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NoBudgetFilmSchool Written by NoBudgetFilmSchool
Sep. 9, 2009 | 7:18 PM





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The 3 “M’s” of the “Blair Witch Project” - Part 1

Blair WitchThe 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 a couple of weeks ago 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 advisers, 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. 

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.

Yours Truly With Dan MyrickI 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.

MYTHOLOGY

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 www.woodsmovie.com I found extensive journals kept by both co-directors, Dan Myrick (on the right, pictured with me above at the 10th Anni Event) 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 extensive and complex backstory that was developed around the completely fabricated story of the Blair Witch, a story that began in 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.

...to be continued…


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