This week sees the release of a remake of the Blair Witch Project in UK cinemas. The film tells the story of journalists investigating a New England witch trial. The journalists decide to camp out at the site of the witches cabin which is located deep in a forest. During the night, strange things start to happen and the terror begins.
The original film was released in 1999 and was a film school graduation project which became a surprise cinema hit grossing well over $100 million dollars in ticket sales. This was a massive return on investment for a film which cost $15,000 to produce.
The film was made with domestic video equipment and was one of the first to use the concept of ‘found footage’. The film’s makers were able to blur the line between fiction and reality. Was the footage real documentary images discovered by the team searching for the now missing journalists or was it a cleverly crafted horror movie? At the time many were convinced that the footage was actually real.
This was not the first time this trick had been used. Probably its most famous use was the radio broadcast of HG Well’s War of the World’s in the USA. Orson Welles produced the broadcast as a series of news reports. Listeners were not told that the were listening to a drama and many were spooked into thinking that Martians were actually invading.
The Blair Witch Project was also promoted as a truly terrifying experience. Again this is not new. In the 1950s notices were often placed outside cinemas stating that nurses were stationed at screenings to treat those who fainted with fright. Local newspaper advertisements for films would advise people with a heart condition not to view the film. My favourite gimmick was for the film The Tingler; which told of an alien parasite which crawled into the spine of its host. Certain seats in the cinema were wired to give the sitter an electric shock at an appropriate point in the film giving the impression that the parasite was actually in the theatre!
So if the concept of passing off the film as a documentary and the hyping of its ability to frighten were not new, what was?
Probably the most notable element in the promotional mix of The Blair Witch project was its use of the internet as a delivery channel. Even though the film was released in 1999, it had a website as far back as 1997. The period either side of the millennium was the first spurt in the growth of social media. Where other films used a website to advertise the release through the use of clips and stills, the Blair Witch site linked itself to web forums and social media sites. Rather than focusing on the content of the film, these forums focused on whether the content of the film was real or not.
Press releases issued about the film also drove the debate as to the reality of the content. The film was initially released in just 26 cinemas. This quickly grew to over 2000 cinemas. This staged release also helped build the hype around the film.
The marketing of the original Blair Witch film was helped by two cultural changes, the growth of social media and the widespread availability of VHS video cameras to the general population. I did note that there was a full cinema release of a film made in its entirety on an iPhone. Most consumer SLR cameras now include the ability to produce high-definition video.
I doubt the remake of the Blair Witch project will have the extraordinary success of the first film. It can no longer be marketed using a debate about the reality of its content and the social media techniques which the original exploited are now common place. In fact, it seems to be a pretty cynical attempt to cash in on the existing cult status of the original film. The last time this was tried was the terrible Nicholas cage remake of The Wicker Man.
If anything is to be learnt about the promotion of the first film, it is that you need to sell more than the product. You need to sell the product surround. You need to sell the sizzle, not just the sausage.