A lot of people hated The Blair Witch Project. Obviously, a lot of other people loved it—so much so, in fact, that the film went on to make nearly a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide on a $60,000 budget and spawn an entire genre of horror movie. The reason for the hatred, though, is that many viewers went into theaters expecting the scariest movie of all time, rather than flawlessly executed avante garde cinema. They came for blood and guts and jump scares, not a deceptively amateur slow burn. They felt, understandably, duped by the most effective online marketing campaign in film history.
The creators of The Blair Witch Project were found-footage pioneers who put a lot of work into making sure what was up onscreen actually seemed like found footage. Part of the effort was in the filmmaking itself. The actors do all their own camera work, despite precious little technical expertise, and they improvise all their dialogue based on concepts from the creators. But a lot of the effort went into a marketing campaign that involved a masterful online manipulation designed to trick people into thinking three filmmakers had actually disappeared in the Maryland woods. Obituaries were written. A "documentary" was circulated. A much less hoax-wary nation of internet newbies would search for "Blair Witch" and find materials about the invented mythology, and not the film. The launch was so successful that curiosity-seekers have continued haunting the town of Burkittsville, Maryland to this day. It was the perfect stunt at the perfect time with the perfect medium. By the time the movie made it to wide release in 1999, everybody knew it wasn't real, but the first wave of festival viewers, who didn't know that, were so thoroughly terrified that it didn't matter.
Things are different now. Pretty much nobody thinks anything is real anymore. If a studio tried to sell a fake-documentary as real, the audience would be thoroughly insulted and reflect that by staying home to catch up on Mr. Robot. So when an update of The Blair Witch Project came down the pike at Lionsgate in 2013, the studio had a major challenge on its hands. While filmmakers Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett were figuring out how to make a sequel to the original movie, Lionsgate had to make a sequel to its epochal marketing campaign.
Although the new film, simply titled Blair Witch, suffered from poor reviews and had a lower-than-expected opening weekend, the marketing behind it was orchestrated masterfully. Co.Create recently spoke to a source at Lionsgate who asked not to be named about the challenges and details of the film's complex rollout, which was handled with scary precision.
In March of 2013, Lionsgate finalized their deal with Wingard and Barrett to make Blair Witch, as the studio ramped up to release the duo's buzzworthy splatterfest, You're Next. It was too early in the process to decide how the film would be handled, but the mandate was for everyone to keep quiet about it, including original creators Eduardo Sanchez, Gregg Hale and Dan Myrick, who were told in secret. The cast of the new film were hired under pretense of a different film, auditioning for fake scenes that Barrett had written. They had no idea what movie they would eventually be in, and when they found out, they had to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements.
When the marketing team at Lionsgate first started discussing ideas, they immediately decided not to play it straight. Nobody would buy into the reality of the Blair Witch ever again. The team wanted instead to create a smart launch that wouldn't feel gimmicky and that would honor the legacy of the original. The goal was to sell the movie as something you'd want to see even if it wasn't a Blair Witch sequel; a movie that would stand on its own. In order to do that, they conjured up an original IP called The Woods. They saw an early cut of Blair Witch and cut a vague trailer for it that didn't mention witches in any way. Hypothetically, they concluded it could pass as a trailer for a film called The Woods. At that point, they pulled in the filmmakers and presented the idea of launch a fake campaign for a fake movie with Wingard and Barrett's names on it that had no association to the Blair Witch. The two were intrigued, but they wanted to know what would happen next, after this fake movie was just floating around in the ether. Lionsgate assured them they'd cross that bridge when they got to it.
The studio hosted a top secret early screening of the film for some credible sources who could vouch for their fake movie. Partners like Brad Miska of the popular horror platform Bloody Disgusting saw the film and blurbed it. These positive blurbs figured prominently into two official posters for The Woods, and an official trailer, which was released in May. Miska and the other partners also signed NDAs.
"If I didn't like the film I would have excused myself from the marketing effort," Miska says of his ecstatic blurb. "There was no pressure on that front. I've passed on supporting films more than a handful of times."
The response to the trailer was fairly positive. Nobody seemed to think it looked like the freshest horror movie ever, or that it's title didn't suck, but they were on board with a Barrett/Wingard Evil Dead-type flick. The deception was off to a strong start.
In the beginning, there were murmurings among industry snoops that Adam Wingard and Simon Barret were doing a sequel to a Lionsgate horror property—either Blair Witch, Cabin In The Woods, or a reboot of Saw. In order to throw everyone off the scent, Lionsgate kept a red herring date in October on the official movie release calendar in October for an untitled horror film, and slated The Woods for September. Several websites, including ones that Lionsgate partnered up with, started speculating that the untitled project was a sequel to Saw or whatever, and readers were less skeptical of The Woods.
When it came time to reveal the true nature of their fake movie, the studio pulled out all the stops. Lionsgate set up a screening at San Diego Comic-Con for the first-ever audience to see The Woods. They had a booth in on the floor with Woods signage and a street team passed out posters wherever people would accept them. The lightboxes in the theater had posters for The Woods and a massive 7 x 20-foot standee loomed near the entrance. Meanwhile, a very nervous core group from the marketing team sweated in the lobby, watching people take their pictures with the standee, waiting. The entire secrecy campaign had all led up to this moment, and so far it had gone off without a hitch. Finally, the last few audience members found their seats and the doors closed. They had no idea they comprised the linchpin for the part of the plan known as The Witch Switch.
As Blair Witch began to screen that day, The Woods ceased its short life as a fake movie. The posters for it vanished and were immediately replaced by Blair Witch posters. Ditto the giant standee. The booth on the floor changed, the IMDb page changed, the website changed, banner ads changed—it all flipped in one minute, with military precision. Inside the theater, as soon as the crowd realized what was happening, they went insane. By that time, the marketing team was inside a restaurant, ordering buckets of booze, and watching Twitter reactions in real time. Blair Witch was trending in a matter of minutes.
The final phase of the campaign was a viral effort that blurred the line of reality. It involved a fake Kickstarter campaign with a backstory that spanned three years, and involved material posted across Kickstarter, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wordpress, Tumblr, IMDb, and more. Clearly, Lionsgate (and the general public) have moved past the point of pretending anything is real, but building out the world of a movie to make it more immersive is still part of the repertoire. It's certainly telling, though, that the part of the campaign that most closely resembles the groundbreaking efforts for the original film is the part that feels most like an afterthought.