Marketing the movies
Buy Blair Witch Project on DVD
The Web played a crucial part in helping The Blair Witch Project reach an audience - and it is becoming an increasingly effective marketing tool, says Boyd Farrow
Anyone requiring evidence that in the movie business life imitates art has simply to look at the plot of Blair Witch 2. The upcoming $18 million sequel begins with three teenagers actually visiting the website that was responsible for propelling the first film into the record books. Intrigued by what they see, they venture into the woods and, to their horror, discover that the witch really does exist.
Made for a derisory $35,000, the original Blair Witch Project is the most profitable film ever, raking in almost $150 million at the US box office. As its ultra-low production budget suggests, Blair Witch did not entice audiences with the promise of big stars or eye-popping special effects. Nor was anything like $25.3 million - today's average movie marketing allowance - poured into primetime TV ads and magazine spreads. Instead, Blair Witch's distributor, Artisan Entertainment, blitzed the public consciousness solely by using the internet to spread word-of-mouth. Before the film opened on July 16, 1999, its website had been visited 22 million times. By the end of its opening weekend, Blair Witch had broken American box office records and Artisan had completely reinvented movie marketing.
To recap, Blair Witch was conceived by two young Florida filmmakers, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, who, in October 1997, sent three actors into the woods with cameras and an understanding of the film's premise: they were playing documentary filmmakers who disappear while searching for the legendary Blair Witch in Maryland's Black Hills, leaving only "footage" behind. The result is a largely black-and-white film shot on cheap 16mm and Hi8 video with two handheld cameras.
The movie made sufficient impact at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1999 for Artisan to pay $1.1 million for the worldwide rights.
While the filmmakers tweaked the film for a cinema release, Artisan seized upon a brilliant and, of course, virtually free marketing tool. In June 1998, before Blair Witch was even edited, the filmmakers had launched their own website, at a cost of only $15,000, that gave basic information about the movie.
Artisan took over the site, adding journal entries by one of the characters, faked police reports, and a history of the Blair Witch dating back to the 18th century. Then in April the first trailer of the film was shown on the Ain't It Cool website, word of mouth spread through cyberspace, fuelled by the is-it-real-or-invented? debate. The filmmakers were more than happy to fan the confusion.
The identity of the Blair Witch's website was so strong - Nielsen Media reported that it was the 45th most accessed website for the week ending 1 August, 1999, with each visitor spending an average of 16 minutes and 8 seconds online - that the film's official T-shirts were emblazoned with www.blairwitch.com.
"This is the first time that the Web has been the most basic and important tool in getting to a movie's audience," Artisan chief Amir Malin noted at the time. "Our demographic is 16 to 24, which is exactly the demographic that goes online."
The case of The Blair Witch Project posed the question: if Artisan can create an avid audience on cable and in cyberspace, why are the big film studios spending tens of millions advertising in press ads and on primetime TV commercials?
"Blair Witch has shown us how insane the current system really is," says 71-year-old Mace Neufeld, one of Hollywood's most successful film producers. "If someone had told me five years ago it would cost $25 million to release a film in the US I wouldn't have believed them. But Blair Witch has single-handedly started a transitory period. Everyone in Hollywood is now looking at how to use the internet to slash marketing costs."
Internet marketing currently accounts for 3%-5% of overall promotional budgets. Which means that if a studio allots $30 million for a film's print and marketing, that means a film's Web site could cost up to $1.5 million.
"Creating a website is now a necessary part of the marketing strategy," says Ken Goldstein, senior vice president and general manager of Disney Online. "Kids expect it." Indeed, according to Jim Banister, executive vice president of Warner Bros. Online: "Filmmakers are now demanding internet marketing as part of their contracts."
So far the kids and the filmmakers are being heeded. Many websites feature downloadable trailers, synopses, photographs from the films and cast biographies.The best are for Paramount Pictures' Mission: Impossible 2, Universal Studios' submarine thriller U-571, Warner Bros' Battlefield Earth and New Line Cinema's Lord of the Rings.
But some web campaigns are getting even more innovative. To promote the movie adaptation of American Psycho, the novel's author Brett Easton Ellis has supervised a continuation of the novel specially created for the web. The film's distributor Lions Gate Films and netcaster Pseudo Programs are co-presenting a campaign which began on March 15, a month ahead of the film's US release, called "Am. Psycho 2000". This will take the form of a series of "cliff-hanger" emails ostensibly from the story's central character. Email Shows Inc is creating and producing the project with Ellis and American Psycho co-producer Clifford Streit, using a combination of email and web-based streaming video which it calls "viral marketing entertainment." The material will contain out-takes from the film, behind-the-scenes footage and original content.
"The internet means there are now additional advertising and publicity opportunities and we would be foolish if we didn't take notice," says Sony Pictures Entertainment's marketing chief, Nigel Clark. "It is another way of making people aware of our movies but this certainly doesn't mean we are cutting back on other media, the sort that requires a long lead-time."
Nevertheless, Clark is excited about the additional ways that the internet can be harnessed to promote a movie, such as involving stars in chatrooms and netcasting film premieres. "Also, a person using a film's website could provide their email address and therefore be notified about other forthcoming releases that might interest them."
However, Clark dismisses the idea that studios could ever monitor online interest in their movies and then plan the scale of a film's eventual release accordingly. "Just because someone clicks on a film's website does not mean that they are going to see the movie. It is just like someone looking at a poster of a forthcoming film in a cinema lobby."
But, arguably the real power of the internet is not channelled through the official websites but the online magazines and gossip pages. After all, Ain't It Cool, the site that was so instrumental in the Blair Witch phenomenon, is now averaging a mind-boggling 15 million hits a month.
"When someone puts up a review on the internet, it starts a buzz," says Terminator 2 producer Gale Anne Hurd. "If that buzz is negative, the studio can begin lowering their expectations for the movie. And that's when they start cutting the amount of money they're willing to spend, including money for post production and marketing."
Harry Knowles, who founded Ain't It Cool in 1995, acknowledges that sites such as his are making an impact on movie marketing campaigns. But he says that it works both ways. "For example, the internet word of mouth on The Avengers was so bad that jittery Warner Bros decided to release the film in Britain before America and cancel press screenings. They thought Britain would be its strongest market. On the other hand, DreamWorks is so confident that its upcoming Ridley Scott film Gladiator is so strong that they put on a special screening for 250 people in San Francisco. And the film is indeed very good. Next week I'm going to write about it."
"No-one's actually sent me a briefcase full of cash but producers and directors do now invite me to attend premieres and plug their movies," laughs Knowles. Indeed, some studios are now quoting Ain't It Cool News' reviews alongside those from the traditional press in advertising campaigns.
But the internet movie sites have made a significant impact on the traditional press. Because the public is now learning about upcoming movies so much earlier, the studios have to give journalists more access to films when they are still in production.
"The studios have always had the marketing materials available well in advance of a movie's release. But they used to only use these to promote the films to the cinema owners. Now the studios market their films to the public much, much earlier than they ever had before," says Knowles.
Even so, Knowles does not believe that the Blair Witch phenomenon will be repeated any time soon.
"That was a one-off. Not only was the film's subject matter so perfect for the internet, the work that went into that web site was phenomenal. It was updated daily and the filmmakers wrote thousands and thousands of words. The studios are basically lazy."
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