With his new film "The Village" coming out, filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan and the Sci Fi Channel may have hoped to create the type of unconventional marketing stunts that made "The Blair Witch Project" a phenomenon five years ago. Instead, the cable network has been forced to admit that the "unauthorized documentary" it aired Sunday night on Shyamalan's "buried secret" was part of an elaborate hoax gone awry.
The deception was part of a "guerrilla marketing campaign" that went too far, network President Bonnie Hammer told the Associated Press on Friday.
Sci Fi claimed last month that Shyamalan had stopped participating with a Sci Fi documentary about his life when the questions got too personal. Documentarians Nathaniel Kahn and Callum Greene pressed on and made a three-hour film, "The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan," without his cooperation, the network said.
The Associated Press wrote about the documentary last month, prompting other media to run accounts that also stressed the supposed conflict. In a news release last month, Sci Fi said Shyamalan had attempted to shut down production of the "disturbing expose."
It was all a lie, and there is no buried secret, Hammer said Friday. She could not be reached for further comment Sunday.
The tactic is reminiscent of the bogus websites and manufactured mythology that preceded the 1999 release of the ultra-low-budget horror film "The Blair Witch Project." That film went on to gross close to $250 million worldwide, and since then other filmmakers and marketers have attempted to use these and other forms of "viral marketing."
But the "Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan" campaign went further, issuing blatantly false press releases and encouraging journalists to unwittingly write inaccurate articles about the purported documentary.
"This marketing strategy is not consistent with our policy at NBC," Rebecca Marks, NBC Entertainment spokeswoman, said Sunday. (Sci Fi, available in some 83 million homes, has recently been taken over by corporate parent NBC Universal.)
"We would never intend to offend the public or the press and value our relationship with both," Marks said.
Disney, too, sought to distance itself from the ploy.
"Disney has nothing to do with [the documentary]," a studio representative said Sunday. "There's no relationship between Disney and the Sci Fi Channel special."
Shyamalan's "The Village" will be released July 30 by Disney's Touchstone Pictures.
Hammer said she had been in on the hoax from the beginning and took responsibility for duping the public.
"We created a fictional special that was part fact and part fiction, and Night was part of the creation from the beginning," the network chief told the Associated Press. Shyamalan couldn't be reached for comment Sunday.
Sci Fi did not send a complete copy of the film to television critics, but sent a half-hour tape of highlights last week that, in some spots, hinted it might be a mockumentary.
One publicist who saw the documentary last week described it to a Times reporter as "a hoot," and strongly suggested it was all in fun.
One telltale sign that the rift wasn't real is that the documentary includes extensive film clips from "The Village." It's unlikely Disney or Shyamalan -- whose credits include "The Sixth Sense" and "Signs" -- would have authorized their use if there really was a conflict with the documentary's filmmakers.
"Perhaps we might have taken the guerrilla campaign one step too far," Hammer said. "We thought it would create controversy and it probably went one step too far."
Greene, a producer of "Lost in Translation," shares an agent with Shyamalan. Kahn was nominated for a feature documentary Oscar this year for his film "My Architect."
Staff writer Rachel Abramowitz and Associated Press contributed to this report.