Blair Witch Project Case Study

Eighteen years ago, a star-free indie movie called “The Blair Witch Project” became the first movie to focus its marketing strategy around the then-emerging internet with its own dedicated website.

It happened years before the advent of Twitter, YouTube and Snapchat, when producers at Haxan Films pioneered an approach to promoting a movie that’s making new strides with recent hits like “Don’t Breathe” and “Lights Out.”

Going live a full year before the found-footage horror movie eventually opened in theaters, www.blairwitch.com went up months before the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1999 — when Artisan bought the rights for $1 million. (The film itself cost less than $25,000 to make.)

The original site is still live today, now updated to promote the sequel by Lionsgate, “Blair Witch,” opening this weekend. But the original site served as an extension of the 1999 film — a prelude presentation detailing the supposed history of the Blair Witch dating back to 1785.

The site first revealed the discovery of mysterious footage made by a trio of young filmmakers who supposedly went missing after investigating a wooded area allegedly haunted by a witch.

The page hosted extensive character bios, clips from the found film and photos of the group as they prepared for their scary quest. A cinematic work of fiction, it was all built up ahead of time as a reflection of “true” events.

The marketing ruse even extended to the then fledgling IMDb.com — which listed the three actors as “missing, presumed dead.”

The strategy paid off, as the site amassed more than 20 million page views before the movie opened in theaters in the summer of 1999.

“The Blair Witch Project” went on to become one of the biggest sleeper hits in movie history, packing theaters in its first two weekends during its limited release before a successful wide release. All said, the horror movie made on a shoestring went on to earn $248.6 million worldwide. And the lion share of those grosses were pure profit.

Studios have learned the lesson. That’s why distributors releasing genre movies, especially horrors and thrillers, tend to spend more of their marketing dollars toward online promotion.

Sony devoted 50 percent of the marketing budget for “Don’t Breathe” to digital campaigns, more than double the industry norm, and launched the first-ever 360 Snapchat ad for a film. The home-invasion thriller nearly tripled its $10 million production budget with its $26.4 million opening weekend.

The studio has followed a similar digital-heavy approach to other recent hits like “Sausage Party” and “The Shallows.”

Universal spent 60 percent of its marketing for the 2014 Blumhouse cyber thriller “Unfriended” on digital — mostly YouTube, utilizing Google’s TrueView tool, which helps marketers determine what’s resonating with viewers. “This didn’t just inform what we did on YouTube,” said Josh Goldstine, president of worldwide marketing at Universal, during a YouTube Brandcast 2015 presentation. “This informed all of our marketing.”

“Unfriended,” which cost Blumhouse roughly $1 million to produce, went on to earn more than $64 million worldwide. “We were able to achieve higher levels of awareness in our core demographic than movie campaigns that cost twice, sometimes three times as much,” boasted Goldstine.

Of course, digital-heavy marketing campaigns sometimes indicate studio jitters because executives lack confidence in a film and don’t want to spend on a more traditional (and expensive) TV and print campaign, according to movie marketing experts with whom TheWrap consulted.

Universal also supports Jason Blum‘s BH Tilt, which is responsible for micro-budgeted moneymakers like “The Darkness,” starring Kevin Bacon, and Eli Roth‘s torture porn movie “The Green Inferno.”

BH Tilt is run by John Hegeman, who oversaw “The Blair Witch Project” marketing campaign back in the late ’90s when he was head of Artisan’s marketing department. And the company’s core premise builds on the “Blair Witch” playbook: tiny production budgets, small-but-targeted marketing spends that are heavy on digital.

All of this stands in contrast to traditional studio fare, where digital continues to play a much smaller role For big-budget tentpoles like Disney-Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” and Warner Bros.-DC Comics’ “Suicide Squad,” studios typically spend less than 15 percent of the marketing budget on digital platforms, favoring TV and print advertising, according to several experts interviewed by TheWrap.

Summer Movie Report Card: Will There Be Sequels of 'Finding Dory,' 'Bad Moms,' 'Warcraft'? (Photos)

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    This was the summer of sequels, but not every follow-up was created equal. "Finding Dory" clearly met a craving the worldwide film audience had for another animated fish adventure, but plenty failed to land. Here's TheWrap's franchise report card.

