generic story lines and previously played out tales of haunted houses. Other genres were taking over using novel ideas of technology with The Matrix(1999), Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace (1999), and psychological thrillers Fight Club(1999) always employing grandiose scenes of action as a main storyline. The Release of The Blair Witch Project marked the first successful high concept film in a new sub genre called “found footage”, and defined a new era of horror film promotion. It paved the road to its own success by focusing on a highly conceptualized novel plot line, using marketing and distribution techniques such as its web and media presence, and a viral concept of true story telling previously unheard of in the industry. These techniques allowed the low budget film to differentiate itself from other Hollywood films and connect with a huge target audience on a more personal level. The film used the perception and seriousness of reality to make a larger impact on the market than their budget would have suggested was possible. The Blair Witch Project(1999) was a highly conceptualized film driven by the viral marketing and distribution of its found footage storyline as non fiction events. This film’s unique creation of horror sub genre, maverick viral marketing techniques, and use of innovative technologies such as the Internet helped it pioneer budget film making, and its cult status as well as replication throughout modern films proves its lasting effect on the film industry.

The late 90s saw the release of many horror films with extravagant budgets, but historically no other film released that year had a greater impact to the market than The Blair Witch Project. Films such as The Haunting, House on a Haunted Hill, and Deep Blue sea were all released in the year 1999 with budgets of 80 million, 19 million, and 60 million respectively.(IMDB) These films lacked the uniqueness presented by The Blair Witch Project’s creation of the new sub genre of “found footage”, which used its “preposterously low budget, and outsider production” as an advantage of showing a different perspective within the genre.(Banash) The Blair Witch Project was shot by amateur actors on sub standard camera equipment using 16mm film, which produced very raw unfiltered imagery. They make no attempt to hide these attributes often referred to as flaws in the industry, having the actors featured slating and covered in sound recording gear. These flaws played into the reality of the film’s new depiction of the genre, and tied the film into the viewers own sense of reality. Its contrast with other horror films such as Candyman(1992) and the Nightmare on Elm Street series'(1984-1991) highly visualized villain portrayal only further proves the assertion that “imagination can be as scary as anything onscreen”.(Rotten Tomatoes) As the distribution chief Steve Rothenburg stated “the timing was right as it came after years of gory horror films which people were getting bored with.”(Gitesh Pandya) The film became a spectacle with audiences, having the novelty of being the first of its kind having many studios recognize that financially “(it) began as a buzz worthy independent film but quickly joined the ranks of the blockbuster club.”(Gitesh Pandya) Looking back on The Blair Witch Project you can see many references on the Internet to its cult following, having a very popular 10 year anniversary release and many movie sales to its credit. The mirrored plot lines of recent movies met with different measures of success such as Paranormal Activity(2007) and Project X(2012) show its lasting effect on the genre movie forward.

The commitment of The Blair Witch Project’s methods of high concept film are characterized by its focus of a simple eerie storyline forgoing character development for reality inspired mystery. In the film industry easily marketable high concept films such as A Nightmare On Elm Street(1984) drive home the benefit of simple exciting plots with one dimensional characters to generate a storyline with a massive audience appeal. The Blair Witch Project not only used these well known high concept attributes, but also simplified other aspects of the film using a script containing only a 35 page outline of the films key scenes.(Roger Cormier) An example of this simplification is seen early in the movie during the brief moments of character introduction. In these scenes we see the main character Heather Donahue referring to the expedition into the forest often and how she would miss the comfort of her home. The writing of the film also benefited from the beginnings of the Blair Witch back story, in which they had a resourceful amount of material to keep the plot fresh and relevant. The biggest example of this film’s high concept roots is the fact that this film’s dialogue was shot almost entirely through improvisation.(Joshua Klein) When speaking of the dialogue Co-writer Eduardo Sanchez stated in an interview that the writers had “left it open so there would be a freedom of improvisation, both for us as filmmakers and for the actors. I think that’s why it looks so real and genuine, and that’s what we were going after”.(Joshua Klein) This made it instantly recognizable, and played into the post theatrical sales. High concept film has always been centered around films with a few key easily understood plot points, and a unique recognizable logo with the opening tag line “In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared into the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found.” The Blair Witch Project was no different. Displaying this information at the beginning of the film makes little sense when you choose to think that the viewer is watching a movie from start to finish only to get a summary at the beginning, but when you realize that this establishing storyline thrusts the film into the viewer’s reality you begin to understand why people were so captivated by this movie.

