A little tidbit about the movie distribution business, January has been used by the movie theater industry as a kind of “dumping ground” for movies that studios don’t know what to do with market-wise – the kind that are aren’t easy to categorize or were lumped into an acquisition deal for another studio. Maybe they don’t have an A-list cast or an advertising budget. Whatever the reason, if you’ve ever watched a horror flick in a theater in January, chances are it got the short end of the distribution stick.
So how does an independent horror film, made by some college kids with a meager $35,000 budget and unknown actors take the movie industry by storm and turn a whole subgenre of horror into an international phenomenon?
They do what best horror films do – scare the sh!t of the audience.
Better still, scare ‘em months before the movie even gets to theaters.
Case in point: The Blair Witch Project, a fictional story involving three college students who travel to the woods of Maryland to film a documentary about a local legend and go missing. Years later, the make-believe footage is discovered, which is the movie itself.
Well before this now benchmark found footage movie made it to theaters, the PR campaign was already becoming er, “legendary”. This was the still early days of the internet (1999) but already savvy to the medium, filmmakers Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s publicity efforts included a website that took the novel approach of treating their film’s subject and its characters as real events and people (one of the earliest examples of viral marketing). They created fake police reports, fake news articles, fake everything – all made to look as if the events that took place in the film really happened.1 There was even a message board and chat rooms (remember, this stuff was new then!) where fans could converse about the film and it’s then possibly reality.2 It’s work of reputation management genius – and still online!
It didn’t stop there – just days prior to the film’s release, SyFy (then SciFi Channel) aired a “special”, The Curse of the Blair Witch, as – get this – a faux documentary to promote the fake found footage movie!3 Millions bought into it, and many of them believed the web material and fake doc were the real deal. Before anyone had actually seen the film, The Blair Witch Project was bona fide phenomenon. Word-of-mouth was working for them, and the media was also helping propagating the movie sensation and its groundbreaking publicity push:
New York Daily News: ‘The Blair Witch Project’ is truly creepy: 1999 review
The Guardian: Who’s afraid of Blair Witch?
And how’s this for predicting the future:
Chicago Tribune: `BLAIR WITCH’ PROCLAIMED FIRST INTERNET MOVIE
So, was this a PR win for the film?
I’d say the box office speaks for itself:
This little movie about a witch grossed approximately $29 million in its first week and went on to earn $250 million worldwide.4
Blair Witch continued with two sequels, inspired countless parodies and imitations, and kicked the found footage subgenre into overdrive.
You might say that Edwardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick “hyped” a movie. But no, where a marketing agency would have likely gone the standard route, creating posters and 30-second ads, these two gentlemen went miles above and beyond – they built a whole reputation in the form a legend for their film. And it succeeded so well in large part because of their pioneering communication strategies. They utilized message boards and chat rooms – the channels their audience lived back in the day – the earliest forms of social media.
Sure, their “brand” happened to a be make-believe witch, but when it came time to deliver the scares, the audience had already been lined up for months.
JOTO PR Disruptors is in the business of reputation-building. Make sure your customers are always know and trust you well before you launch that new product or service – your marketing team will thank you. Contact us for a complimentary Anti-PR™ evaluation today.
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- MediaHQ, 26 October 2017, “4 horror movie marketing stunts.” mediahq.com/best-horror-movie-marketing-stunts/.
- Paul, Andrew. “Before The Blair Witch Project hit theaters, a TV special reinforced its ingenious deception.” AV Club, 09 July 2019, film.avclub.com/before-the-blair-witch-project-hit-theaters-a-tv-speci-1835852476?_ga=2.194111597.1163842255.1610739998-24018599.1610739998.
- Armitage, Tom. “Greatest Marketing Campaign After 15 Years.” site-seeker, retrieved 15 January 2021, site-seeker.com/blair-witch-project-still-greatest-marketing-campaign-15-years/.
- D’Angelo, Mike. “15 years beyond the hype and hatred of The Blair Witch Project.” Dissolve, 28 October 2014, thedissolve.com/features/movie-of-the-week/800-the-blair-witch-project-15-years-beyond-the-hype-a/.