THE HALLOWEEN ISSUE
The week of October 25, 2015

The unintentionally brilliant marketing of BlairWitch.com

By Rick Paulas

The four of us were driving to see a snuff film.

We were from Oak Forest, Illinois, a quiet Chicago suburb, nestled and lost in the confusing southern sprawling tableau of other “Oaks” and other “Forests.” The town had bars, but we were only 18. It had the haunted cemeteries, but we’d already tiptoed between those overgrown gravestones. Instead, we had to find excitement where we could: crank calls, eggings, full seasons of Nintendo’s R.B.I. Baseball, squinting through wavy fleshy lines of scrambled porn, and just driving, with no particular destination in mind.

One of our crew had heard about this new documentary about the disappearance of three student filmmakers in the woods somewhere. Their bodies were never recovered, but their footage was found. Someone had edited it into a consumable 81 minutes. Word was, this was the scariest movie of all time. On July 16, 1999, it was released on 27 select screens throughout the country, among them the Music Box Theatre, a downtown Chicago movie palace from 1929. There was no guarantee it’d ever play anywhere else, so the four of us popped into someone’s parents’ car and drove 40 minutes into the city to, we believed, watch three people die on camera.

Why did we think The Blair Witch Project was real? The Internet told us so.

Eduardo Sánchez and Dan Myrick met in film school at the University of Central Florida. In 1993, they came up with the broad outline for a movie about filmmakers who disappeared while shooting a documentary. The project was known simply as “The Woods.”

It’d be shot in a classic documentary format, incorporating interviews with parents, local law enforcement, and Wiccan experts, interspersed with B-roll footage of the subsequent investigation, archival footage of previous events at the location, a history of the mythological Blair Witch, and, yes, actual footage from the missing filmmakers. After graduation, their pal Gregg Hale came onto the project as a producer, and the three created an eight-minute proof-of-concept reel to lure potential investors—essentially, a short version of the proposed “documentary”—hoping the sample would loosen enough wallets to fund the project.

Myrick, meanwhile, found himself assisting legendary indie producer John Pierson—who had ushered Spike Lee, Kevin Smith, Michael Moore, and Richard Linklater into the industry—film a short documentary about a kitschy Florida tourist trap called “Gatorland.” The short was for Pierson’s Split Screen, an IFC show that highlighted independent filmmakers by giving them essentially free rein to produce stand-alone segments. Myrick took the opportunity to show off their investor’s reel.

“[Pierson] thought it was legit,” said Myrick. “When I told him it was all fake, he asked if he could show it.”

Pierson offered the guys a deal: They’d make him two segments, one as a first season teaser/cliffhanger, one for the second season, and he’d give them $5,000 for each. Of course, the guys took the deal. The money would become nearly half of the blockbuster’s now-legendary $22,500 budget.

The first segment—which still lives on YouTube—combined the original demo reel (the filmmakers gone missing, the history of the Blair Witch legend, the Rustin Parr murders, a possible cover-up by local police), with a short addendum, introducing Haxan Films (i.e., Sánchez, Myrick, and Hale). They were hired by the filmmakers’ families to comb through reels of tapes that had been recently discovered in an abandoned cabin deep in the forest. Any hints as to the documentarians’ whereabouts would, hopefully, be on the tapes.

It was the perfect teaser: Almost immediately, the bare-bones website was inundated with traffic.

Everyone stayed deadpan throughout the segment. “We are as unsure now as anybody as far as what’s on [the tapes],” Hale said in the segment. “All we have left are the reels of film, and that’s where we want to find the truth of this story,” added Myrick. The clip ended with a white-on-black title card, stating: “Split Screen will broadcast an exclusive first look at the Blair Witch footage in our March, 1998 season premiere.” It was the perfect teaser, and it hit its mark. Almost immediately, the bare-bones website for Pierson’s show was inundated with traffic.

“He called me up and said, ‘Dan, we’re getting overrun by people asking about this story,’” said Myrick. “You need to start a website.”

• • •

There’s a reason they say you go through a breakup. It’s not a puzzle that involves figuring out some secret answer for getting past it. You just have to experience it. There’s a time element at play. One day you feel terrible, the next day a little less terrible, the day after that a little bit less, and so on. At some point down the line—in some cases, way down the line—you’re almost back to normal. The only real trick, then, is to pass that seemingly insurmountable time any way you can. For the recently heartbroken Eduardo Sánchez, he delved into “Blair.”

“He was down, so he just wanted to sit in the office all day,” said Hale.

