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The 3 "M's" of "The Blair Witch Project"
September 2009 
(Click Images for Links or to Enlarge) 

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BWP Opened 10 Years Ago

The occasion of the 10th anniversary of "The Blair Witch Project"--the most successful no-budget film of all time--provides an opportunity to revisit and rethink just why this film was so successful in the first place, and allows one to ask if there are any relevant lessons we can still learn from a story that was plastered on the cover of every major magazine at the time and in every indie film business plan ever since. I had just this opportunity last month when I was asked to moderate the post-screening discussion of the 10th Anniversary Screening of the film here in LA, at the Egyptian Theatre. Most of the film's team of collaborators would be present, probably for the first time since the film opened at Sundance in January 1999, and the Egyptian would be screening the original Sundance cut, which few people had ever seen, (Artisan, the film's distributor, asked the filmmakers to make some changes post-Sundance to enhance certain aspects).

Now, I happen to have my own personal BW story. I was working at Next Wave Films at the time the film was being completed and we had been tracking its progress for more than a year. We were tipped off to the project by one of our advisors, famed producer's rep (who'd become a television show host), John Pierson. John's show on IFC (Next Wave's parent company), "Split Screen" had featured the film twice and early buzz was already starting to build. My anticipation had been whetted from talking to producer Gregg Hale, one of the famed "Haxen 5" who made the film, over the prior several months. He gave me updates on the film's progress: they had just screened a 3 hour cut and gotten feedback; they had just screened a 2 hour cut and gotten feedback; they were getting really close to having a cut to send us. You see, we were a finishing funds company, and the Haxen folks were broke, and were looking for money wherever they could find it. When the VHS tape finally came in early October 1998, I grabbed it immediately, took it home and screened it. I remember it was a cold night because I kept getting goosebumps and wasn't sure if it was from the cold or the film. It frankly scared the shit out of me. I gave it our highest rating, "Consider ASAP," and handed it off to Next Wave president Peter Broderick to watch. Talking to Gregg that next day, I was delighted to learn just how they had pulled off the film's impressive verisimilitude, one of the secrets to its success. I also realized that they had cut out a whole bunch of material (that I remembered seeing on "Split Screen"), making the film just the edited "found" footage of the fictional filmmakers. This decision ended up being a stroke of genius, and it also meant there was a bunch of other related content that could be used to support the film. I remember thinking how well that stuff would have played on IFC. Turns out I was right, though it ended up playing on the Sci Fi Channel when Next Wave ultimately couldn't close the deal.

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BWP took U.S by storm
That coming Summer 1999 was a depressing one for me, knowing how close we were to investing in what would quickly become the highest grossing no-budget film ever, an off-the-charts phenomenon that would alter the indie marketplace significantly and change all the rules of how you made and marketed films. When it was all said and done, the film made over $140 million domestically and over $240 million worldwide. Having seen the film before just about anyone else aside from the filmmakers, and having drawn my own conclusions about it's worth before its astronomical success would cloud every objective opinion, I've always maintained the industry got it wrong when they concluded what made it so successful. Usually that explanation boiled down to two words--The Internet. It's hard to remember now, but the internet was still in its infancy back in 1998. I think I got online for the first time in late 1996. There was no such thing as broadband, social networking, MySpace, YouTube, Facebook or even Google. There was AOL and Netscape and that was just about it. So when the film cleverly used the internet to create an "online community" around the film--something that didn't even have a name at that time--people figured that was the magic formula. You just put your film on the internet. This mentality of course was mirrored by every other industry at the time and led to the eventual Dot Com Bust less than a year later. The film encountered its own bust shortly after it opened. Once the word got out to the general public, no doubt spurred on by simultaneous cover stories in both Time and Newsweek, the inevitable backlash struck, and with that, whatever teachable lessons from the making of "The Blair Witch Project" were buried by the Dot Com Boom and the "this film sucks" cry that overtook the discussion.

I thought about all of this as I prepared the night before for the event. I always knew there were important lessons for filmmakers to gain from the success of the film, but it was my new penchant for trying to quantify these lessons (as the Founder of No Budget Film School) and the research I was conducting that night that gave me the structure for my discussion. I realized that there were three secrets to BW's success: Mythology, Methodology, and Marketing. And that now more than ever, these three M's were the key to any new indie film's success.




