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Analysis: How the secret sequel of found-footage pioneer ‘Blair Witch’ has unleashed ‘misdirectional marketing’ age

‘Blair Witch’
A shot from the new “Blair Witch” film.
(Lionsgate)

The news struck at San Diego’s Comic-Con International last week like a bolt of Harry Potter lightning: “The Blair Witch Project,” that paragon of Gen-X horror, was coming back.

And it wasn’t only coming back in the way that most movies “come back” at Comic-Con — two years from now, with 10 teasers and scores of comments in between proclaiming it the greatest or worst movie of all time. It was coming back soon. Like, seven weeks soon.

That’s because a horror movie no one had paid much attention to titled “The Woods,” directed by modern genre darling Adam Wingard, was in fact a “Blair Witch” sequel. The film, as the studio Lionsgate revealed, was in the can and ready to drop, ready or not.

Right away there were questions about how much “Blair Witch” would resonate today. After all, the original, an ersatz documentary about a trio of young people lost in the Maryland woods, came out 17 years ago — this weekend in fact.

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The fan base that turned it into a spectacular hit was definitively of another generation; the sweet-spot 24-year-old viewer of the present would have been in second grade when the movie came out, part of the original phenomenon only if they were precocious or born to very permissive parents.

What’s more, it was not clear whether “Blair Witch” had much story left on the bones. A sequel had already been attempted in 2000, and the franchise would seem to have run its course. The first film’s directors, Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick, had long moved on to other projects.

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Maybe most important, the novelty had come off the film’s concept itself. The original 1999 “Blair Witch” was ingenious in how it pretended its events were all real, with footage from an attack it described with documentary-like seriousness. So ingenious, of course, that some thought it was real.

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Since then, we have seen found-footage films many times, including in horror movies and in other genres, all the way to raunchy teen comedies. We once shuddered watching young people outside Burkittsville looking for a child killer haunted by a dangerous witch. Now we shuddered watching them at a suburban pool party.

But that didn’t stop many from going crazy at Comic-Con. And the reason — fittingly — was marketing.

As every film fan knows, the original “Blair Witch” was a triumph of promotion, a coup of release strategy as much as production. It was, basically, the first viral hit.

After the film sneaked up on everyone at Sundance, the indie distributor, Artisan, embarked on a then-unheard-of campaign: It attempted to tantalize and tease on the Web. It did so by suggesting a real crime. There was a site asking for help to find the missing subjects (actors) and listing cold-case information. There were interviews and police files. Some people actually bought it. And even if plenty of people knew it wasn’t real, the debate was part of the fun.

The effect was to make everyone want in, even if they didn’t know what they wanted in on. I remember walking by the Angelika theater in New York on this weekend in 1999. There were lines around the block. Many had no idea what the movie was. They just wanted to be a part of it.

In these early days of the Web, before every movie came with 10 online clips and a raging Talmudic debate — as a person working on “Star Wars” put it to me recently, “where fans scrutinize a dot in the corner of an image asking if it’s a new planet when it was just a piece of dust on the lens” — there was “The Blair Witch Project.”

Not so for the new “Blair Witch.” It’s telling that the film was revealed at Comic-Con. The contrast with Sundance is sharp. Sundance was (and to a great extent still is) about discovery. Knowing as little as possible ahead of time, and coming out with a sense of something new and fresh, is the point of the thing.

Comic-Con is fundamentally about the opposite. It’s about clarifying the details of what’s already known — and, in many cases, thanks to an endless number of fan blogs, hashed to death.

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What kind of chemistry do the Justice League mega-celebs have onstage? How did that “Fantastic Beasts” clip look? Will the new Marvel heroes have the same cachet as the old ones? Will any of this stuff we keep hearing about be any good?

Even the “surprises” are not surprises, as anyone who’s followed the Brie Larson-Captain Marvel rumors could tell you.

That’s what made the “Blair Witch” development so startling. Here was something that we genuinely knew nothing about, at the place where fans know all.

Dropping a secret in a place of no secrets, a legitimate piece of news where everything has been revealed, was bold by the sheer virtue of its juxtaposition — like putting a library in the middle of a construction site.

And that’s what made it all such a contrast with the original “Blair Witch.” The first film came into a 1999-era Web that hadn’t yet matured — one that people didn’t use for video, music or much more than reading some print stories online. It was far from a corporate marketing tool. And here came “The Blair Witch Project” to create excitement, to make noise in a quiet medium, to make the Web as it made itself. People discovered the Internet and its ambiguities by discovering “Blair Witch.” Yes, a corporation was behind it. But it was not doing corporate-y things. (And it was a smaller corporation. anyway.)

Today’s Web is all about noise, all about jockeying. Today’s Web is all about Big Hollywood looking to get you to come in on a Friday night. Today’s Web is all about studios, feverishly and sometimes flailingly, trying to re-create the excitement of the original “Blair Witch.” When they fail, others help. Trade stories inform who’s meeting on a project; fan blogs assess whether that’s a good thing. And then trailers and other official marketing material come in to tell us how we should all see it anyway. Phenomena aren’t made. They’re promoted.

The new “Blair Witch,” though, went against this grain. It stayed away from the noise. It made people think a different movie was coming. It lit up Twitter by being very far away from Twitter. Then it told us there was something we didn’t know. It even screened at Comic-Con, going from nonexistence to finished film in the space of minutes.

“Blair Witch” ‘99 broke ground by making noise on the Internet. “Blair Witch” ‘16 broke ground by hiding from it.

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Hollywood marketing has changed a lot in the last 17 years, and will likely change plenty more. But the idea of people not knowing something about a film, that it’s better for studios — and even for fans — that viewers come in to a movie with ignorance instead of an opinion is gone.

In some ways this is good, it makes for more informed choices, and it means studios are less likely to slip one past us. Will Smith recently told an audience at the Cannes Lions conference, “Back in the ’80s and ’90s, you had a piece-of-crap movie, you put a trailer with a lot of explosions and it was Wednesday before people knew your movie was [crap],” Smith said. “But now what happens is 10 minutes into the movie, people are tweeting ‘This is [crap].’ ”

What’s lost in that, though, is the idea that greatness can be stumbled upon. Some of the best film experiences of my life, and I would guess many of yours, happened precisely because I had no idea what I was about to see in the theater. That it doesn’t much happen anymore is a shift, from the idea of the fan as a naive person being wowed to the citizen-scholar looking to see if the film matches up with a canon. Both are legitimate ways of consuming pop culture. But they’re very different.

Seeing how successful the “Blair Witch” reveal at Comic-Con was, other studios will no doubt try to emulate it. There will be attempts at misdirectional marketing (it’s not a term yet, but wait), at going big by saying little. It’s hard to see the tactic being effectively replicated. But then, neither was the trick from the original “Blair Witch.”


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