How 1999’s ‘The Blair Witch Project’ Foretold Hollywood’s Shift to Viral Marketing

Low-cost genre movies reap bigger benefits from targeted online promotion

The Blair Witch Project 1999
The Blair Witch Project (Haxan/Artisan)

Eighteen years ago, a star-free indie movie called “The Blair Witch Project” became the first movie to focus its marketing strategy around the then-emerging internet with its own dedicated website.

It happened years before the advent of Twitter, YouTube and Snapchat, when producers at Haxan Films pioneered an approach to promoting a movie that’s making new strides with recent hits like “Don’t Breathe” and “Lights Out.”

Going live a full year before the found-footage horror movie eventually opened in theaters, went up months before the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1999 — when Artisan bought the rights for $1 million. (The film itself cost less than $25,000 to make.)

The original site is still live today, now updated to promote the sequel by Lionsgate, “Blair Witch,” opening this weekend. But the original site served as an extension of the 1999 film — a prelude presentation detailing the supposed history of the Blair Witch dating back to 1785.

The site first revealed the discovery of mysterious footage made by a trio of young filmmakers who supposedly went missing after investigating a wooded area allegedly haunted by a witch.

The page hosted extensive character bios, clips from the found film and photos of the group as they prepared for their scary quest. A cinematic work of fiction, it was all built up ahead of time as a reflection of “true” events.

The marketing ruse even extended to the then fledgling — which listed the three actors as “missing, presumed dead.”

The strategy paid off, as the site amassed more than 20 million page views before the movie opened in theaters in the summer of 1999.

“The Blair Witch Project” went on to become one of the biggest sleeper hits in movie history, packing theaters in its first two weekends during its limited release before a successful wide release. All said, the horror movie made on a shoestring went on to earn $248.6 million worldwide. And the lion share of those grosses were pure profit.

Studios have learned the lesson. That’s why distributors releasing genre movies, especially horrors and thrillers, tend to spend more of their marketing dollars toward online promotion.

Sony devoted 50 percent of the marketing budget for “Don’t Breathe” to digital campaigns, more than double the industry norm, and launched the first-ever 360 Snapchat ad for a film. The home-invasion thriller nearly tripled its $10 million production budget with its $26.4 million opening weekend.

The studio has followed a similar digital-heavy approach to other recent hits like “Sausage Party” and “The Shallows.”

Universal spent 60 percent of its marketing for the 2014 Blumhouse cyber thriller “Unfriended” on digital — mostly YouTube, utilizing Google’s TrueView tool, which helps marketers determine what’s resonating with viewers. “This didn’t just inform what we did on YouTube,” said Josh Goldstine, president of worldwide marketing at Universal, during a YouTube Brandcast 2015 presentation. “This informed all of our marketing.”

“Unfriended,” which cost Blumhouse roughly $1 million to produce, went on to earn more than $64 million worldwide. “We were able to achieve higher levels of awareness in our core demographic than movie campaigns that cost twice, sometimes three times as much,” boasted Goldstine.

Of course, digital-heavy marketing campaigns sometimes indicate studio jitters because executives lack confidence in a film and don’t want to spend on a more traditional (and expensive) TV and print campaign, according to movie marketing experts with whom TheWrap consulted.

Universal also supports Jason Blum‘s BH Tilt, which is responsible for micro-budgeted moneymakers like “The Darkness,” starring Kevin Bacon, and Eli Roth‘s torture porn movie “The Green Inferno.”

BH Tilt is run by John Hegeman, who oversaw “The Blair Witch Project” marketing campaign back in the late ’90s when he was head of Artisan’s marketing department. And the company’s core premise builds on the “Blair Witch” playbook: tiny production budgets, small-but-targeted marketing spends that are heavy on digital.

All of this stands in contrast to traditional studio fare, where digital continues to play a much smaller role For big-budget tentpoles like Disney-Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” and Warner Bros.-DC Comics’ “Suicide Squad,” studios typically spend less than 15 percent of the marketing budget on digital platforms, favoring TV and print advertising, according to several experts interviewed by TheWrap.