The Blair Witch Project may not be Real, but its Marketing Impact Sure Was

Oct 29, 2019

“In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found…”

Now, 20 years later, it’s hard to believe people actually thought the premise of the horror movie The Blair Witch Project was real. But people really bought it – they sent sympathy cards to family members of the “missing” film students (aka actors).

But that belief, and the terrifyingly effective viral marketing campaign that supported it, propelled the movie to become a cultural phenomenon and spawn a new film genre. The Blair Witch Project might not have been the very first found footage movie, but horror films like Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity owe a lot to it. 

Filming Made the Movie Feel Real

The filmmakers prioritized authenticity throughout filming. “The prime directive we had was that the film had to look completely real,” filmmaker Eduardo Sánchez told the New York Times. “The lighting had to make sense, the sound couldn’t be great,” he continued. “There wasn’t going to be a soundtrack. It was just edited footage.” Directors scared actors and took steps to get authentic performances. “Your safety is our concern. Your comfort is not,” they told them.

That approach turned what could be considered the independent film’s biggest shortcomings – amateur actors and no budget for special effects – into its biggest asset. 

The Blair Witch Project’s Viral Marketing Power

The Blair Witch Project’s marketing matched the film’s authentic and DIY aesthetic. Filmmakers handed out missing persons posters at screenings and plastered them around college campuses. They used the latest internet channels – a website and message boards – to continue to spread new information and “leads” about the urban legend.

Those online tactics are less-than-stable stakes in today’s digital marketing world, but plenty of brands since have embraced the use of emerging online channels and platforms.

The marketing efforts paid off – the $60,000 film earned nearly $250 million at the box office. Eventually, people began to realize the film wasn’t real. That only created more conversation around the movie – people were just as happy being in on the prank.

Long story short: Every era has its own opportunities for impactful, viral marketing. Look for ways to match the approach of your marketing efforts with the tone of the product, service or urban legend you’re promoting.

In 2019, three people disappeared after sharing this story.

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