Yours Truly with Dan Myrick (right)

While I was fairly familiar with the BW story, I took it upon myself to read up on the film before I led the evening's discussion. Fortunately for aspiring indie filmmakers, the BW folks have made a treasure trove of material available on various websites. On I found extensive journals kept by both co-directors, Dan Myrick and Ed Sanchez, which really give a detailed depiction of the decisions made throughout the making of the film--the highs and the many lows, the good luck and bad luck, and the uncertainty and good judgment, that went along with making the film. The term Mythology was used extensively in these journals and it referred to the detailed and complex backstory that was developed around the completely fabricated story of the Blair Witch, a story that began in the late 1700's. It was team-member Ben Rock's responsibility to fill in the details of this mythology and at first, it was just for the purpose of giving the film depth and texture, and to give the actors a foundation to work their improvisations from. It was never intended to be used to help market the film, to help build a community around the film--the term "building a community around a film" hadn't ever been used before, though it is an essential part of indie film marketing now, at all levels, made easier by online community aggregators like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.

When the second episode of "Split Screen" aired, and viewers wanted to know more about what was going on in Burkittsville, Maryland, there wasn't even a BW website yet. IFC was getting so inundated that it was fouling up normal operations, so Pierson encouraged the gang to get a website up and fast, so that IFC could redirect that traffic to them. When the site went up, it was filled with all the backstory elements used to make the film, and then a funny thing happened. Before there was even a rough cut of the film, fans started interacting with the site, commenting on the material, even building their own fan sites. The mythology was so compelling it drove fan interest even before the movie was a movie. Two other terms now commonly used were at play here: "viral" and "user generated content." Because of this new power of the internet, fans could quickly let their friends know about what they were enjoying, and they could create their own content and make that available to their friends. If you're familiar with BW's Sundance story, you know that it premiered in the Midnight Section, heretofore considered an afterthought compared to Dramatic Competition. Hours after that jam-packed first screening, Artisan hammered out a deal with the filmmakers that was announced to the world the next morning. But how was that screening--that 12:00am screening--jam-packed? Kids from Salt Lake City who had been following the film for months trekked to Park City to queue up for this first screening, many of them turned away as the film sold out nearly instantly.

Today smart filmmakers have websites with vibrant, dynamic content that attracts niche audiences who might be interested in the films. They provide opportunities for fans to comment on and discuss this content, even allowing for them to blog or create video around the subject of the film. They capture email addresses from web visitors, interact with them, and build a relationship with them. The content on these sites is more than just a trailer and a few stills from the making of the film. Like BW, these websites enhance and enrich the experience of viewing the film. They create experiences related to, but separate from the actual film itself. When I spoke to web guru and BW producer Mike Monello--who now runs a successful alternative marketing company called Campfire--about the internet marketing "plan" used for the film, he laughed, wishing he could say he had planned it all out from the beginning, but it didn't happen that way. It was organic. They made it up as they went along. Filmmakers today have a roadmap to follow, but a really good plan also allows for improvisation, and is flexible enough to move in the direction the community progresses in.


One of the biggest reasons for "Blair's" success--and the one that never gets its due--is its uniqueness. That internet marketing stuff is great, but if that first group of fans had seen a derivative, unsatisfying film, they were going to get right back on the web and tell everyone to forget it. What those first few waves of audience members saw was something that they'd never really seen before. Something the studios would have never done. It didn't feel like "Halloween," "Nightmare On Elm Street," "Friday The 13th," or "Scream." If it had, the game would have been over before it started. And if the conceit had been poorly executed--if everything (really anything) had seemed false or phony, they would have been done, too. This part of the film's success is owed to Methodology. I teach a concept in my class that states essentially that unique methodologies yield unique results. If you make a movie in a totally different way, a way that no one has ever attempted, then the outcome would have to be unique too. This is why I stress to my students to throw out any of the filmmaking templates that they've heard of. These "proper" ways to make a movie usually don't apply to their particular situations anyway--most templates assume you have money and/or other things you probably don't have. Each no-budget filmmaker has a unique set of circumstances, a unique collection of resources and limitations, that should shape the way they make their films. And in the game of independent filmmaking, especially when film festivals are a big part of the strategy, Uniqueness is King.

