The Blair Witch Project’s True Genius Happened Off-Screen

Found-footage pioneer maintains reputation because of its phenomenal marketing campaign.

When The Blair Witch Project was unleashed upon audiences in 1999, no one could have predicted how the film changed cinema. The film was shot on a shoestring budget of $60,000 dollars and managed to scare up $248m in worldwide grosses. The found-footage horror film worked its way into the public psyche with unrelenting force. The biggest question though is whether the success should be painted on the merits of the film or its subversive and memorable marketing campaign.

Perhaps what led The Blair Witch Project to gain as much traction as it did, was how directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez fabricated the legend of the Blair Witch. They began with creating a mockumentary for the Sci-Fi channel (now known as SyFy), that specifically looked into the legend of three missing documentary filmmakers and the life of the Blair Witch. The documentary was filled with articles, interviews, and newsreels that only existed to fuel the legend and promote the film. The three missing filmmakers would become the focus point for the feature film since their footage was discovered deep in the woods.

Now the mockumentary was only a small portion of the set-up for the picture. Myrick and Sanchez decided to make a website with the actors and their childhood photos and biographies that would give the film an even deeper backstory. The Blair Witch Project website was put up in 1998, during the infancy of the Internet. Perhaps Myrick and Sanchez didn’t even understand, but what they were creating was a grassroots viral marketing campaign. The webpage drew global interest and made fans believe they were going to watch a film where three young filmmakers disappeared at the hands of the Blair Witch.

Is The Blair Witch Project truly scarier than The Exorcist? Not a chance. The way the film is constructed plays better if you believe the main actors died. When it hit theaters in July 1999, the principal actors were told to refuse interviews and since we didn’t have Twitter and Facebook to uncover the secrets, audiences truly believed these kids perished at the hands of the Blair Witch. The 1999 MTV Video Awards sort of ruined the actors fate, since they showed up for the award show. This led many to feel as though they had been tricked by the marketing and they turned on the film.

The Blair Witch Project might not be the first film that implemented found-footage, but it is the one that popularized the technique. Having the actors, presumably, film the events themselves added suspense and an illusion of authenticity. Since it was unveiled upon the world in 1999, the genre of found-footage has gained immense popularity from films such as Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, and Chronicle. It continues to flourish because of its effectiveness in the horror genre and financial success. The Blair Witch Project set the blueprint that many films after would try to emulate.

The events of The Blair Witch Project start in October 1994 when film students Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard set out to make a documentary about the fabled Blair Witch. Many of the locals they interview before heading out into the woods are familiar with the legend. They hope to get some good footage for their project and aren’t only looking to film the story of the Blair Witch, but also their journey.

When Heather, Michael, and Josh finally enter the woods is where things start to feel uneasy. Heather seems have a good idea of where they should go, but Michael is skeptic about her map reading abilities. After a few days in the woods they decide they have enough footage and try to head back to the car, but that is easier in theory than it is in practice.

The panic of being lost in the woods makes them unsettled, but it gets worse every evening. They start hearing strange noises such as twigs breaking and the echoes of children laughing. The group need to get out of the woods, but self sabotage has left them without a map and no hope to escape the wrath of the Blair Witch. Although her actual existence still remains a mystery by the end of the feature, the fortunes of the students are dim to say the least.

Like many good horror films, the build-up to suspense is the key to success. The Blair Witch Project spent a full year building anticipation with mockumentaries, web sites, and PR stunts before that became commonplace. Watching the film today, separated from that viral marketing campaign, there’s little left but unlikable characters yelling at each other in the dark. Gone is the mystery of their fate, since we now know they were only actors in a movie. Instead of being a catalyst for the found-footage movement, the infancy of the craft becomes noticeable. Finally, it was product of its time, a relic of film history that has not aged well.

There is no denying the effect The Blair Witch Project had on film making and viral marketing. The film can only be qualified as an achievement thanks to marketing, since it fails to create the same sense of dread from years past. Widely successful films could be made on a meager budget if it had the right campaign behind it. Many films have tried to recreate the exact formula The Blair Witch Project implemented to become a runaway success, but none have ever managed the same feat.