    Various
  • "Captain America: Civil War" (May 6)

    Worldwide Box Office: $1.15 billion

    Budget: $250 million

    Forecast: No time soon (but not because of box office)

    The Disney-Marvel hit surpassed $1 billion worldwide in just three weeks and went on to become the highest grossing movie in the Cap franchise. Yes, there are a ton of Marvel movies in the pipeline, including two Avengers "Infinity Wars" movies featuring Captain America. But those close to the franchise tell TheWrap there are no plans for a follow-up movie starring just Cap -- and reports suggest that Chris Evans (and his onscreen persona, Steve Rogers) may abandon the red-white-and-blue shield in the not-too-distant future.

    Marvel
  • "The Angry Birds Movie" (May 20)

    Worldwide Box Office: $347.1 million

    Budget: $73 million

    Forecast: Up in the air

    Video game makers at Rovio are raring to go on an "Angry Birds Movie" sequel, TheWrap has learned. The movie is just awaiting a green light from Sony, which seems likely based on the movie’s $347.1 million worldwide gross. But will "Angry Birds" be relevant several years from now?

    Sony
  • "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising" (May 20)

    Worldwide Box Office: $107.9 million

    Budget: $35 million

    Forecast: When pigs fly

    Universal's "Neighbors 2" "did not live up to expectations, so a sequel may not make sense," a source close to the studio told TheWrap. The sequel made nearly $100 million less at the domestic box office than the first "Neighbors," which was a surprise 2014 hit.

    Chuck Zlotnick
  • "Alice Through the Looking Glass" (May 27)

    Worldwide Box Office: $295.1 million

    Budget: $170 million

    Forecast: When pigs fly

    “Alice Through the Looking Glass" was one of the few summer disappointments out of Disney and isn’t being positioned for a sequel, TheWrap has learned. One factor: Lewis Carroll only wrote two "Alice" books.

    Disney
  • "X-Men: Apocalypse" (May 27)

    Worldwide Box Office: $542.9 million

    Budget: $178 million

    Forecast: Definite sequel

    20th Century Fox has yet to announce a release date for the next "X-Men," but based on what producer and writer Simon Kinberghas said, audiences will be seeing it as soon as 2019. He needs to clear the decks first on "Deadpool 2" before he can start writing the new "X-Men" script.

    Fox
  • "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows" (June 3)

    Worldwide Box Office: $242.8 million

    Budget: $135 million

    Forecast: Sequel is a strong possibility

    While no official announcements have been made, it's a fairly safe assumption that Paramount will move forward with the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" franchise. The series is a merchandising cash cow despite disappointing box office returns for the 2016 action sequel.

    Paramount
  • "The Conjuring 2" (June 10)

    Worldwide Box Office: $319.5 million

    Budget: $40 million

    Forecast: Sequel is a strong possibility

    Another Warner Bros. horror gold mine did $102.5 million domestically and $319.5 million worldwide on a $40 million budget, which makes a third edition a safe bet. The "Conjuring" franchise has already delivered two spin-offs, 2014's "Annabelle" -- which has its own sequel coming next year -- and "The Nun," currently in the works.

    New Line
  • "Now You See Me 2" (June 10)

    Worldwide Box Office: $324 million

    Budget: $90 million

    Forecast: Definite sequel

    More than a year before “Now You See Me 2” hit theaters, Lionsgate announced that a third installment was in process. “Now You See Me 2” underperformed the original in most markets, but hit nearly $100 million in China. As a result, “Now You See Me 3” will be a co-production between Lionsgate and China’s Leomus Pictures and will star a mostly Chinese cast.

    Lionsgate
  • "Warcraft" (June 10)

    Worldwide Box Office: $433.5 million

    Budget: $160 million

    Forecast: Sequel is a strong possibility

    "Warcraft" was a box office bomb in the U.S., making just $47.2 million on a $160 million budget. But the video game fantasy epic scored big in foreign markets, especially China, where a massive marketing push helped it bring in $220.8 million. Based on that international appeal, a sequel is likely -- although it may not be released in U.S. theaters.

    Universal
  • "Central Intelligence" (June 17)

    Worldwide Box Office: $212.6 million

    Budget: $50 million

    Forecast: Sequel is a strong possibility

    New Line's "Central Intelligence" grossed $127.4 million domestically and $212.6 million worldwide on a $50 million budget. Headliners Kevin Hart -- who also starred in "The Secret Life of Pets" -- and Dwayne Johnson are also two of Hollywood's most bankable leading men, so it would be a smart move for them to team up again (though nothing is confirmed yet).

