By Dalva Carlier
The Blair Witch Project directed in 1999 is the world most profitable movie ever. Let me explain to you what made its success, how original it was at the time and how did the movie’s communication out-standed the features of the time.
Breaking with codes: Filmed with only one camera, amateur effect, embedded camera movements, no use of special effects, unknown actors… So many features that did not suggest the huge success that gained the Blair Witch Project. Yet with a budget of 60 000 dollars for more a revenue exceeding 240 million dollars worldwide, it became the most profitable film in the history of cinema.
The success resides in the film’s ability to distil anxiety just by suggestion, without showing who is responsible for the disappearance of the three heroes in the forest, but also thanks to a brilliant marketing strategy that made the film appear is a real, authentic documentary. Summer 1999, At work, in newspapers, in talk-shows and in the playground, people are talking about the Blair Witch Project during weeks and weeks. Why so? Because the marketing genius behind the film was the idea of making it a huge hoax.
The story is well-known: three film students are leaving in the woods of Maryland to shoot a documentary on the urban legend of Blair’s witch. But they get lost quickly in the woods and at night, they are harassed by strange phenomena. Although they shoot a maximum of images of their advance over several days (with what seems to be an unlimited supply of DV camera batteries that at the time averaged 2-3 hours at full speed), they fail never to film the formal proof of what comes to attack them. The last images of the film stop suddenly in an abandoned house in the woods. And the legend tells that their video material was found, reassembled and operated in cinemas as documentary evidence of their disappearance. Presented at Sundance in 1999, flyers with a large inscription “MISSING” show the faces and names of the three students, asking to alert the authorities in case of information on their disappearance. On the film’s official website, police reports and newspaper clips corroborate the film’s story. At the time, no social networks, no background investigation and nobody to ask this simple fact: we are in the presence of a simple fiction film. This will be enough to make many people believe the story at the time of the film’s release and the voyeuristic idea intrinsic to the found footage feeds the morbid curiosity of the public ready to pay their ticket to see the last images of real people before their death, in addition to trying to elucidate their disappearance with many clues posed throughout the film. The machine is launched.
And the phenomenon is only going to increase. IMDB will present the three actors (who give their real names in the movie to their characters) as missing/presumed dead for months before rectifying the mistake. The forests of Maryland become filled with fans going on a witch-hunt, robbing each location of the film, including the tree-hung trees that become an obvious logo of the film. The parents of the actors receive messages of condolences and the production must ask them not to say anything in order to maintain the illusion. The directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez hit the nail with “Curse of The Blair Witch”, which is a mockumentary about the film as a news story, retracing the journey of the missing youth and the people they are interviewed as well as urban legends surrounding the film, including the story of the child killer Rustin Parr (anagram of Rasputin) which will be the subject of a book, also written in the manner of a real investigation including testimonials from people that have ever existed.
The secret is finally fanned by several biases: first, because the end credits of the film clearly state that it is a work of fiction. Then because the directors will eventually sell the wick to the press by revealing themselves and finally the actors themselves will eventually go around TV interviews, thus continuing to promote the film.
It will take more than 15 years for a second component to be considered. This time, the film arrives at a time when no secrets can escape the internet, which the production will smartly get around by presenting the film in various festivals under the false title “The Woods” and collect rave reviews everywhere it passes, before revealing by surprise to the comic-con of 2016 its real title: “Blair Witch”.
Formal proof that it has never been as hard to create a buzz around a movie as it is today and that The Blair Witch Project, in addition to giving a rebirth to the original “found footage”, ushered in a whole new genre: the viral video.