The Real Secret of Blair Witch
By Rob Walker

(FORTUNE Magazine) – In July 1999, a movie called The Blair Witch Project debuted in just 27 theaters around the U.S. and was an instantane-ous smash hit, quickly grossing well over $100 million. Why? You've already heard the answer to that question, of course: a killer Internet marketing campaign. In fact, the Blair Witch phenomenon has been consistently cited as evidence of a brand-new era, in which nimble independents using smart, low-budget, Net-centric, "viral" campaigns can run circles around their traditional rivals.

Consider, for example, a study published this summer by Burson-Marsteller and Roper Starch Worldwide. It identified a new class of online tastemakers, dubbed "e-fluentials," who "shape the opinions and attitudes of the Internet community." For instance? Well, there's...The Blair Witch Project! "The Website for this low-budget film cost $15,000, yet it generated 75 million visits" the week of the film's release, one of the study's authors exulted, going on to cite a report that "Blair Witch's distributor, Artisan Entertainment, blitzed the public consciousness solely by using the Internet to spread word of mouth. By the end of its opening weekend, Blair Witch Project had broken American box office records, and Artisan had completely reinvented movie marketing."

But if all of this is so, then why is it that more than a year later, the only example we have of such a grassroots, Blair Witch-type phenomenon remains Blair Witch itself? It's not as if no one else has tried. This year, for example, both Groove and American Psycho relied in part on aggressively Webby campaigns. Seen either film?

Obviously the Web is not irrelevant to marketing: Every major cultural product now has an ancillary site, and the Internet can make word of mouth (which is not exactly a new idea) travel faster. And it's true that Blair Witch seemed to explode out of nowhere to become an overnight sensation. But upon reexamination, the notion that its success stemmed entirely from an Internet whispering campaign is about as real as the Blair witch itself.

When the film opened strongly, a positive avalanche of media coverage aimed to explain it all, and the Internet angle was simply the most interesting novelty; it was the hook. A New York Times story, which said Blair Witch had gotten a "mixed reaction" at the Sundance Film Festival, cited the movie's Internet campaign as a key to its success. The Wall Street Journal told how the "Website for months built anticipation for the film's release." The Los Angeles Times agreed that the "clever campaign...could change the way Hollywood thinks about publicizing its product." "Without the World Wide Web," the Toronto Globe and Mail flatly declared, "it's a safe bet the film would have died."

Really? As early as 1997--well before there was a Blair Website, of course--the filmmakers managed to get a trailer for the movie onto an Independent Film Channel show. The completed film played in early 1999 at both the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. It won a prize at Cannes, and the "mixed reaction" at Sundance included enough buzz to land it a million-dollar deal with Artisan.

A few days before Blair Witch opened, the Washington Post style section devoted 1,500 words to the film and made only one, passing reference to the Internet, in the seventh paragraph. Even that was placed within the context of the unusual nature of the film itself and how its makers had been slyly misleading people about whether their tale was documentary or fiction.

Artisan started putting real effort into the Website in April 1999, but it also promoted the film with a creative series of movie trailers. Meanwhile a one-hour Blair special had been produced and was airing incessantly on the Sci-Fi Channel just before the film's release. It's interesting and amusing that the film's marketers employed college kids in a "guerrilla campaign," posting Blair fliers in hipster cafes--but let's face it, a 60-minute show about your movie playing repeatedly on a cable station probably has a little more impact.

Isn't it possible that the trailers, the cable special, the saturation media coverage, and the film itself drove millions to the Website rather than the other way around? Or at the very least that a kind of virtuous feedback loop was created?

The motivation for the ensuing Blair Witch myth is not malice or even deception--it's wishful thinking. It's comforting to think that the key to the future of marketing can be identified and exploited so easily. And we all like the idea that the Web makes America that much more egalitarian, a place where anyone can make a hit with a touch of savvy and some hard work. But marketing with or without the Web remains a mysterious, near-alchemical process that can have as much to do with luck and timing as with anything else.

Probably the smartest observation I've read about Blair Witch came from none other than Harry Knowles, proprietor of the Ain't-It-Cool Website (which itself is a good example of how the Web has actually made it possible for fresh opinion shapers to arise--as new authority figures, not as anonymous "e-fluentials"). Asked whether Hollywood's post-Blair Web epiphany meant that history would soon repeat itself, Knowles noted the Web happened to be a perfect match for the subject matter and style of the Blair Witch Project. "That," he said simply, "was a one-off." F

ROB WALKER (walker.rob@lycos.com), is a contributing writer for Money and Slate. Richard A. Shaffer, the regular Watch This Space columnist, is on leave.