    New Line
  • "Finding Dory" (June 17)

    Worldwide Box Office: $930.9 million

    Budget: $200 million

    Forecast: No time soon (but not because of box office)

    "Finding Dory" is the No. 1 movie of the year so far. Disney-Pixar have no plans at the moment for a feature-length sequel, TheWrap has learned. When asked, co-director and co-writer Andrew Stanton has simply said, "We'll see." Pixar has already hit a hard pause button on sequels until roughly 2022.

    Pixar
  • "Independence Day: Resurgence" (June 24)

    Worldwide Box Office: $383 million

    Budget: $165 million

    Forecast: Up in the air

    "Independence Day: Resurgence" was a pretty big bomb for Fox domestically, earning $103 million domestically on its steep $165 million budget. But, even without Will Smith reprising his role, it still managed to make a decent $279.5 million abroad. So, while it's likely not at the top of the priority list for Fox, who declined comment, a sequel may not be completely out of the picture.

    Claudette Barius
  • "The Shallows" (June 24)

    Worldwide Box Office: $93.3 million

    Budget: $17 million

    Forecast: Up in the air

    "The Shallows," the sea-set thriller starring Blake Lively, opened twice as strong as expected, quickly swimming out of the red during its first few weeks in theaters. But a source close to the project said a sequel is currently in unclear waters.

    Sony
  • "The Legend of Tarzan" (July 1)

    Worldwide Box Office: $354.7 million

    Budget: $180 million

    Forecast: Up in the air

    Warner Bros.' Tarzan reboot with Margot Robbie and Alexander Skarsgård made just $354.6 million worldwide on a $180 million budget, but that does not necessarily preclude a follow-up. However, there are only so many novel approaches to take with the familiar Tarzan story.

    Warner Bros.
  • "The Purge: Election Year" (July 1)

    Worldwide Box Office: $105.6 million

    Budget: $10 million

    Forecast: Sequel is a strong possibility

    Universal's horror sequel is also in the wait-and-see camp, but the fact that it topped the domestic box office performances of the two previous installments in the series should work in its favor, a source close to the studio told TheWrap.

    Universal
  • "The Secret Life of Pets" (July 8)

    Worldwide Box Office: $725.8 million

    Budget: $75 million

    Forecast: Definite sequel

    In a year when animated fare ruled -- Disney's "Finding Dory" remains the No. 1 film of the year -- Universal's "Secret Life of Pets" roared its way to $353.7 million in the U.S. and double that internationally. The movie featuring the voices of Kevin Hart, Louis C.K. and Jenny Slate already has a sequel in development and a release date of July 13, 2018.

    Universal
  • "Ghostbusters" (July 15)

    Worldwide Box Office: $217.8 million

    Budget: $144 million

    Forecast: Up in the air

    With an animated feature in the works, the "Ghostbusters" franchise is alive and well at Sony. But, the studio is mum about a follow-up to this summer's female-led reboot, which underperformed at the box office and may trigger a write-down in the range of $50 million.

    Sony
  • "Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie" (July 22)

    Worldwide Box Office: $35 million

    Budget: n/a

    Forecast: When pigs fly

    Fox Searchlight's "Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie" did pretty well in the U.K., reeling in $20.9 million. But the film, which topped out at 355 theaters, never caught on in the U.S., sputtering to only $4.7 million -- less than it earned in Australia. American audiences don't appear to be clamoring for a sequel, and the U.K. market is probably not big enough by itself -- unlike China -- to justify one.

    Fox Searchlight
  • "Ice Age: Collision Course" (July 22)

    Worldwide Box Office: $373.7 million

    Budget: $105 million

    Forecast: Up in the air

    Even though "Ice Age: Collision Course" underperformed by $100 million against the next lowest grossing movie in the series, it still looks highly probable that a sixth one will be coming from Fox... and a seventh? Do we hear an eighth? Moviegoers can only hope there's no "Ice Age: Retirement Home."

    Blue Sky Studios
  • "Lights Out" (July 22)

    Worldwide Box Office: $126.1 million

    Budget: $5 million

    Forecast: Definite sequel

    One of the summer's biggest sleeper hits earned $126 million worldwide on a $5 million budget. So New Line naturally announced plans for a sequel less than one week after the first installment hit theaters.