The Blair Witch Project’s fake non fiction premise and fabricated supporting evidence were marketing tactics derived from previous films, and used to generate media notoriety and viewer interest in the film. During the introduction of the movie we see opening text as referenced earlier, but while researching this technique I found that it was very similar to the opening of cult film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre(1974), in which the text states “The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths…The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” The parallels drawn between the two films are no coincidence since it was widely known that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s fake incident portrayal as fact indeed helped the film gain notoriety. The Blair Witch Project takes these claims to a new level releasing evidence supporting the character disappearances. This evidence is very convincing with footage of the actors so called parents recounting the loss of their children, pictures of character Josh’s abandoned car, an account from an anthropologist on where the footage was found, fake news reports, and pictures of a duffel bag containing the character’s belongings. These fictitious findings were aired on the Sci-Fi channel as a special named “The Curse of The Blair Witch” on the same day as the theatrical release of the film by Artisan Entertainment.(Laura Fries) According to a study of emails done by Google in 1999 after the films release revealed “While the film is hardly ever regarded as nonfiction (only by two participants), the remaining 39 percent are at least temporarily somewhat uncertain as to the film’s ontology. As for the reasons why the film might be nonfiction, the discussants refer most often to information they have gathered from other media products, such as the so-called documentary aired on the Sci-Fi Channel.”(Margrit Schreier) The questions raised by fans gave the film momentum in the box office, generating over four thousand times the films budget in box office ticket sales.(IMDB)

The Internet was the key to The Blair Witch Project’s popularity, using new technology to distribute access to the films back story to audiences across the world, and bringing a sense of media involvement never seen before in film. “It was helped by an intense Internet marketing campaign” said Artisan’s distribution chief Steve Rothenberg when asked why the film had been such a breakthrough success.(Gitesh Pandya) This anecdote was an understatement later elaborated on by critics saying “its addictive web site was credited with building a massive following and subsequently pushing those fans into the seats of theaters and could forever change the way studios look at the Internet as a marketing and sales tool to promote movies.”(Gitesh Pandya) Hosted at the domain www.blairwitch.com the dark and ominous website was created by the films director Eduardo Sanchez and contained four categories labeled Evidence, Search, Interviews, and News. Each of these links led to downloadable pictures, files, and movies viewable with a home computer that was connected to the Internet. With these files the public had exposure resources for involvement in the movie, and this spilled into a huge amount of buzz on the Internet through email communications.(Margrit Schreier) In a study conducted by Google, public newsgroup discussions through email communication were found to have 1,157 relevant emails containing mentions of The Blair Witch Project.(Margrit Schreier) This need for discussion from audiences around the globe fed the hype surrounding the movie and what characterized it as a spectacle and must see event. When looking at present day movies all films register domain names for title promotion and constantly use outlets like Facebook and twitter to reach their target audiences showing The Blair Witch Projects lasting effect on film marketing.

Success at the Sundance Film Festival expedited the movie’s sale to Artisan Entertainment, and stimulated the budget for the films promotion granting it worldwide notoriety. In 1999 movie rights of The Blair Witch Project were sold to Artisan Entertainment who promptly organized a limited release of the film. This release of the film brought 29.2 million dollars in profit which was massive compared to the 1.1 million dollar purchase price and 60,000 dollar estimated budget, selling out theaters that were chosen to show the movie, and Artisan chose to press on with its release worldwide.(IMBD) The film went on to earn 248.6 million dollars at the box office alone, and opened up other streams of revenue including merchandising, movie sales/rentals, and follow-up franchise films.(IMDB) Notoriety of the film never seemed to let up with the prevailing DVD release, making lists such as “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” book by critic Steven Jay Schneider. Cult status of the film made the 10 year anniversary of the film’s original release a big event in 2009 thrown by rights holder Lions Gate Entertainment, and showed the everlasting interest in the film from long time fans and media.

The Blair Witch Project remains relevant because it is a testament to a film that rose from its low budget beginnings into a film that brought fourth new ideas in a way that were independent from the industry giants. In its early stages directors and co-writers Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick set out to make an improvisational short film with a twenty thousand dollar budget and an outlined script of concepts. What came from the over 19 hours of footage created a global controversy and shot their independent film into the ranks of most talked about films. The coincidence of the Internet’s rise in popularity was taken advantage of by Sanchez and famously allowed the film a viral amount of public access and thrilling influence that was so popular that it started its own “found footage” sub genre. Big companies like Paramount attempted to copy its essence in movies with a fleeting amount of success, not able to capture the raw essence of The Blair Witch Project. Regarded as a whole The Blair Witch Project used trailblazing marketing techniques to substantiate its legacy as one of the most aggressively marketed films of all times.

Works Cited

Banash, D. C..”The Blair Witch Project: Technology, Repression, and the Evisceration of Mimesis.” Postmodern Culture 10.1 (1999). Project MUSE. Web. 12 Apr. 2016. .

Tryon, C..”Video from the Void: Video Spectatorship, Domestic Film Cultures, and Contemporary Horror Film.” Journal of Film and Video 61.3 (2009): 40-51. Project MUSE. Web. 1 Apr. 2016. .

Schreier, M..””Please Help Me; All I Want to Know Is: Is It Real or Not?”: How Recipients View the Reality Status of The Blair Witch Project.” Poetics Today 25.2 (2004): 305-334. Project MUSE. Web. 4 Apr. 2016. .

The Internet Movie Database. IMDb.com, Inc, 2016. Web.
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Gitesh Pandya, “Summer 1999 Box Office Wrapup”web.
6 Apr. 2016 .

Rotten Tomatoes. Rottentomatoes.com,Inc, 2016. Web.
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Klein, Joshua (July 22, 1999). “Interview – The Blair Witch Project”web.
10 Apr. 2016. .

Laura Fries, “Review: ‘Curse of the Blair Witch’” web.
13 Apr. 2016.

Roger Coromier, “17 Found Facts About ‘The Blair Witch Project’”web.
10 Apr.2016.

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