Issue 128 – Mind Games

If you want your movie seen, it’s not enough to target a specific audience: you have to play marketing mind games with them too, writes Niall Kitson.

Mind Games

There’s a lot of money in pranking – just ask Ashton Kutcher and Johnny Knoxville. Better yet, ask Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. The names might not be as familiar but ten years ago this summer they were responsible for creating the biggest in-joke in the history of cinema: The Blair Witch Project.

Still credited as one of the scariest films of all time, The Blair Witch Project only really makes sense as part of a wider phenomenon: a strategy that played on cod local history, ‘documentary evidence’ and the temporary listing of the actors as missing by the Screen Actors Guild. Sure you might have learned about the movie from word of mouth, or been impressed by the trailer and iconic poster campaign, but the real buzz was a different kind of pre-release hype grounded by an indie sensibility making it acceptable to gorehounds and middlebrow cineastes. Was the footage that convincing? Were the actors really working without a script? What was the big deal?

The big deal was that, scary as some people found it, the absence of exposition created a fresh narrative space the filmmakers toyed with. Audiences flocked to internet forums to discuss the slow release of additional information: fresh ‘footage’, scraps of local history in document form. Who were the Burkittsville 7? How did they come to a bad end? Who was Rustin Parr? At one point the official website was clocking up 3 million hits per day from the concerned, the curious, and the bored in work. That’s the kind of spontaneous interest most marketers would kill for. Technically, they did. Posters may create awareness but active discussion makes for good box office. And it worked, to the tune of $248 million, a net return of $10,000 for every $1 spent on production and marketing. The Blair Witch Project was more than a movie, it was a puzzle enjoyable as a standalone commodity or within a wider context. As then head of marketing at Artisan pictures John Hegeman noted, without the internet the film simply would not have resonated with the masses, ‘[The internet is] against the grain of every other media, you can create a message and give it time to breathe. If the environment is interesting you can hold on to the fanbase longer, as opposed to a thirty-second spot that’s here and gone. For us it was […] the most impactful of delivery mechanisms.’

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 128