ON THE WEB, RAGS TO WITCH'S
Unsophisticated 'Blair' Site Built Mystery for Teens
By Shu Shin Luh,
Washington Post, August 19, 1999
In 1958, film director William Castle had audiences for his horror film
"Macabre" looking under their theater seats for electrodes put there to
shock them. Forty years later, the makers of the summer sleeper hit
"The Blair Witch Project" have used a different technology to attract
and goose-bump American moviegoers: the Internet.
Their sensational results - $100 million in box-office receipts in six
weeks-have Hollywood marketers buzzing about how old-school
studios ought to be promoting new-school movies to the young
Back in June 1998, filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
had finished their $35,000 movie about three documentary makers
who disappear in the woods while making a movie about the
18th-century witch in fictional Blair, near the real Burkittsville, Md. But
the movie, and immediate interest from some fellow filmheads, was
just about all they had-they certainly had no distributor, nor the
backing that a big-studio movie has. That's when the former
film-school classmates created an eerie black-and-white Web
site-launched from the site of Haxan Films, their production
company-to get their witch story out there. The site recounted the
legend of the witch-without ever hinting that all of it was bogus.
College-campus screenings and occult-enthusiast chat rooms sent
people to the site and turned it into a Web phenomenon-and the witch
turned into an urban legend-months before the public knew there was
a film. And now, as the documentary style movie fills the theaters
week after week, a new, more sophisticated www.blairwitch.com site
launched by distributor Artisan Entertainment is being used to expand
the story-and the audience-adding new accounts, fake newspaper
clippings and "evidence" of the witch.
"Blair Witch" opened on July 16 in 27 theaters; it's being shown in
more than 2,000 now. But the real numbers may be in the web site: In
June, the site attracted 1.2 million different visitors, making the
Nielsen/NetRatings' Top 50 list for two weeks running, and putting it at
No. 8 for 12-to-17 year olds.
The site attracted older viewers, too, but that coveted 12-to-17 year
old cohort is the group Hollywood is looking to lure. And it consists of
moviegoers who aren't allowed into theaters to see the film without an
adult. Indeed, the movie's "R" rating may even help draw them to the
site, where they can see a stripped-down version of the story told in
photos, sounds and video clips.
"Blair Witch" isn't unusual in having a Web site. Nowadays, just about
every movie has an official site, in addition to "unofficial" ones and
chat rooms created by fans.
But to the major studios, those Web sites are "an asterisk, an
afterthought," according to Mark Borde, co-president of domestic
distribution at independent film distributor Independent Artists Co. in
Los Angeles. The majors focus their promotion on traditional
vehicles-trailers in movie theaters and print and TV advertising.
What's so different about "Blair Witch's" Internet marketing?
While most movie sites treat their movies as finished products,
offering cast photos, biographies and the like, Myrick and Sanchez in
essence re-created their fiction on the site, complete with those fake
newspaper clippings and the "diary" of one of the characters, Heather
Donahue. For all that browsers knew, the mysterious goings-on in
Maryland were true.
And by using Internet, Myrick and Sanchez put their fantasy out there
where their targeted audience-those 12-to-17-year olds-would find it.
Fundamentally, "Blair Witch" relied on the most Neanderthal method
of marketing: word of mouth.
Perhaps the "Blair Witch" Web site can teach the big studios about
grass-roots marketing on the Internet, Borde said.
Said Richard Baskin, co-founder of Intertainer Inc., which provides
videos over the Net using broadband networks: "On the Web, the
word spreads like wildfire."
But other marketing specialists aren't so sure.
"Hollywood learns its lessons very peculiarly. Everything's trendy for a
minute or two," said Eddie Kalish, a marketing consultant for
Ambergate Associates in Santa Monica, Calif., who has worked for
major studios such as Paramount and MGM.
"Blair Witch" appealed to the Generation Xers who grew up with the
Internet, said Allen Weiner, Internet analyst for NetRatings Inc. The
Net may not work in the same way for a movie like "Runaway Bride,"
which has grossed more than $99 million since opening day. It simply
might not find it's audience there, marketers said.
"There's a certain skepticism in the industry of how many people are
on the Net and how many people actually are convinced by it,"
Ambergate's Kalish said. "'Blair Witch' suddenly became an Internet
darling when it might actually just be a quickie that happens from time
Based on Census Bureau data, the Commerce Department has
found that more than 25 percent of American households have
Internet access from home. And an August 1998 study by AC Nielsen
EDI, which tracks box office successes, showed that about half
frequent filmgoers (once or more a month) among the 15,000
respondents were Internet users.
But studios have tried to measure Internet effectiveness by the
number of people who buy their movie tickets from the official Web
site, Buckley said. And that's still a small percent of moviegoers.
The bottom line is that the studios know that traditional venues of
marketing work. Trailers in movie theaters, posters at bus stops,
commercials on television, promotional toys and gadgets by
restaurant chains and companies-these are the tried-and-true
"The studios are owned by conglomerates; no part of that
mechanism is to run the risk of failing," said Randolph Pitts of
independent film distributor Lumiere Films Inc. of Los Angeles.
As high-speed Internet access becomes common, more uncharted
marketing territory will open up. But for now, Kalish said, "the Internet
market is still too young to stand alone."