    Ron Batzdorff
  • "Star Trek Beyond" (July 22)

    Worldwide Box Office: $244.2 million

    Budget: $185 million

    Forecast: Definite sequel

    In July, Paramount officially announced a fourth film in the rebooted franchise, with Chris Hemsworth set to appear opposite Chris Pine. The first "Star Trek" earned more than $380 million worldwide in 2009, and 2014's "Star Trek Into Darkness" grossed $460 million. But "Star Trek Beyond" came in below expectations, earning only $243 million worldwide. However, that has not derailed Paramount's plans to make another.

    Paramount
  • "Bad Moms" (July 29)

    Worldwide Box Office: $125.4 million

    Budget: $20 million

    Forecast: Sequel is a strong possibility

    STX's R-rated momedy performed so strongly at the box office weekend-over-weekend, "of course" the studio is considering a sequel, a source close to the title told TheWrap.

    STX
  • "Jason Bourne" (July 29)

    Worldwide Box Office: $348 million

    Budget: $120 million

    Forecast: Sequel is a strong possibility

    The latest installment in Universal's "Bourne" series "kind of reinvigorated that series, a source close to Universal told TheWrap. But given how long it took Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass to sign on, the source added, "It's kind of wait-and-see" as far as a sequel. "Jason Bourne" is closing in on $150 million at the domestic box office and has the second-highest worldwide gross out of the five "Bourne" films.

    Universal
  • "Suicide Squad" (Aug. 5)

    Worldwide Box Office: $639.2 million

    Budget: $175 million

    Forecast: Definite sequel

    Warner Bros.' DC Comics antihero mashup "Suicide Squad" recorded the biggest August opening ever, but dropped off quickly and won't get close to the magic billion-dollar mark worldwide. That said, a female-driven "Birds of Prey" spinoff centered on Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn is in development, Warner Bros. confirmed. The studio had no comment on possible plans for a pure sequel.

    Warner Bros.
  • "Pete's Dragon" (August 12)

    Worldwide Box Office: $78.3 million

    Budget: $65 million

    Forecast: When pigs fly

    "Pete's Dragon" was another rare Disney letdown that also isn’t being targeted for a sequel, TheWrap has learned. With its $65 million budget -- cheap for a Disney film -- and sparse marketing, the movie never seemed to grab much attention even with August's lack of heavyweight box-office competitors.

    Disney
  • "Sausage Party" (August 12)

    Worldwide Box Office: $90.6 million

    Budget: $19 million

    Forecast: Sequel is a strong possibility

    Seth Rogen's R-rated animated feature "Sausage Party" exceeded expectations and is definitely being considered for a second serving, TheWrap has learned.

    Sony
  • "Don't Breathe" (August 26)

    Worldwide Box Office: $33.7 million

    Budget: $9.9 million

    Forecast: Up in the air

    The Sony horror flick took the air out of its box office competitors, becoming the first August movie to knock "Suicide Squad" from the top of the charts. Sony is hopeful about a sequel, but it's still too early to say for certain.

    Sony
  • "Mechanic: Resurrection" (August 26)

    Worldwide Box Office: $9 million

    Budget: $40 million

    Forecast: Up in the air

    The Jason Statham thriller is a follow-up to 2011's "Mechanic," which made $62 million on a $40 million budget. But "Resurrection" had a weaker opening than "Mechanic," and in any event, it's too early to say whether there will be another.

    Jack English

In a summer of sequels, only some made the grade and earned a follow-up

 

This was the summer of sequels, but not every follow-up was created equal. "Finding Dory" clearly met a craving the worldwide film audience had for another animated fish adventure, but plenty failed to land. Here's TheWrap's franchise report card.

View In Gallery

Summer 1999. It was 15 years ago when the Blair Witch Project was killing it at the box office, generating buzz and excitement over what we know now as one of the best stunts in movie history.

Although the movie itself may not have turned out as great as all the hype, the Blair Witch Project is considered by some (myself included) as the greatest marketing campaign ever. And even those who might not be willing to give it that high of an honor, at minimum, consider it the ultimate viral marketing campaign and one that was a trailblazer in utilizing the online space.

For those who may not remember the storyline, the Blair Witch Project tells the tail of an urban legend, known as the blair witch, taking place in the woods outside of a remote suburban Maryland town. Three student filmmakers set out on a project to capture footage and prove the truth of the blair witch. However, the students go missing and their recorded footage is found 10 years later, which was supposedly the film used to make the movie. It is recorded with low quality cameras in first person, which adds to the effect that this was truly found footage. After success at the Sundance Film Festival, label Artisan Entertainment bought rights to the film and provided additional dollars for advertising. Here are the five key tactics used to bring about the unbelievable success of the Blair Witch.

