Even before The Blair Witch Project hit theaters in 1999, it had already made a major impact on the history of horror films. Its production company, Haxan, is credited with essentially inventing viral marketing, and though the film didn't invent the found footage genre, it inspired countless knock-offs, homages, and imitations to follow.
The Blair Witch Project - directed by friends Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez - follows three college filmmakers to Burkittsville, Maryland, in their attempt to document the local legend of the Blair Witch. The students, Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard (all played by actors of the same names), search for clues about the myth, but end up getting lost in the woods and hunted by unseen forces. According to the movie's opening title card, the final cut is made from reels of lost film discovered by police after the trio went missing in 1994.
Despite lackluster reviews from critics and some filmgoers, the movie grossed over $248 million on a $60,000 budget. Arguably, the greatest legacy of The Blair Witch Project isn't the impact it had on horror movies, but on movie marketing for decades to come. The key to the film's success was the way it blurred the line between fiction and fact, convincing people that what they saw might very well be real.
Here's a look at some of the best and most audacious promotional stunts and viral marketing tactics that were used to make The Blair Witch Project such a groundbreaking hit.
After the promo documentary about the Blair Witch generated a great deal of intrigue and obsession, the creators decided to explore the lore of this convincing yet fictitious urban legend. To flesh out the believability of their eventual found footage film, they started Blairwitch.com, one of the first ever examples of a viral movie marketing website. The site added great detail to the legend to further whet the appetites of fans ahead of the film's release.
Written in the form of a timeline, the "mythology" section of the site didn't give any clues that the legend was a modern-day fabrication. Instead, it was written with all the earnestness of so many conspiracy-filled, urban legend fan sites. It goes through the beginnings of the lore surrounding the witch, Elly Kedward, the events of The Blair Witch Project, and the mysterious disappearance of Donahue, Leonard, and Williams. The timeline text even includes links to other bits of lore, fake wood carvings, and fabricated newspaper clippings - giving it a cohesive, fully developed feeling.
Shortly before the release of The Blair Witch Project, a 44-minute faux documentary was created by Artisan and the filmmakers. Similar in style to the short documentary promo that aired on IFC, the project was called Curse of the Blair Witch. The doc used talking head interviews, a fully fleshed-out fake history of the town in which the film takes place, and fake newspaper clippings to explain the history of the witch and the disappearance of the students in the film.
The Curse of the Blair Witch aired on the Sci-Fi channel (now branded as SyFy) shortly before the film's limited-release premiere. It became the most-watched special the network had ever aired up to that point. It was not presented as promotional material and contained no disclaimers regarding its fictional subject matter. It fully obfuscated the question of whether or not The Blair Witch Project was real.
By the time Artisan was controlling the bulk of the promotion for the film, the studio wanted to make it seem like the three stars of the film had legitimately gone missing. Perhaps the most convincing stunt was somehow getting IMDB to update the actors' profiles to list them as "missing, presumed dead."
Producer Gregg Hale told The Week that it was a "pretty brilliant" stunt on Artisan's part, though "there was definitely evidence out there that [the actors] were still alive."
The ruse worked so well that some people refused to believe the actors hadn't perished, even when they were standing right in front of them. At a screening event with the lead actress in Los Angeles, executive producer Kevin Foxe tried unsuccessfully to convince an audience member that Heather was alive and well:
I said "This is Heather, you’re talking to her." He wouldn’t believe it. She showed him her ID. He’s like, "No, no, no, you’re not..." The internet was the truth [back then]. It was like a second library.
While pirated uploads of films and internet spoilers are the scourge of modern Hollywood, for the team of ambitious marketing guerrillas behind The Blair Witch Project, they were actually the tools of their grassroots advertising campaign. There was a huge underground market for bootlegs among the hardcore film community in the 1990s, and executive producer Kevin J. Foxe knew about its potential to influence word of mouth.
Foxe also knew that some of the underpaid techs who worked at post-production houses often made unauthorized copies of film prints to watch at home and share with friends. When he commissioned the 35mm print of The Blair Witch Project that would be screened at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, Foxe allegedly told the printers to "make copies, show it to your friends, do whatever you want."