Luckily, there was plenty to do. In addition to editing the various “interviews” with experts, the search for the missing filmmakers, and footage expanding the Blair Witch mythology, as well as the murderous Rustin Parr thread, they had 19 hours of new footage to cull through. It came from a week of shooting with actors Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard in Walnut County Park in Sullivan County, New York. At that point, this part of the production was called “The Experiment.”

What sometimes gets lost in the phenomenon that The Blair Witch Project became is how inventive and experimental the filming process was. Myrick and Sánchez are listed as “co-directors” of the film, but they were rarely there during the actual filming. Rather, they gave their trio of actors video cameras and a GPS system, the latter of which the trio would use to locate milk crates that had been hidden throughout the forest. Each crate contained hints as to their next location and plot points they’d have to hit during that day through improvised lines. A big reason why the fear seems so real in the movie is, in a lot of those cases, the actors didn’t know what was about to happen. That creates real fear.

But a strange thing happened when they started showing the film’s rough cut to friends: People didn’t like it. More to the point, they didn’t like the faux documentary approach to the story of the missing filmmakers. Instead, what they were drawn to was specifically the footage of the three kids in the woods, everything that had been filmed over those eight days in the woods.

“We had this conversation that was like, all the stuff we spent our money on, we’re going to throw that away?” said Robin Cowie, one of the film’s producers. “We couldn’t get ourselves to throw it away.”

Luckily, the team had a secret weapon. Sánchez not only had previous experience building a website—remember, this was before you could plug in a few variations into a pre-made template and have a site up and running in minutes—but he also had the need for distraction that raw heartbreak brings. So while Myrick and Sánchez shared editing duties—Dan during the day, Eduardo at night—the website was Sánchez’s extra escape to take over the rest of his waking hours.

So began the life of BlairWitch.com.

Here was not only a landing pad for Pierson’s Split Screen forum to funnel to but also a place to dump the rest of this expansive story they’d created, only a sliver of which they were going to show. “That was the prime directive of the website,” said Sánchez. The site had dossiers of the missing filmmakers, along with photos of them as kids; a history of the Blair Witch legend; stories from the town following the filmmakers’ disappearance; and, maybe most importantly, a message board.

The Internet of 1999: It’s lightly populated. It’s clunky. It’s accessed almost exclusively in our home living rooms, singular ports of transmission via loud and whirring dial-up modems.

No one’s quite sure of what the traffic was in those early days—this was before hit-count metrics, although Myrick believes between 10,000 and 20,000 people regularly visited the site—but those who were there were fanatics. “Our hardcore fans were making their own websites linking to ours,” Myrick recalled. “It was this early affiliate program.”

The fans would go onto the message board to ask the filmmakers about some unexplained part of the mythology, which slowly added to the depth and breadth of the site’s offerings. “Heather kept a journal, OK, we’ll put up the cover,” said Cowie. “Well, what’s in the journal? OK, let’s put that in.” Sánchez would add “Easter eggs” by using hidden pixels that would take browsers into another part of the site. “You’d be mousing over something and find an invisible clickable link,” Hale said. “We understood that interactivity was a two-way street. We needed to be listening to what our audience was telling us.”

By the movie’s premiere at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, nearly the entire audience had been to the website. And with those Easter eggs, with that expanding mythology laid out for them to get lost in whenever they felt like it, the raucous crowd made the screening one of the biggest stories to come out of that year’s festival. Artisan acquired the film’s rights for $1.1 million and quickly began its barrage of marketing. “Once Artisan put our website on a national stage, that’s when things exploded from a traffic standpoint,” Myrick said. “I lost track of the numbers.”

They changed a few things on the site, mostly small—they had money to throw at the project, so they spruced up the design—but some telling. For instance, they removed the names and photos of the Haxan team. This was not to remove authorial credit, but instead to cloud whether or not the events depicted in the film were real. “We told them we don’t think we should be marketing it as reality,” said Sánchez. “Are we allowed to do it? Won’t people sue us? They were like, ‘Nah, we’ll take care of it.’”

The rest of the hype campaign included missing posters for the filmmakers, a phone number to call in tips, hiring Haxan to produce the half-hour Curse of the Blair Witch “documentary” exploring the life of the missing filmmakers that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel. (Basically, a higher-budget remake of their eight-minute reel.) The campaign had a few swings-and-misses, including the release of a mix CD “found in the car of the one of the missing filmmakers,” but the message was consistent: This is a true story. And every piece of marketing included a URL lingering at the bottom—you know, if prospective audience members wanted more info.

