October 7, 2014

How 'The Blair Witch Project' Changed Horror with Cheap Shaky Cameras & Genius Marketing

The Blair Witch Project
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.     

Your Comment

4 Comments

Never successfully duplicated on a consistent basis, unless YouTubers count. The industry is trying to push the envelope on this eg. Smartphone technology, 4k, distribution, VOD, web series etc. But no one is consistently doing it, successfully. Hopefully that will change.

October 8, 2014 at 2:10AM

0
Reply

My wife and I still love this film to death,

While I have no doubt that the smart marketing ( missing posters with website tabs and tv specials which added a whole new dimension to the story and probably one of the first examples of cross media story telling and comic book) added to the final product, nobody since then has made a found footage the same way since this one.

The super natural performances (eh eh??) caused by the directors giving the actors cues, and scaring the living crap out of the actors stuck in the wood by playing sounds of rocks, childrens voices and unsettling stick and rock sculptures helped give the marketing and entire film a sense of legitimacy.

It was just plain good direction.

The first Paranormal activity IMO is the only thing that has come close to replicating that uneasy feeling on screen.

happy halloween!

October 8, 2014 at 6:56PM

0
Reply

Yeah, I have to agree with Colin. Sure, the marketing was amazing, but I saw this film about 3 or 4 months before it premiered at Sundance, before anybody had seen it and claimed it was this or that. Before any marketing. I was a principal at Next Wave Films, a company of the Independent Film Channel that gave finishing funds to exceptional low-budget films. The Haxen guys sent it to us in October and I was the first person in the company to see it. I took it home and watched it by myself on VHS. It scarred the shit out of me! Yes, the way it was made, all the techniques Myrick and Sanchez pulled off to get that authenticity, this is what made it great. They shot all kinds of other stuff, but as they edited the film, and got feedback from test screenings, they honed it down to just the found footage, and cut out anything that seemed false. One of their teammates wrote out an entire back story for the witch, even though very little of it is in the film. But you can feel that there's so much below the surface.

I had the privilege of moderating a panel discussion with most of the key members of the team at the 10th year anniversary of the film, at the American Cinematheque. Great stories. I hope the Cinematheque makes that video available one day. I wrote a blog piece on the film after that discussion, where I discussed the 3 secrets to their success, (and yes, Marketing was one of them): http://nobudgetfilmschool.com/id73.html

October 9, 2014 at 6:08AM

0
Reply
Mark Stolaroff
Producer, Instructor
77

I was in elementary school when I saw this and pretty sure I shit my pants.

October 9, 2014 at 11:25AM

7
Reply
avatar
Dre Kahmeyer
Director
319