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Actor Josh Leonard on 16mm
The story about how the Haxen 5 shot BW is pretty amazing, and was certainly one of the highlights of the evening's discussion. Rather than spend 15 or 20 days shooting in the woods with a crew and a camper and a craft service table and a video village and all the other things that a typical set utilizes, the filmmakers gave cameras, tape and film to their actors and put them out in the woods by themselves. Hale, a former member of the Army special forces, came up with much of the plan. The actors were to shoot in real time, with a rough outline of what was to happen, but with no real interaction with the crew. To communicate, the filmmakers left notes in baskets, along with food and water, and the actors were given GPS units so they would know where to go. As the days wore on, (they shot the forest stuff in 8 days), the filmmakers left them less food and gave them less sleep. In a film where verisimilitude is everything, this is how you do it! Now, no one makes a film this way. I can already hear all the producers out there worrying about safety issues and insurance. I can hear the DP's out there wondering how an actor is supposed to shoot the film. Myrick mentioned that the plan from the beginning, in order for the audience to believe that the footage was the actual found footage of three student filmmakers, was to capture the kinds of "imperfections" that would be inherent in this kind of material. Taking planned, professional looking footage and trying to dumb it down would have been a disaster, (rent Brian De Palma's "Redacted" for reference). Anytime you try something new and different, or radical as the case may be, you're taking a risk. But these risks are an essential part of the no-budget filmmaking process. This is where you gain your competitive advantage over studio films.


It should be obvious that the third M, Marketing, which was so important to BW's success and to the success of any film, would not have been possible without the successful integration of the first two M's. The filmmakers and distributor took the dynamic content built around the perfectly executed film and put together a unique and specifically designed marketing plan. Some of these marketing ideas had been cooked up by the filmmakers and some of them were designed by the distributor, inspired by the filmmakers. Artisan had played this game successfully the year before with their 1998 Sundance acquisition "Pi." The "Pi" filmmakers also had a unique film and had designed an original grassroots plan for marketing it even before Sundance. Rather than cast that plan aside, Artisan put money behind it and built on it. For BW, Artisan's stroke of genius was to take a unique film and market it uniquely. Do you remember the first two trailers for BW? (see below). The first 30 second teaser spot is 28 seconds of black and 2 seconds of footage. The 30 second trailer that followed had about 28 seconds of footage that never made it into the film and 2 seconds of actual footage from the movie. Who does this now? What studio today would ever take a risk like this on their big summer release? And this was a big release for Artisan. Artisan knew before the summer that they were going to 1500 screens--filmgoers were calling their local multiplexes asking when the film was coming out. Studios were calling Artisan to find out when they were opening wide so they could move their summer tentpoles out of the way! Can you imagine that?? $100 million films with $70 million marketing budgets moving out of the way of a $30,000 film made by a bunch of gutsy first-timers running around in the woods?

Jeremy Walker, the publicist who joined the film early on, was the genius behind managing the story of the film. For two or three months in the summer of 1999, there wasn't one place where you didn't see the filmmakers or hear about the film. Like with any film today, the battle is won or lost with marketing. If you don't have a recognizable element (like a big star or material based on a bestselling novel, a comic book or a popular kid's toy) and marketing money, you have to have a story you can tell to the press, or perhaps directly to your audience. The world of marketing has changed dramatically since BW, but the need to successfully market your film, even if you have to do it yourself, hasn't. The avenues for getting the word out have fragmented--you can't just run a few national trailers on the broadcast networks and run full-page ads in the major newspapers--nobody watches TV anymore and when's the last time you read a newspaper? Fortunately for no-budget filmmakers, these avenues were never really available anyway, and the new pathways, fragmented as they are, are cheap and available to those willing to work at finding them. This is where social network marketing, affiliate marketing, and good old-fashioned email marketing come into play. The BW marketing story may be an old one, but study it, and you'll gain insights that will help you along your own unique path.

So, for all the filmmakers in attendance that night last month, it was a wonderful event filled with funny stories and useful lessons. Fortunately, the evening was videotaped and should be available online at some point. I will pass that information along as soon as I know about it.

No Budget Report August 2007 - LAFF
No Budget Report March 2007 - Sundance
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