"The Blair Witch Project" is doing more than giving audiences the creeps. It's also heralding a whole new approach to marketing the movies -- over the Internet.
"We really did no TV advertising until this week," says Daniel Myrick, co-director of the film that's positioning itself to be one of the most successful independent films ever. "Ninety percent of the good word of mouth that's been generated about the film has been generated through the Web."
Not that marketing movies over the Internet is something new; film studios have been creating Web sites for their new releases for years; Warner Bros. set up its first in 1995 for "Batman Forever."
"Blair Witch," however, may be the first film whose advance hype has depended primarily on its fans being computer-literate.
One thing's for certain -- it won't be the last. The marketers at Warner Bros. have had their coming animated film, "The Iron Giant," on the Internet for nearly a year.
"The fan base for this film ... was really born on the Internet," says Don Buckley, senior vice president of theatrical marketing and new media for Warner. "We've really created an 'Iron Giant' community on our site."
Whether "The Iron Giant" will be able to duplicate "Blair Witch" mania when it opens Aug. 6 remains to be seen. But film studios love nothing better than imitating their rivals' successes, so odds are that Artisan Pictures' success with "Blair Witch" will lead to similar promotional efforts.
"You just can't use the same old movie trailers," says Gordon Paddison, director of interactive marketing for New Line Cinema. "You have to find different ways to get across the theme or the information that the filmmaker wants. ... [The Internet] is a very strong promotional medium."
It certainly worked for "Blair Witch," a film made independently for about $35,000 and bought by Artisan, until recently known largely as a video-distribution company, for $1.1 million at January's Sundance Film Festival. Artisan says it plans to spend about $10 million marketing the film. Not only is that substantially less than most movie advertising budgets, but it's dwarfed by the $75 million studio officials now project the film will earn.
Certainly, the great word of mouth coming out of Sundance played a key role in the film's astonishing success. In a release limited to just 31 theaters last weekend, the film grossed over $5 million -- an average of some $64,000 per theater. (By comparison, last weekend's biggest moneymaker, "The Haunting," took in less than $12,000 per theater.) "Blair Witch" was playing in more than 1,000 theaters this weekend.
But apart from the quality of the film itself, industry experts agree, the real force behind the success of "Blair Witch" is the Internet. An official Web site (www.blairwitch. com) that's been up and running for more than a year fills in the story behind the plot: the disappearance of three student filmmakers in the woods of Western Maryland.
So effective is the Web site, replete as it is with details of the search for the missing students, that even before the film opened, fans were visiting the tiny hamlet of Burkittsville, purported home of the Blair Witch. Fans posted e-mail on the site debating the truth of the Blair Witch legend (just as the film does, the Web site deliberately blurs the line between fact and fiction). And dozens of unofficial sites spread word of the film and its fear-inducing world throughout the Internet.
All this before the film had even opened.
"I think it's a good thing for all of us who do this for a living, who believe the Internet is a good way to reach moviegoers," says Warners' Buckley. "I think they did a great job."
Still, the film community is not ready to embrace the Internet wholeheartedly. The preponderance of amateur Web sites devoted to film news and gossip is a major frustration to filmmakers, who often find critiques of their films on the Web based on test screenings that didn't feature the completed work.
But for marketers, the Internet is proving an invaluable tool -- not only in promoting a new film but also in maintaining interest in a film franchise between pictures.
" 'Austin Powers' is a perfect example of a property that benefits from online marketing," says New Line's Paddison, referring to the 1997 spy spoof and its sequel this summer. "The Net enables you to build a one-to-one relationship that will be a lifetime relationship, and that's really important."
Perhaps the surest sign that Internet movie marketing has come of age is that promoters have begun efforts to co-opt it. Some industry observers claim marketers are putting up Web sites designed to look amateur, to create positive buzz about a film and its grass-roots appeal.
While he doesn't go that far, Warners' Buckley does say one of the goals of the studio's official Web sites is to encourage fans to create their own.
"We realized that there are a great number of organically grown personal sites devoted to the movie," he says of the promotional campaign for "The Iron Giant." "So we created a Web site, frankly, to make it easier for fans to create their own."
Buckley, who says the studio has also had great success with Internet sites for such films as "The Matrix" and "Contact," cites an added benefit to his work on the Web. It's made him something of a Big Man on Campus at Warner Bros.
"I've always been treated very well," he says with a laugh, "but let's say my phone log is picking up."