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NoBudgetFilmSchool Written by NoBudgetFilmSchool
Sep. 23, 2009 | 1:14 AM

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The 3 ?M?s? of the ?Blair Witch Project? - Part 2

(This is Part Two of a two-part story. Please find Part One below.)


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.

Josh Leonard on setThe 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.

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