In 1958, film director William Castle had audiences for his horror film "Macabre" looking under their theater seats for electrodes put there to shock them. Forty years later, the makers of the summer sleeper hit "The Blair Witch Project" have used a different technology to attract and goose-bump American moviegoers: the Internet.
Their sensational results--$100 million in box-office receipts in six weeks--have Hollywood marketers buzzing about how old-school studios ought to be promoting new-school movies to the young Internet set.
Back in June 1998, filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez had finished their $35,000 movie about three documentary makers who disappear in the woods while making a movie about the 18th-century witch in fictional Blair, near the real Burkittsville, Md. But the movie, and immediate interest from some fellow filmheads, was just about all they had--they certainly had no distributor, nor the backing that a big-studio movie has. That's when the former film-school classmates created an eerie black-and-white Web site--launched from the site of Haxan Films, their production company--to get their witch story out there. The site recounted the legend of the witch--without ever hinting that all of it was bogus.
College-campus screenings and occult-enthusiast chat rooms sent people to the site and turned it into a Web phenomenon--and the witch into an urban legend--months before the public knew there was a film. And now, as the documentary-style movie fills the theaters week after week, a new, more sophisticated www. blairwitch.com site launched by distributor Artisan Entertainment is being used to expand the story--and the audience--adding new accounts, fake newspaper clippings and "evidence" of the witch.
"Blair Witch" opened on July 16 in 27 theaters; it's being shown in more than 2,000 now. But the real numbers may be in the Web site: In June, the site attracted 1.2 million different visitors, making the Nielsen/NetRatings' Top 50 list for two weeks running, and putting it at No. 8 for 12-to-17-year-olds.
The site attracted older viewers, too, but that coveted 12-to-17-year-old cohort is the group Hollywood is looking to lure. And it consists of moviegoers who aren't allowed into theaters to see the film without an adult. Indeed, the movie's "R" rating may even help draw them to the site, where they can see a stripped-down version of the story told in photos, sounds and video clips.
"Blair Witch" isn't unusual in having a Web site. Nowadays, just about every movie has an official site, in addition to "unofficial" ones and chat rooms created by fans.
But to the major studios, those Web sites are "an asterisk, an afterthought," according to Mark Borde, co-president of domestic distribution at independent film distributor Independent Artists Co. in Los Angeles. The majors focus their promotion on traditional vehicles--trailers in movie theaters and print and TV advertising.
What's so different about "Blair Witch's" Internet marketing?
While most movie sites treat their movies as finished products, offering cast photos, biographies and the like, Myrick and Sanchez in essence re-created their fiction on the site, complete with those fake newspaper clippings and the "diary" of one of the characters, Heather Donahue. For all that browsers knew, the mysterious goings-on in Maryland were true.
And by using the Internet, Myrick and Sanchez put their fantasy out there where their targeted audience--those 12-to-17-year-olds--would find it. Fundamentally, "Blair Witch" relied on the most Neanderthal method of marketing: word of mouth.
Perhaps the "Blair Witch" Web site can teach the big studios about grass-roots marketing on the Internet, Borde said.
Said Richard Baskin, co-founder of Intertainer Inc., which provides videos over the Net using broadband networks: "On the Web, the word spreads like wildfire."
But other marketing specialists aren't so sure.
"Hollywood learns its lessons very peculiarly. Everything's trendy for a minute or two," said Eddie Kalish, a marketing consultant for Ambergate Associates in Santa Monica, Calif., who has worked for major studios such as Paramount and MGM.
"Blair Witch" appealed to the Generation Xers who grew up with the Internet, said Allen Weiner, Internet analyst for NetRatings Inc. The Net may not work in the same way for a movie such as "Runaway Bride," which has grossed more than $99 million since opening day. It simply might not find its audience there, marketers said.
"There's a certain skepticism in the industry of how many people are on the Net and how many people actually are convinced by it," Ambergate's Kalish said. " 'Blair Witch' suddenly became an Internet darling when it might actually just be a quickie that happens from time to time."
Based on Census Bureau data, the Commerce Department has found that more than 25 percent of American households have Internet access. And an August 1998 study by AC Nielsen EDI, which tracks box office successes, showed that about half of frequent filmgoers (once or more a month) among the 15,000 respondents were Internet users.
But studios have tried to measure Internet effectiveness by the number of people who buy their movie tickets from the official Web site, Buckley said. And that's still a small percentage of moviegoers.
The bottom line is that the studios know that traditional venues of marketing work. Trailers in movie theaters, posters at bus stops, commercials on television, promotional toys and gadgets by restaurant chains and companies--these are the tried-and-true strategies.
"The studios are owned by conglomerates; no part of that mechanism is to run the risk of failing," said Randolph Pitts of independent film distributor Lumiere Films Inc. of Los Angeles.
As high-speed Internet access becomes common, more uncharted marketing territory will open up. But for now, Kalish said, "the Internet market is still too young to stand alone."
Don Buckley, senior vice president of theatrical marketing and new media at Warner Bros., added, "For every publicity component, there needs to be, if at all possible, an online component. But there also needs to be a marriage of offline and online for it to work."
To Buckley, who helped develop the first Warner Bros. Web site in 1995--for "Batman Forever"--that clearly means one thing:
"The way to market a movie like 'Blair Witch' on the Internet," he said, "is to make a movie like 'Blair Witch.' "
The Making of 'Blair Witch'
October 1997: Unknown filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez begin production of "The Blair Witch Project," with an initial budget of $35,000.
June 1998: Filmmakers launch the film's first Web site through its production company, Haxan Films, unfolding the legend of the Blair Witch as though it were authentic. A discussion board is set up on the Haxan.com site where filmmakers post the latest developments on the film.
July 1998: Filmmakers hold screenings of the unedited and unfinished film for college film students to get feedback.
January 1999: Artisan Entertainment acquires the film for $1 million at the Sundance Film Festival.
July 1999: A Web site launched by Artisan shortly after the purchase at www.blairwitch.com is rated the eighth most popular site among Internet users 12 to 17 years old, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
July 16, 1999: The movie opens at 27 theaters.
End of July 1999: Artisan commits up to $15 million for marketing and distribution of the movie and revamps www.blairwitch.com to make it episodic and constantly changing.
Today: More than 2,000 theaters are showing "The Blair Witch Project." The film has grossed about $100 million to date.
The Web site www.blairwitch.com is popular with 12- to 17-year-olds.
"Blair Witch" Web site visitors, by age group
Older than 49 5%
NOTE: The 2-to-11 age group, which was a negligible 0.5% of the total, is not shown above. Figures, which are rounded, are for July.
Do you live on a high-tech street or cul-de-sac where everybody seems to be working from home, where the longest commute is from someone's kitchen to an office in the den? If so--and if you're willing to be interviewed--please e-mail reporter Dan Eggen, at email@example.com.