How the original Blair Witch Project ushered in a new era of viral movie marketing

BLAIR WITCH PROJECT VIRAL MARKETING WEBSITE

As Blair Witch 2016 takes to the Box Office, The Drum catches up with of one of the creators behind the original movie's website to find out how the film kickstarted a viral marketing trend that has been aped by countless studios since.

"In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found..."

The premise of the The Blair Witch Project was a simple one, but with a $60,000 budget and eight days of film reel its creators couldn't have begun to imagine that the movie would go on to gross $248m worldwide.

The low-budget flick has transpired to be the fifth highest-earning independent film of all time, but in lieu of the finances for Hollywood-style special effects and a mammoth marketing strategy, the directors instead relied on viral marketing (in the 1999 sense) to propagate the myth that the story told in the movie was actually real and that the film was a documentary.

At the heart of this was a dedicated website created by the movie's distributors at Artisan Entertainment. The site helped plant the seed that urban legend of an evil witch camping out in the woods in rural Maryland was actually true long before the film's release. Dedicated pages offered up a timeline of the "major events," in the history of the Blair Witch, background on the supposedly missing students (Heather, Michael and Josh) and interviews with the victim's 'families' lamenting their untimely disappearance.

The internet as we know it was still a relatively new domain for marketers at the time, and tasked with pulling together the pioneering site was Jessica Rovello, a fresh-faced director of online services at Artisan. She notes that the brief was a "dream," to work on because the directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, along with production company Haxan Films had passed on a massive amount of creative collateral. These images and b-roll were then digitised and uploaded on to the site to create the illusion that private photographs and news coverage had been gathered by investigators, with fresh content being put online on a regular basis.

From there, the concept "took on a life of its own," notes Rovello.

"When the studio acquired the movie and when the marketing team really started talking about it we all kind of had a feeling that it was going to take off in this way and that it could be a cultural phenomenon," she adds. "I don’t remember having an experience like that since where you think that something is going to happen and it actually does."

She also muses that the advent of social platforms, like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, would have made it much trickier for the marketers of the spinoff to pull a similar stunt. "I think because the internet was still a fairly new medium that helped. If somebody tried to do it today it would happen but it would probably be debunked so quickly that it wouldn’t have the ability to take time to catch on."

Reports from the time have also suggested that the marketers behind the stunts drip fed information into threads on internet forums dedicated to the 'legend' of the Blair Witch.

The online push was supported by a big offline marketing effort. The studio plastered missing person posters around college campuses directing people to the platform, giving an "air of legitimacy," to the digital mythos. The leaflets were actually put up in Cannes during the film festival and removed the following day after it turned out that a television executive had been kidnapped in real-life in an unconnected event.

Rovello, who now heads up gaming publisher Arkadium, says the site got so popular that the the servers crashed. "At 24-years-old and kind of being in the midst of this great phenomenon, it was also my first exposure to backlash," she recalls. "People started saying that we were faking the whole thing in terms of the success of the project, they were saying 'it’s impossible, you’re shutting down your own servers to make it look like they’ve overloaded' and 'you’ve faked all of this excitement behind the site.'"

The buzz around the movie was so great that the actors behind the main characters, – who used all their original names – were actually presumed to be missing or dead by some viewers. Donahue recently told Vice's Broadly how the experience had impacted on her, noting that her mother was sent sympathy cards and people personally stopped her in the street to tell her they "wished" she was dead and that they wanted their money back.

The website amassed more than 20 million page views before it even hit cinemas. In a world of rolling news, real-time marketing and trending topics it's highly improbable that the viral push that worked the first time round would work so well for the 2016 effort, so how would the woman behind the original website market the new movie?

Admitting that she's been out of the marketing world for "a long time," Rovello believes that there are some parallels between the original project and the way brands use Snapchat to tease fans.

"In the original campaign, the internet wasn’t as saturated as it is now so our approach was to release this content that we had about the filmmakers and the film on a regular basis so that people kept coming back to the site."

She notes that people wanted to return "week after week," because the team would do things like publish one of Heather's diary pages, or add another interview with someone involved in the 'case'.

"Snapchat is similar, because you have to go visit the content before it expires. In our case it was like fans had to go because they wanted to be the first to see it, and now on Snapchat content won't live forever." Something that hasn't changed, she points out is the growing necessity for marketers to create that "imposed critical need," for people to be wherever the assets are.

Just as its 1999 pre inspired the trend for found-footage horror (see: Cloverfield and the entire Paranormal Activity franchise among others), Lionsgate is clearly looking to usher in a fresh era of advertising with its push for the new movie including the release of a virtual reality (VR) experience to make viewers feel like they're trapped in the woods. The jump from a basic HMTL site to a headset in the space of 16-years shows just how much the marketing has evolved, but the current box office figures spotlight that the nostalgia-filled film is unlikely to cause as much hype as the original.

Studios are now ploughing money into digital advertising, with the Wrap claiming that Sony devoted half its marketing budget for Don't Breathe to digital campaigns. This slice is more than double the industry average, but it was a move that clearly paid off with the film trippling its original budget to clock up $26.4m in its opening weekend.

Several other titles, like the Dark Knight and Deadpool have courted success with viral marketing pushes, but none have quiet achieved the 'cult' status boasted by The Blair Witch Project.

"I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a hit," finishes Rovello, "but nobody really knows."

"In terms of Blair Witch, it had something to do with the zeitgeist – you know what was going on in the ether, people’s thinking, culturally and what was new, interesting and innovative. Sometimes things just kind of spark and catch fire."

Rebecca Stewart

Rebecca Stewart is a reporter at The Drum. Based in London, she writes news, analysis and features around brand marketing and digital innovation. She has interviewed key figures from the likes of Airbnb, Amnesty International, Unilever, Facebook and Spotify, as well as covering international events like Ad Week Europe, Dmexco and Ciclope.

All by Rebecca