The New Genius


The Blair Witch Team: Eduardo Sanchez & Daniel Myrick

You would have laughed. Two years ago, had anyone proposed to you that a no-name movie shot entirely by handheld camera on a $30,000 budget would take Hollywood by storm in the summer of 1999, you would have chuckled in disbelief. Admit it. A conference with the Blair Witch herself couldn't have convinced you otherwise.

Now, needless to say, it's the creative and marketing teams behind The Blair Witch Project that are having the last laugh. Although this movie is remarkable on many levels, the buzz it generated was nothing short of supernatural. Not only did it lay waste to the Hollywood mythology that equates monster budgets with success, it also laid to rest any lingering notions that word-of-mouth happens by accident.

Consider the dilemma. Blair Witch writer-directors Daniel Myrick, 35, and Eduardo Sanchez, 30, not only had to figure out how to scare up an audience for their film, but also had to generate considerable buzz just to get their film released into movie theaters. Marketing began in June 1998--a full year before the film was released--with the launch of a Web site that told the "back story" of Burkittsville, Maryland's fictional witch.

It cast a spell. What began as an e-mail list to a few dozen friends quickly transformed into 1,700 hard-core believers--many of whom didn't realize the mythology wasn't real. Fan pages went up, hypertext links lit up like Christmas lights, and a cult was born. By the time the movie hit the Sundance Film Festival in January 1999, Blair Witch was no longer a no-name player.

"The buzz at Sundance was certainly stronger because of our site," says Sanchez, who built the original Web site. "A lot of people tell us they spend hours exploring the world we've created around the Blair Witch. They get excited not only about the movie, but about the mythology as well."

Artisan Entertainment, the marketing and distribution company that signed The Blair Witch Project at Sundance, picked up where the unbudgeted Sanchez and Myrick left off. It poured money into the Web site, creating regularly staged events, such as the release of outtakes from a "discovered" film reel. The haul: more than 100 million hits and counting. College campuses were plastered with "Missing Persons" posters bemoaning the plight of Blair Witch's ill-fated characters. The movie's first trailer was leaked to selected Web sites (including Ain't-It-Cool-News). And in July, just before the movie's release, cable TV's Sci-Fi Channel aired a "mockumentary" detailing enough of the Blair Witch legend to start up a scare.

And what a scare it was. Gross receipts for Blair Witch topped $139 million, which just might make it the most profitable movie ever, considering its low initial budget. Though its success will be hard to duplicate, the gritty, cutting-edge techniques used to promote this film have themselves become the stuff of legends.

"The public is like a swarm of bees--it's an organic entity that exists apart from the behavior and characteristics of each individual," muses Robert J. Dowling, editor in chief and publisher of the The Hollywood Reporter. "Blair Witch hooked into that organism. People got caught up in it.

"You talk to any waiter in L.A., and they'll tell you it's impossible to break into this business. Well, these guys proved it's possible. I mean, who were they? Who knew them? They made a movie that a lot of people either didn't like or walked out of, and still they had everybody talking." That's not myth. That's reality.

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This article was originally published in the January 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The New Genius.

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