Monday, June 12, 2006

Marketing Case Study: "The Blair Witch Project"

By Roger Darnell

..Challenge.. From all reports, the feature film (and marketing) phenomenon that is known as “The Blair Witch Project” began with a group of dedicated, talented and resourceful filmmakers who were intent on using every asset at their disposal to make a successful film under their banner of Haxan Films. Cash was scarce among those assets, but by applying their passion, knowledge and capabilities, the group earned themselves a spectacular distribution deal with a Hollywood maverick, Artisan Entertainment, which fully appreciated the viral marketing strategy and execution that had led to their deal. With approximately $35,000 invested in the film by the time Artisan got involved, the distributor used an estimated $1.5 million to complete the extraordinary viral campaign – and to take it mainstream. Also, as the film opened, Artisan’s team intentionally limited the number of theaters where the film debuted, spurring demand and sustaining solid buzz for a horror film that is universally admired for its uncommon success.

..Approach.. Though the source of the idea behind their film remains something of a mystery, the Haxan group, including co-writers, directors and editors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, honed-in on their premise and began laying the foundation for their success over two years before their film began appearing in theaters. Together with their producing partners, they focused on their own passions and experiences, realizing that each had a fascination with unexplained phenomena which held a great promise for dramatic engagement within the groups of people that they could collectively reach, influence and (hopefully) incite into action. So, they carefully crafted a tale about three film students mysteriously dying in the woods, and with references to a legend about a Blair Witch, seeded the topic in popular internet-based discussion boards focused on independent film and horror-related topics, before eventually launching their own detail-laden website. The team kept their poker faces and shrewdly continued playing what cards they had, leveraging the connection with indie film pundit, Sundance Film Festival Committee member and host of a popular Independent Film Channel program John Pierson, to have him screen some supposedly “found” footage on his program and encourage viewers to discuss it on his website. When their film was slated for a midnight screening at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival’s premiere, the team plastered the venue city in advance with stickmen (part of the film’s occult mythology) and posters of the “missing” filmmakers. An exclusive article on the film also graced the cover of the Sundance edition of Filmmaker magazine. The first sold-out screening led to an all-night business session with Artisan’s representatives, and by morning, the Haxan team had themselves a deal. Over the months that followed, Artisan picked up the well-conceived marketing plan, infused it with money, and carried it forward in high fashion. First, the original website was expanded with new content. Next, the distributor eschewed advance reviews by film critics, instead rolling the film out on a 40-college tour nationwide, where campuses received the advance poster and stickman treatment to pump-up intrigue within the core audience. A murky “mockumentary” was also produced, which was promoted heavily and then screened on the SciFi Channel on the eve of the film’s theatrical debut. Finally, after taking these other steps to build the viral campaign to a crescendo, Artisan launched a staggered, cross-media campaign toward 17 to 28-year-olds who surf the net, using the web as the primary medium until the week of release and then using cable TV, independent weeklies and radio to promote the film. Only after its first week in release did Artisan begin running broadcast spots and ads in major newspapers.

..Results.. During its 17-week theatrical run which began in the summer of 1999, “The Blair Witch Project” became the most profitable horror film in history, earning over $140 million domestically and $240 million worldwide, while also smashing the record for the average per-screen theater take, which was previously held by none other than George Lucas’ “Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace.” With its box office coup, the team behind the film was lauded for delivering the world’s first successful internet marketing campaign for a feature film, and they also prompted a far-reaching shakeup within an industry obsessed with big name talent and huge budgets. The film won the 1999 Cannes Film Festival’s Foreign Film Award of Youth, its producers Robin Cowie, Gregg Hale and Michael Monello won the Producers Guild of America’s Nova Award for Most Promising Producer in Theatrical Motion Pictures, and the marketing campaign took home the Golden Trailer Awards’ Best Trailer prize for 1999. Despite the undeniable financial, business and critical accomplishments of the film, many consider that the key ingredient in its success was in the filmmakers’ brilliance in effectively and intelligently engaging their core audience in a compelling experience years before they ever began promoting their film.

Copyright 2006 Darnell Works Inc. All rights reserved.