The Blair Witch Project is one of the most important films when it comes to horror cinema, and the found footage genre specifically. But how did this small budget horror flick shot on dinky consumer cameras go on to garner such success? Marketing.
Academy Originals has come out with a retrospective, in which the filmmakers and actors talk about how the film was made, marketed, and why it's still so influential even 15 years after its 1999 release.
The late 90s belonged to the new teen slashers -- Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend -- beautiful 20-somethings playing super hot teenagers whose first introduction into adulthood was hard alcohol, house party sex, and the business end of a hunting knife (or cleaver, or icepick, or whatever). These films were made within the studio system with relatively large budgets in the tens of millions and young up-and-coming stars. So, the fact that The Blair Witch Project became so successful (grossing nearly $250M worldwide), despite the fact that it was 1.) shot on consumer cameras, 2.) had a small budget ($20,000 to $60,000 initially, though, $750,000 in the end), and 3.) used zero known actors/filmmakers, is a real head-scratcher -- but, not really.
Well, let's take a look back for a second. As the video points out, TBWP wasn't the first found footage horror film. Cannibal Holocaust came out 19 years before and was celebrated by some (including Sergio Leone) for its realism -- well, realism might be putting it lightly. In fact, director Ruggero Deodato was arrested for murder (originally obscenity) 10 days after the film's premiere, because Italian officials believed that certain scenes, like the impalement scene, depicted the actual deaths of the actors. However, even though Cannibal Holocaust pushed the boundaries of horror film, it didn't popularize the genre the way TBWP did, and it certainly didn't put found footage on the map.
So, Blair wasn't the first found footage film, but it was the first to really catch the attention of filmgoers -- but why? Well, most likely it had
something everything to do with its marketing. Firstly, at the time of its release, the millennium was knocking at the door; the internet was young, but in bloom, and film marketing looked nothing like it does now. Though TBWP did have its own website (which has remained largely unchanged since 1999), it wasn't as sophisticated as a film's website would be now. You couldn't upload trailers and teasers to YouTube or send out tweets about screenings. News about your film couldn't proliferate through social media platforms, so finding a creative way to get people talking about your project was integral to its success. And of course -- word of a true story about three documentary filmmakers disappearing in the woods after chasing around a legend about a witch is going to spread like crazy. Essentially, the filmmakers created a legend within a legend -- while the fictional filmmakers were asking if the legend of the Blair Witch was true, the actual filmmakers were getting their audience to ask if The Blair Witch Project film was true. Case in point: I was I was in middle school when TBWP came out, and I was one of the lucky ones who went into the theater still believing that the whole thing was real. If a 13-year-old internet-less girl from Eugene, OR not only heard about the film, but also believed the hype (I was quite a cynical child, and a already a veritable horror film snob by then), then that's a true testament to the power of the film's legend, as well as the marketing tactics employed by the filmmakers.
It's not quite clear why found footage films have seen a resurgence in recent years, though I'm sure it has a lot to do with the fact that they cost almost nothing to make and still yield an incredible return (it also doesn't hurt that most horror films are easily franchised). What is clear, though, is that The Blair Witch Project was a creative, unique film made by small team of filmmakers that went on to influence not just horror cinema, but all of cinema -- blazing the trail for cinematic techniques that would go on to become the iconic looks in films like Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity -- proving once again that with a little creative marketing, indies can make a big splash in the big kid pool.