Missing Person Leaflets

The main theme behind the Blair Witch Project’s marketing campaign was to establish uncertainly among the public. Every single tactic carried out revolved around stirring confusion among potential movie viewers. Was this really found footage? Were these people really dead? Is this all real or just a scam? No one could get to the bottom of it. Every piece of marketing worked to fuel this fire and interest audiences enough to not only view the film, but to talk about it with friends and challenge the concept of whether it was real, so more people would go see it. The first tactic focused on setting the stage. The Blair Witch team started by spreading rumors about the “student film makers.” They planted stories among the public, passed out missing person leaflets, shared photos from the police reports, and even went as far as having fake news stories written up by small local papers about the missing persons and their whereabouts. This word of mouth marketing was in-line with the key messages and kicked off the campaign.

Website

The website was the most instrumental component of the integrated marketing campaign. All forms of marketing and calls to actions drove audiences to the site. This was 1999, so website surfing was still fairly new to many consumers. The Blair Witch site was very simple and capitalized off the low-budget and homemade concept. It really looked like students put it together. The site was an extension of the storyline, describing in detail, the myth of the blair witch and giving more biographical information on the missing filmmakers. It didn’t “sell” to get users to go see the movie but instead focused on the myth to confuse and scare potential viewers. People saw the movie on their own. The campaign benefitted from two important factors: limitation and timing. The web was a relatively new platform then. But the producers kept adding content over time, adding witchy stories and footage the directors had obtained during filming. And this being a time when the internet was a discovery phase among consumers, it was the perfect moment to capitalize on free publicity via the medium. Although the site was updated a few years ago to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the movie, most of the site resembles the original look and feel. Take a look: blairwitch.com.

Message Boards and Chat Rooms

Think back to 1999. If you had the internet, chances are, you were using AOL and were probably frequenting chat rooms and other online forums. These foundations for what would later become wikis, blogs and social media sites, were where people gossiped, communicated and shared information. The marketers for the Blair Witch knew this and planted seeds in these online rooms about the film. It was an ultra-grassroots move – but in the digital age. They shared the missing person photos and directed visitors to the website. They pretended to be typical online users and stirred up questions about the validity of the film, intriguing fellow chatters. They even manipulated the IMDb records so if you looked up the actors on the site, their bio information listed them as missing and presumed dead! The rumors continued to fly and people became both confused and captivated with the story.

Documentary and Trailer

The trailer was simple. It gave viewers peeks of film but left the rest up to the viewer’s imagination. What’s more important here is that it was not shown in mainstream media outlets, continuing to emphasize the low-budget, low-quality nature of the film. They wanted viewers to think they stumbled across something unknown and share that news with friends. Additionally, through a partnership with the Sci-Fi channel, a mini documentary on the blair witch was put together to demonstrate the realness of the storyline. Even the movie label which purchased the film stayed on track with the campaign’s theme. Artisan refused to advertise the film conventionally and instead showed footage in colleges and niche settings. The teasers featured brief, low-fi trailers with only snippets of footage, along with the Blair Witch website address. Here is the video for the original trailer:

Magazine Ad

Finally, after opening weekend, the marketing team took out a full page ad in Variety Magazine, a well-known trade publication for the entertainment industry. But the approach was far from traditional. Instead of touting the flick’s impressive opening gross numbers, the copy read: “blairwitch.com: 21,222,589 hits to date.” And with that, Hollywood was introduced to the power of the Web. The ad was in a traditional space but the copy was raw and simple, just like everything about the film, to continue driving people to the website. Plus, the ad focused on the website’s success rather than the film. 21 million hits just after opening weekend. Keep in mind the time period. In early 1999, the internet was only being used regularly by about 190 million users (from Internet Live Stats). That means more than 11% of all internet users visited this single movie website!

Okay, so you’re probably waiting for me to mention ROI. Here goes…

Produced on a shoestring budget of around $25,000, the movie went on to earn almost 10,000 times that amount ($250 million)! It’s the sixth highest grossing independent film, and is the second most successful film of all time in terms of profit. In fact, it only trails behind Paranormal Activity in that category, which actually modeled its “home video” style filming after the Blair Witch Project. Although it no longer holds the top spot today, it does carry a legacy as the first successful venture to use internet marketing, online buzz and virility. It’s undoubtedly one of the greatest marketing campaigns in our history and the granddaddy of (successful) home video style filming.

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