‘The Blair Witch Project’ Scares Off Hollywood Convention

Blair Witch Project Success

Coveted covers of Time and Newsweek. More than $133.8 million in domestic box office. Filmmaker and actor appearances on “Good Morning America,” The Today Show,” “CBS This Morning” and “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”

If, three months ago, you had predicted such hoopla for a microbudgeted, experimental film originally slotted for a midnight sidebar at the Sundance Film Festival, you might have been advised to seek counseling. And yet the phenomenal success of “The Blair Witch Project” was no indie fantasy. It really did happen, unlike the events in this mockumentary about three filmmakers who disappear in the woods while investigating a witch of local legend.

Now that the hysteria has cooled, it’s clear that the film has caused the industry to take stock of the way it makes movies and what audiences expect for their $8-plus admission.

For moviegoers bored stiff with the formulaic fare the studios chum out during the summer; the bad news is that not even the miraculous success of a tiny faux documentary can change the movie business as we know it. But it can provoke a dialogue.

On any given day in August, “Blair Witch” caused untold numbers of people in Hollywood and around the country to discuss the studio system, the amount of money stars are paid and the necessity of visual effects and onscreen violence, or to reflect on Internet marketing, reality-based entertainment and the democratization of filmmaking. Many were hopeful “Blair Witch” would prove to be a wakeup call to the studios rather than a blip on the screen.

But “Blair” has become the subject of massive analysis. Harry Clein, a partner in the PR firm Clein & Walker—which got involved with “Witch” well before it reached the Sundance festival in January — says, “I dont think it’s going to change Hollywood. The more things change, the more things stay the same.”

Noting that any significant world event might have derailed “Witch” from its simultaneous Time and Newsweek covers — which Clein refers to as “the Holy Grail of publicity” — and also that had “The Sixth Sense” opened earlier it might have hurt “Witch,” Clein continues: “You can’t duplicate all the things that happened and necessarily come out with the same result.”

Dan Myrick, one of the Aim’s two directors, acknowledges the amount of luck involved in the success: “We were at the right place at the right time. What we learned is that when the planets are in line, a lot of good things can happen.”

Artisan Entertainment copresident Bill Block calls the film “swipfMeria … unique unto itself.” If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then it will be difficult, he suggeats, for this kind of lightning to strike twice.

But no matter how much the filmmakers, Artisan and the PR firm behind the movie attribute to divine intervention, as they reflect on a distrib’s dream summer, they point to concrete reasons why interest in the movie spread like wildfire.

While Amir Malin, co-president of Artisan, scoffs at the notion that “Blair” has rewritten the rules of commercial filmmaking, he believes Hollywood is rethinking its approach to entertainment. “The film’s success reinforced the idea that you don’t need $80 million budgets,” he says. “It has taught the creative community that you have to make unique and fresh ideas.”

Reflecting on whether “Blair” will change Hollywood, Myrick says, “I dont think the Htar system will disappear any time soon. But what Blair Witch’ has done is give low-budget films more commercial credibility.”

While reports have placed the film’s budget between $30,000-$60,000, the filmmakers say the film cost roughly $35,000 to shoot. However, post-production fees raised that number to several hundred thousand dollars prior to its Sundance debut By the time the film reached theaters, the cost soared to roughly $500,000, about half of which Artisan kicked in.

Noting the huge amount of money studios lavish on their marketing campaigns, Malin says, “What Artisan has proven, with a fraction of the marketing dollars studios normally spend, is that if your message is not connecting, all that money spent is for naught. This film is going to wake up the film community, and specifically the studio way of marketing and distributing dims, which is basically a dinosaur business.”

Producer Mike Menello notes, “Our film will make people look especially hard at the stories they are telling. What you really need is an imaginative story told in an imaginative way.”

Malin emphasizes “Blair” was put on a specialized trajectory with what he calls a “guerrilla marketing campaign” that included canvassing college campuses, releasing footage on an enhanced version of the filmmakers’ Web site and broadcasting an hourlong doc about the Blair witch on the Sci-Fi Channel a week before the film’s opening to pique viewer curiosity. Says Mann: “We built it up, step by step.”

But when all is said and done, the filmmakers and Artisan’s true genius came in their prescience to treat the Internet as another vehicle for storytelling They created folklore surrounding the Blair witch. They added faux documents about the missing students. And, above all, they intrigued browsers, lured them in, whetted their appetites.

The film’s Web site, http://www.blairwitch.com, had received upwards of 160 million hits by the end of August.

As is inevitable given the amount of hype surrounding “Blair Witch,”‘the film’s miraculous success has resulted in something of a backlash. While some see “Blair Witch” as revolutionizing the motion picture business, others point to the film as the death of indie filmmaking in ways not meant to be complimentary.

Not everyone loves ‘Blair’

One detractor is veteran film critic Andrew Sarris, an early proponent of the auteur theory. In his review for the New York Observer, Sarris writes: ” The Blair Witch Project’ represents the ultimate triumph of the Sundance scam: Make a heartless home movie, get enough critics to blurb in near unison ‘scary,’ and watch the suckers flock to be fleeced. This fictional documentary within a pseudo-documentary form may be the most overrated, under-financed piece of film to come down the pike in a long time.”

Sarris’ assessment reflects a more sober view of “Blair Witch’s” success. While indie guru John Pierson can take some solace in knowing his cable show “Split Screen” broadcast the filmmakers’ earliest “Witch” footage, he told Time magazine: “There is no good lesson to learn here. It’s not an independent film phenomenon. What you really have here is a convergence of old and new media.”

But the lesson for Hollywood may lie behind Block’s assertion that one should “never show the monster.”

In an age when movies are made as talent packages, when studios want stars rather than actors, when bigger is thought to be better, when visual effects overshadow story and character and when loud musical scores wallpaper a film, if anything, “Blair” suggests getting back to the basics: Concentrate chiefly on the storytelling, the interaction between actors, even on moments of silence. And, above all, invite the viewers imagination, dont repress it.