Today, The Blair Witch Project is most recognized for kicking off mainstream horror’s fascination with found-footage movies (though it was certainly not the first motion picture to utilize the format) and ensuring that nobody can go into an abandoned sprawling forest again without looking over their shoulders to check if any supernatural forces are sneaking up on them. But the legacy of The Blair Witch Project is especially apparent in how it was marketed. This indie horror title got onto people’s radars in the first place because of an ingenious marketing campaign that provided a template on how movies could utilize the internet for promotional purposes.
It wasn’t just the in-universe Blair Witch characters gazing into the camera with this movie. The norms for 21st-century movie marketing were also staring moviegoers straight in the face, at least when it came to The Blair Witch Project’s promotional push.
The Premiere of ‘The Blair Witch Project’
What would eventually become one of the big success stories of 1999 had, like so many sleeper indie hits, humble beginnings. The Blair Witch Project had its world premiere at the 1999 edition of the Sundance Film Festival and was just the kind of unknown wild card that can take off like a shot at the festival. That’s just what happened with The Blair Witch Project, which immediately struck a chord with the moviegoers and studio executives who saw it at its first screening.
The morning after its premiere, The Blair Witch Project was purchased by Artisan Entertainment, with the studio even beating out Miramax (an outfit that was a big name in the world of horror at the time thanks to Scream) for distribution rights to the feature. An experienced producer by the name of Jeff Dowd commented positively on the feature and felt that Artisan had made a good solid purchase with the title, noting that “If this movie resonates with them, it could go out and do $10-, $20-, $30-million box office.” He’d turn out to be underestimating The Blair Witch Project’s appeal by a hair.
Even with the ink still drying on this deal, Artisan Entertainment was already thinking of appropriately unique ways to promote such an unorthodox horror film. The Los Angeles Times piece on Artisan purchasing Blair Witch mentioned that a documentary about the making of The Blair Witch Project was in production and, more importantly, that a journal penned by in-universe character Heather was already published on the internet. This nonchalant mention of how buzz was already brewing for this micro-budget horror film would turn out to be a harbinger of what would make The Blair Witch Project pop at the box office: viral marketing.
How Did the Internet Influence ‘Blair Witch’?
By 1998, 147 million people around the world were hooked up to the internet, more than double the 61 million that had access to the service just two years earlier. Naturally, movie studios were starting to explore how this new digital frontier could be used for marketing purposes. Stargate kicked off the trend of movies using official websites as a promotional tool, but these sites were often quite basic and far from immersive. They were clearly trying to sell things or convey information to visitors rather than trying to submerge internet travelers into a fictional world. That would change with movies like The Blair Witch Project, which would go in a radically different route in its internet marketing.
In July 1999, on the eve of The Blair Witch Project’s wide release debut (the film had already garnered massive box office numbers in limited release), the Los Angeles Times did an in-depth breakdown of how the tiny marketing team at Artisan Entertainment (consisting of just 12 people) had managed to get The Blair Witch Project on everybody’s radar with such unusual marketing tactics. Specifically, The Blair Witch Project had a website that kept dropping new materials related to the film on a weekly basis. Long before The Hunger Games used Facebook pages to get visitors immersed in the various corners of Panem, The Blair Witch Project was using its standalone website to reward regular visitors and flesh out the depth of its fictional universe. The website also utilized special footage shot for the movie that was never used in the final cut of The Blair Witch Project. Internet-based marketing for The Blair Witch Project was offering something new and exciting for viewers rather than just rehashing commercials people could see on TV.
There were also clever ways to take the mythology of The Blair Witch Project off the internet or movie theater screen and out into the real world, such as putting out a CD that was intended to be ripped from a cassette that belonged to one of the movie’s lead characters. Even old-school marketing approaches like the trailers for The Blair Witch Project exuded confidence, such as putting one of its teasers on the biggest movies of 1999, Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace. The Blair Witch Project wasn’t trying to just lure horror movie devotees, but rather audiences of all shapes and sizes with its marketing.
The Lasting Impact of ‘The Blair Witch Project’
The Blair Witch Project’s marketing got so clever and immersive that there were even attempts to pass off the movie’s characters as real people who actually went missing. This was the coup de grâce of its promotional campaign, the apex of how Artisan Entertainment tried to blur the lines between fiction and reality. The approach worked like gangbusters, as The Blair Witch Project became the kind of box office sensation movie studios dream about. Its marketing also served as a harbinger of just how internet-focused promotional campaigns would become for any new theatrical feature. Every feature, no matter what genre it belongs to, must now deliver significant internet marketing.
In hindsight, though, it’s easy to look back on The Blair Witch Project’s marketing with a bit of wistfulness. We’ve had many movies since Blair Witch try and use their marketing campaigns to make it seem like a fictional world has bled into our own (namely aspects of the promotional materials for District 9). However, the age of social media, Google, and countless other facets of the internet have ensured these charades cannot last for long. Nowadays, we’d all be able to search on IMDb who the cast members were in the teaser trailer for The Blair Witch Project before it finished playing for the first time. Meanwhile, the shortened time span for most movie marketing campaigns, brought on by the pandemic and streamers rarely doing more than a few weeks of promotional pushing, has ensured that the slow-burn simmer of Blair Witch’s marketing would be impossible to replicate today.
The Blair Witch Project was a trailblazer for internet-based movie marketing, but in the context of history, it’s also the kind of splashy promotional push most movie studios just don’t have the time or effort to execute anymore. Now there’s a thought that’s scarier than anything that could be lurking in the woods.