Consider: The Internet of 1999. It’s lightly populated. It’s clunky. It’s accessed almost exclusively in our home living rooms, singular ports of transmission via loud and whirring dial-up modems. It’s still pretty anonymous, with message board monikers and AIM nicknames being our methods of address, and it’s dangerous, with gross-out websites and newly accessible porn waging a wide-ranging campaign to instantly desensitize an entire generation. It’s also a time when we weren’t entirely sure what we could and couldn’t trust.

And into this atmosphere comes a movie that seems to be real, hyped by an ad campaign that states the events are real, and a website that doesn’t flinch when its authenticity is questioned. No, these weren’t three independent sources, but they felt like they were—medium is the message and all. It was a campaign style that hadn’t been utilized before; the audience hadn’t yet built its skepticism. And so, during this sweet spot of time, between the Sundance premiere and the film’s wide release on Aug. 1, 1999, a whole lot of folks weren’t sure what was real.

“We walked the line because we didn’t want to alienate people, but we weren’t interested in doing a hoax.”

The filmmakers, if asked point blank whether or not it was a movie, told the truth. Except when they didn’t. “People were emailing us all the time, ‘I can’t find their college records,’” Sánchez said. “Our responses were based on what mood we were in. Sometimes it was, ‘no man, it’s not real.’ Sometimes it was, ‘well, they probably took the names out of the registrar.’ We walked the line because we didn’t want to alienate people, but we weren’t interested in doing a hoax.”

One day, the team found out just how far they’d blurred the line. They were sitting in their office when their phone started ringing. On the other end of the line was a police officer from Albany, New York. “He used to work in that area and had never heard of the disappearance,” Myrick said. “I stopped him mid-sentence and said this is all fake, it’s for a movie. There was a long, tense pause, and he started laughing. ‘Oh, you had me totally fooled. I was going through case records and calling old partners.’ It was like, wow, if we can fool an actual police officer…”

If that’s the case, you can surely fool a carload of teenagers from suburban Chicago.

The rest of the story is well-known. The Blair Witch Project became a worldwide phenomenon, the likes of which are rarely seen when discussing movies that cost millions, and completely unheard of when they cost $22,500. It went on to gross nearly $250 million worldwide, was spoofed by every satirical entity in existence—the shot of Heather’s face is as iconic a cinematic image as there is—and even landed Sánchez and Myrick appearances on The Today Show, The Daily Show, and the cover of Time.

“My daughter recently found the video from The Daily Show, and she asked me, ‘Did you meet before the taping?’ And I actually don’t know,” Sánchez said. “How do you not remember that? It’s this weird thing, like someone else’s life. It was just beyond any of our wildest dreams.”

The film’s success not only led to the rise of the “found footage” genre, for good or ill (Paranormal Activity was essentially a spiritual heir, even in the hype-building distribution strategy), but also gave people a new understanding of how this newfound thing called the Internet could be used to hype movies. What most of the subsequent campaigns didn’t understand was that BlairWitch.com worked because it wasn’t made with marketing in mind. It was simply a way to further tell their story.

“What I see today is reverse engineering,” Myrick said. “We’re going to have a Facebook page, and Twitter, and Instagram, but the content isn’t compelling. All you have is a mediocre product that’s accessible 100 different ways. A bologna sandwich is still a bologna sandwich.”

Would the movie work today? Maybe. It’s still an effective horror film on its own, definitely something not to watch before a camping trip. But would it work because people thought it might be real? Probably not. “Now, imagine if we put Josh, Heather, and Mike out there,” Sánchez said. “People would know them. Or people would be like, I went to high school with her; she’s an actor. People are so much more connected now.”

“We’re going to have a Facebook page, and Twitter, and Instagram, but the content isn’t compelling. All you have is a mediocre product that’s accessible 100 different ways. A bologna sandwich is still a bologna sandwich.”

But lessons learned from The Blair Witch Project are inconsequential, because the phenomenon is not replicable. It went viral, because it did. It was the exact right thing at the exact right time. A fresh breath of air in a stale genre, a relatable portrait of youngsters with newly affordable and portable technology, allowing the World Wide Web to supplement the story because they had material they wanted to get out there. Trying to do this, and actually accomplishing it, is impossible.

“It was not the film we set out to make,” Sánchez said. “It organically shaped itself. None of us have been able to replicate that success, obviously. All the planets aligned. Now, I think it would’ve gone straight to (video on demand).”

Illustrations by J. Longo