Lightning Strikes for <i>Blair Witch Project</i> (Fool On the Hill) August 2, 1999

An Investment Opinion

Lightning Strikes for Blair Witch Project

By Yi-Hsin Chang (TMF Puck)
August 2, 1999

We live in a culture where we are inundated by marketing, by hype. We see so many bad commercials, so many bad examples of marketing, that we hardly even notice. So when a marketing campaign does work, we should take time to notice and figure out what was done right -- and acknowledge how difficult it is to come up with the "right" formula.

The marketing success that inspired this train of thought was none other than The Blair Witch Project, the much-talked-about independent film about three film students who go into the woods of Maryland to make a documentary about the legend of the Blair witch.

In a summer kicked off by the totally over-hyped special effects extravaganza that was Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace, Blair Witch works precisely because it seems to lack sophistication, because it comes across as utterly real, not digitized. Its crude and at times shaky footage adds to its believability. It looks like a documentary and a home video shot by some film students who are in way over their heads.

The brilliance of it all, of course, is that this was a movie -- albeit a low-budget one -- and the three stars of it were, in fact, actors, though they did lend their real names to the project. The movie blurs the line between fiction and reality: "In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found."

To further blur the line between fact and fiction, the filmmakers and producers created an elaborate website, complete with a timeline and detailed background about the film students and the legend of the Blair witch. They also made a documentary for the Sci-Fi Channel that explained in astonishing detail the fictional legend of the Blair witch.

This past weekend, Blair Witch was the second-highest grossing movie, raking in an estimated $28.5 million. This is a movie that cost about $350,000 to make, according to its distributor Artisan Entertainment. In limited release the weekend before, Blair Witch averaged $64,500 per theater, compared with The Haunting's $11,752 per theater average.

Blair Witch has been successful because it is genuinely scary. It doesn't rely on a giant mechanical shark or computer-generated moving walls; it relies on one's imagination. It cleverly plays off of our all-too-familiar fears of getting lost in the woods and believing in spooky tales of witches and ghosts and goblins.

No doubt there will be Blair Witch copycats. But that's the catch. It's not a formula that can be reconcocted. As Blair Witch director Eduardo Sanchez said in a CNN interview: "One of the guys from Artisan told me the other day, 'Everything that could possibly go right on the film has gone right on this film, and you're never going to experience that again in your career, and I'm never going to experience it again in my career. So savor the moment, because this is as good as it can possibly get, that it's ever gotten with any indie film, so don't expect it to happen again'."

While there's been talk of a sequel, Sanchez said, "Our whole theory with Blair is, we'd rather let someone else screw it up than us screw it up."

What the Blair Witch phenomenon underscores is that moviemaking and marketing are more art and luck than pure science. No one knows that more than the heads of the major studios, who are probably scratching their heads over all this, trying to figure out how to get a piece of the action (not to mention investors trying to figure out which entertainment companies in which to invest). Sanchez's Haxan Films already has a TV deal with Fox Entertainment (NYSE: FOX). But more likely than not, this is as good as it's going to get for the people involved with Blair Witch -- 'cause lightening just ain't likely to strike twice.