Summer 1999. It was 15 years ago when the Blair Witch Project was killing it at the box office, generating buzz and excitement over what we know now as one of the best stunts in movie history.
Although the movie itself may not have turned out as great as all the hype, the Blair Witch Project is considered by some (myself included) as the greatest marketing campaign ever. And even those who might not be willing to give it that high of an honor, at minimum, consider it the ultimate viral marketing campaign and one that was a trailblazer in utilizing the online space.
For those who may not remember the storyline, the Blair Witch Project tells the tail of an urban legend, known as the blair witch, taking place in the woods outside of a remote suburban Maryland town. Three student filmmakers set out on a project to capture footage and prove the truth of the blair witch. However, the students go missing and their recorded footage is found 10 years later, which was supposedly the film used to make the movie. It is recorded with low quality cameras in first person, which adds to the effect that this was truly found footage. After success at the Sundance Film Festival, label Artisan Entertainment bought rights to the film and provided additional dollars for advertising. Here are the five key tactics used to bring about the unbelievable success of the Blair Witch:
Missing Person Leaflets
The main theme behind the Blair Witch Project’s marketing campaign was to establish uncertainly among the public. Every single tactic carried out revolved around stirring confusion among potential movie viewers. Was this really found footage? Were these people really dead? Is this all real or just a scam? No one could get to the bottom of it. Every piece of marketing worked to fuel this fire and interest audiences enough to not only view the film, but to talk about it with friends and challenge the concept of whether it was real, so more people would go see it. The first tactic focused on setting the stage. The Blair Witch team started by spreading rumors about the “student film makers.” They planted stories among the public, passed out missing person leaflets, shared photos from the police reports, and even went as far as having fake news stories written up by small local papers about the missing persons and their whereabouts. This word of mouth marketing was in-line with the key messages and kicked off the campaign.
The website was the most instrumental component of the integrated marketing campaign. All forms of marketing and calls to actions drove audiences to the site. This was 1999, so website surfing was still fairly new to many consumers. The Blair Witch site was very simple and capitalized off the low-budget and homemade concept. It really looked like students put it together. The site was an extension of the storyline, describing in detail, the myth of the blair witch and giving more biographical information on the missing filmmakers. It didn’t “sell” to get users to go see the movie but instead focused on the myth to confuse and scare potential viewers. People saw the movie on their own. The campaign benefitted from two important factors: limitation and timing. The web was a relatively new platform then. But the producers kept adding content over time, adding witchy stories and footage the directors had obtained during filming. And this being a time when the internet was a discovery phase among consumers, it was the perfect moment to capitalize on free publicity via the medium. Although the site was updated a few years ago to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the movie, most of the site resembles the original look and feel. Take a look: blairwitch.com.
Message Boards and Chat Rooms
Think back to 1999. If you had the internet, chances are, you were using AOL and were probably frequenting chat rooms and other online forums. These foundations for what would later become wikis, blogs and social media sites, were where people gossiped, communicated and shared information. The marketers for the Blair Witch knew this and planted seeds in these online rooms about the film. It was an ultra-grassroots move – but in the digital age. They shared the missing person photos and directed visitors to the website. They pretended to be typical online users and stirred up questions about the validity of the film, intriguing fellow chatters. They even manipulated the IMDb records so if you looked up the actors on the site, their bio information listed them as missing and presumed dead! The rumors continued to fly and people became both confused and captivated with the story.
Documentary and Trailer
The trailer was simple. It gave viewers peeks of film but left the rest up to the viewer’s imagination. What’s more important here is that it was not shown in mainstream media outlets, continuing to emphasize the low-budget, low-quality nature of the film. They wanted viewers to think they stumbled across something unknown and share that news with friends. Additionally, through a partnership with the Sci-Fi channel, a mini documentary on the blair witch was put together to demonstrate the realness of the storyline. Even the movie label which purchased the film stayed on track with the campaign’s theme. Artisan refused to advertise the film conventionally and instead showed footage in colleges and niche settings. The teasers featured brief, low-fi trailers with only snippets of footage, along with the Blair Witch website address. Here is the video for the original trailer:
Finally, after opening weekend, the marketing team took out a full page ad in Variety Magazine, a well-known trade publication for the entertainment industry. But the approach was far from traditional. Instead of touting the flick’s impressive opening gross numbers, the copy read: “blairwitch.com: 21,222,589 hits to date.” And with that, Hollywood was introduced to the power of the Web. The ad was in a traditional space but the copy was raw and simple, just like everything about the film, to continue driving people to the website. Plus, the ad focused on the website’s success rather than the film. 21 million hits just after opening weekend. Keep in mind the time period. In early 1999, the internet was only being used regularly by about 190 million users (from Internet Live Stats). That means more than 11% of all internet users visited this single movie website!
Okay, so you’re probably waiting for me to mention ROI. Here goes…
Produced on a shoestring budget of around $25,000, the movie went on to earn almost 10,000 times that amount ($250 million)! It’s the sixth highest grossing independent film, and is the second most successful film of all time in terms of profit. In fact, it only trails behind Paranormal Activity in that category, which actually modeled its “home video” style filming after the Blair Witch Project. Although it no longer holds the top spot today, it does carry a legacy as the first successful venture to use internet marketing, online buzz and virility. It’s undoubtedly one of the greatest marketing campaigns in our history and the granddaddy of (successful) home video style filming.