Fresh Blood

The left-field, ultra-low-budget The Blair Witch Project scares us in a way that Hollywood's forgotten

This is the way the more benign Sanchez describes his career goals: "Try to stay out of L.A."

The press has likened the film to a "garage band" because of its rough technique and low budget. But Myrick and Sanchez aren't shy about using arena-rock methods to get their film out. They went to Sundance with a pretty traditional retinue--a high-powered lawyer, a prestigious publicist and a well-respected agent--even before the movie had been picked up by a distributor. As Gregg Hale, the film's producer, puts it, "We had done 'guerrilla' enough."

Though a grassroots buzz had developed at horror and sci-fi conventions and on the Internet, the execs who caught the movie at its Sundance midnight screening didn't have guerrilla marketing in mind, either. John Hegeman, the Artisan executive vice president for worldwide marketing who bought the film in Park City, saw a late-Nineties phenomenon in its raw form: an indie event movie. The film, he realized, could generate so much word of mouth that people wouldn't be able to ignore it. Five months later, Hegeman discusses the movie's "counterprogramming" and promotional strategy as if detailing an Army invasion: The movie, he says, will employ "the same event-marketing techniques" the company would use for a blockbuster. "It's just [aimed] to a subtler, well-defined and rabid moviegoing audience" in metropolitan centers. That is, until the film storms suburbia a few weeks later, where it'll be aimed at everybody. "It's been very organized. We've tried to be as strategic as possible."

Besides the movie itself, Artisan has coordinated the release of a comic book (which comes out Friday from Oni Press) and a novelization that's packaged as an investigation into the students' disappearance. (The Blair Witch Project--A Dossier will be released in mid-August by Onyx, a division of Penguin/Putnam.) The filmmakers joke about Blair Witch key chains and an upcoming musical.

Gone are the days, Hegeman says, when a specialized film needs good reviews and a booking in the right art house. A movie like Blair Witch can really hit if it builds what he calls an "overall field of anticipation" in cult circles and then in the big cities where it opens first. Artisan did this kind of marketing with the obsessive technological thriller Pi last summer; the mathematical symbol appeared on little stickers all over Manhattan, as if a mysterious underground band was arriving from the cellars of Britain. When this first film appeared at SoHo's Angelika Film Center--unspectacular but intriguing and well-hyped--it repeatedly sold out the theater and made more money on its opening weekend than any movie appearing at a single cinema last year.

The imagery and strategy for Blair Witch's crossover success are already in place: All the movie's trailers and ads use a stick-figure logo that takes on menacing meaning in the film. The film opened in 20 cities--including an exclusive Valley debut at Arizona Mills--on July 16, at a time when the press and audiences were exhausted by May and June's glut of mainstream films. The film rolls out to 20 more markets on July 30, so that it will not have to compete with DreamWorks' The Haunting, which will have already arrived the week before. This kind of thinking is necessary, says Hegeman, because the audience for specialized film has changed in the past few years. "They're younger, hipper and have a more commercial mentality," he says.

Myrick and Sanchez are certainly not the first filmmakers to use a Web site to promote their film, but they may be the first to get it right. Studios, they say, usually use a Web site as a glorified magazine article. Sanchez points out that there's little reason to consult the site "if you don't care about where the director was born or whatever." But if filmmakers keep adding to their site, it takes on a life of its own and can become "a whole alternate universe."

With this in mind, Myrick and Sanchez started a modest Web site while in the middle of editing, filling it with photos of the lost students and a picture of Josh's lost Dodge Daytona. Artisan took over the Web site when it bought the film and made it more elaborate, adding things like an interview with a grieving mother and news footage of cops who've searched in vain for the bodies. From the beginning, the Web site has helped create the Blair Witch legend, with a time line going all the way back to the 1780s, when a woman was accused of luring children into her home and drawing their blood. ("By midwinter, all of the accusers and half of the town's children had vanished," the time line tells us.)

As major studios pour small fortunes into billboards and television and magazine ads, the Internet has become a place where David can go up against Goliath.

"Five guys who were dead broke can put up a Web site and compete with Universal," says Myrick. "It really does level the playing field for people like us."

The Web page also allowed Myrick and Sanchez to salvage the supporting material they lost when they made their movie cinema verite instead of an In Search Of documentary.

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