How a low-budget horror movie scared up record profits using marketing witchcraft
“In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary. A year later, their footage was found.” – Original prologue for “The Blair Witch Project”
Everyone remembers their sense of dread while watching the 1999 cult classic “The Blair Witch Project.” Did this actually happen? Are we witnessing the final moments of three film students who disappeared in the woods?
The movie was ground-breaking for many reasons:
- While not officially the first “found footage” horror film (that honour belongs to 1980’s “Cannibal Holocaust”), “The Blair Witch Project” was the first in the genre to capture a mass audience.
- It had a marketing campaign that would provide the blueprint for the future of movie promotion. The movie was ahead of its time as it created a website that acted as a focal point for all things related to the film.
- The movie outgrossed several studio films with more recognizable stars and bigger budgets. On a $350,000 budget, the movie grossed nearly $250 million.
Let’s break down how the filmmakers and the studio brewed up such an innovative marketing campaign for a film with no stars and a shoestring production budget.
“You’re lost, you’re in the woods, and no one is here to help you!”
Before “The Blair Witch Project” hit theatres, the website blairwitch.com (which is no longer active) had already been active for a year. In a time when using the web to promote movies was still in its infancy, the anticipation for “Blair Witch” was already at a fever pitch.
The guerilla marketing campaign began with leaflets distributed mostly on university campuses (a key demographic). They had phony police reports and news stories that successfully kicked off the word-of-mouth stage. They wanted people to believe the story was real, and for the most part, people did.
The website was also creative in its content messaging. It was less about “go see the movie” and more about “what happened to three student filmmakers in the woods of Maryland?” There were stories about the myth of the Blair Witch, bios on the missing students and urban legends about murders and disappearances in the area. The website continued to grow until the movie’s release, which helped build the lore and the “Blair Witch” brand.
“Are you not scared enough?!”
Do you remember what message boards and chat rooms looked like in 1999? They were almost as scary as the movie. The filmmakers capitalized on this relatively new platform to build on the lore of the “Blair Witch.” It was an early example of building an online community.
Because the lead actors – Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams – lent their real names to the project, rumours about their disappearance continued to swirl. The message boards and chat rooms were filled with stories and speculation, further driving curiosity. Even the actors’ IMDB profiles listed them as “missing and presumed dead.”
When the movie finally came out, it had a built-in audience that came to theatres in droves. It was viral marketing before people knew what viral marketing was. In hindsight, it was a clever use of a marketing funnel. The first wave of the campaign captured their interest and brought them into the funnel (without them knowing they were in a funnel!). They then engaged them with a steady stream of exciting content, and gave them every reason to buy a ticket.
Now, more than 20 years later, movies (and brands in general) rely heavily on digital communities to boost interest in their content. Similar found footage franchises like “Paranormal Activity” and “Cloverfield” have drawn inspiration from “Blair Witch,” including the recent horror flick “Smile” where creepy, grinning actors were placed in the crowd at baseball games. Four TikToks alone generated more than 18 million views of the publicity stunt. For the price of one actor and one game ticket, the results were a home run.
A killer example of “experiential marketing” – no pun intended
So what can companies learn from the “Blair Witch” guerilla marketing campaign more than two decades later?
- Never underestimate the element of surprise. People are tired of the same old same old. When you start with something intriguing, they take notice. They become involved with what your promoting and are willing to follow you through to the conclusion.
- You don’t have to spend a lot to get people’s attention. ALS created a huge sensation with the ice bucket challenge. In just two months, 2.4 million related videos were shared, helping to raise millions in research. Temporary sidewalk stencils and strategically placed QR codes are low-cost ideas that could yield high results.
- You can exercise your creative muscles. Two great words in marketing are “What if…” Don’t be afraid to think of something different, something bigger picture. Dove had a hugely successful campaign in 2013 with their “Real Beauty” spot that addressed the struggles women endure daily. It received 146 million views worldwide and generated 4.6 billion media impressions.
Remember, these strategies are what helped take “The Blair Witch Project” to the top of the box office in 1999. These successful guerilla tactics are one way to put customers under your spell.
- “The Blair Witch Project” landed in the Guinness Book of World Records for “Top Budget: Box Office Ration.”
- Filming took only eight days, but the editing process took eight months.
- Actress Heather Donahue’s mom received sympathy cards from people who thought her daughter was actually missing.
- Despite bigger production and marketing budgets, none of the “Blair Witch” sequels have come close to repeating the success of the original.