Looking back in horror, writer Glenn Whipp has delved into the legacy (both real and imagined) of “The Blair Witch Project,” which surged out of the Maryland woods 10 years ago this summer.
Ten summers ago, a group of independent filmmakers came up with a Web-based, viral marketing campaign that proved so effective — and influential — in creating buzz and audience anticipation that it overshadowed the very movie it was designed to promote.
These guys were never heard from again — but their promotional savvy lives on.
That’s the conventional wisdom about the no-budget, exercise-in-imagination horror flick “The Blair Witch Project.” But like most things surrounding a movie that trafficked heavily in mythology, the truth is a bit more complicated, not to mention happier (at least for some of the principals involved).
When it opened on 27 screens in mid-July 1999, “Blair” found an eager audience that had been primed for months through the film’s innovative website and the free publicity it garnered at overflow screenings at Sundance and Cannes. Many at the early screenings believed that the film’s novel premise — three student filmmakers disappear in the woods while shooting a documentary about the legend of a local witch and their footage is found a year later — contained some grain of truth.
“The blurb on the poster said this was ‘found footage,’ and there was nothing in the marketing to lead you to believe it was anything but that,” says “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” director Scott Derrickson, who saw “Blair” on its opening day at the Nuart.
That perception was reinforced by the movie’s clever website, launched before Sundance, which expanded the “Blair” lore with bogus news reports, historical timelines and video interviews. At a time when the Internet was still but a toddler, the website catered to a small, but very influential group of fans.
“Did the marketing overshadow the movie? Yeah, in some respects,” “Blair” co-director Eduardo Sánchez says. “But since we created 90% of the marketing, I never had a problem with that.”
“Blair” holds up as a nifty exercise in terror but its relevance extends far beyond its artistic merit, even as its “Cops“-inspired, hand-held aesthetic has become ingrained in the film fabric, integral in such outings as last year’s “Cloverfield” and even in big-budget, whiplash-inducing movies such as J.J. Abrams’ recent “Star Trek.“
The movie’s “reality” may have been manufactured, but it set the template for such television shows as “Survivor” and “Fear Factor” that arrived in its wake, programs in which producers put their “characters” through deprivation and punishment in the name of entertainment. And, really, in terms of authenticity, what Sanchez and co-director Daniel Myrick inflicted upon their actors in the Maryland woods wasn’t much more staged than the maneuverings of a Mark Burnett reality production.
Another “Blair” reality had an even greater reach. Made for $35,000 and taking in nearly $250 million worldwide, “Blair” inspired a gold rush of do-it-yourself filmmakers to run to the local electronics store, pick up a Hi8 camera and make their own movies.
— Glenn Whipp
Top photo: “Blair Witch Project.” Credit: Artisan Entertainment.
Bottom photo: Sam Raimi. Credit: Ann Johansson / For The Times