Film History: The Lasting Impact of The Blair Witch Project's Viral Marketing Campaign
Since it’s officially found footage month here at The Lunatics Project, I wanted to talk about one of the most historically important found footage horror films to date. We talked about this a bit during our recent episode of Lunatics Radio Hour: The History of Found Footage Horror. But I wanted to expand on it here.
For anyone unaware, The Blair Witch Project follows three young adults as they enter the deep woods and attempt to make a documentary about the legend of the local witch. It was directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. The production style is fascinating, the filmmakers came up with the local folklore along with a 35-page script, but left the actors to improvise the dialogue.
Whether or not you liked the original film, its impact on horror is tangible.
Part of the film’s success can be attributed to its marketing campaign. Blair Witch debuted in the Summer of 1999. The filmmakers did a few things that had never been done before and thus were able to drum up actual uncertainty around whether the film was real or fiction. Before the movie even hit theaters there was a cultural debate over whether it was fiction or real. In some ways, this was a thing that went viral before we really knew what going viral meant. The filmmakers leaned into their small budget and used their “homemade” style to lend authenticity to the film.
They used guerilla marketing tactics like feeding fake news stories to local papers and handing out missing person pamphlets to create a narrative that the student filmmakers who made this movie were indeed missing. But there was one more critical component here, the internet.
The timing was perfect. The Blair Witch was one of the first films to successfully use a website to market a film. Web surfers who visited the domain in 1999 were met with missing posters and more information on the student filmmakers at large, along with extended mythology about the Blair Witch. Filmmakers also took to chat rooms and forums, posing as everyday users they perpetuated the rumors and swirl around the story. At screenings, the filmmakers would pass out flyers asking for information about the missing students. Even the IMDB page listed the actors as “missing. Presumed dead,” for the first year after release. They left no stone unturned. I spoke with friends who remember seeing the movie in 1999 and left the theater unsure whether or not it was real.
The numbers are estimated, but the shooting budget was under 100k. In Post Production, it shot up to between $500-750k. All in, The Blair Witch Project brought in over $250M. It was certainly not the first film to use found footage, or a gimmicky marketing campaign, but it paired them perfectly and it drove audiences wild.