Blair Witch’s Lessons for Hollywood

When, in its third week of release, indie sensation The Blair Witch Project took in an incredible $28.5 million at the box office and set a record for the largest per-screen gross in motion-picture history, the major movie studios responded by commissioning studies to explain to them why this $50,000 film was crushing all their hundred-million-dollar spectaculars. Let’s hope that at the top of their list, the authors of these studies say: “Lesson 1: Blair Witch was a really good movie.”

I’m exaggerating, of course. Quality alone isn’t enough to propel a film to great box-office heights, as the recent failures of Out of Sight and Rushmore demonstrate. But in the hubbub about the marketing of The Blair Witch Project, which has been tremendous, it’s important to keep in mind that there really is no simple formula by which hits happen, and that attempts to reduce popular success to that kind of formula are bound to lead you astray. In this, as in so much else, Hollywood is like the French at the beginning of World War II: ceaselessly preparing to fight the last war, and always getting blindsided by the next one.

What we can see in the endless analyses of Blair Witch’s success is how malleable the supposed truths of marketing and distribution are. For instance, the biggest Hollywood trend in distribution in recent years has been the mega-opening, so that films like Austin Powers and Wild, Wild West each opened on more than 3,000 screens. It was the rare multiplex that didn’t have these movies playing on multiple screens, and these movies were supported with multimedia marketing campaigns that drilled themselves into your head. Oversaturation has its perils, of course, but part of the thinking here is that the massive opening guarantees an impressive first weekend gross (even if not necessarily an impressive per-screen performance) and that it allows films with sketchy word of mouth to make a lot of money off the initial buzz. Add to that the idea that a massive opening is a kind of PR event in itself, and you’ve got an argument for ensuring that consumers won’t be able to go anywhere without thinking about Austin Powers.

Blair Witch, by contrast, had a strictly limited release, playing to sell-out crowds in big cities in its first week, opening at a few more select theaters in its second week, and expanding to just 1,100 screens in its third. That release schedule helped build the buzz for the movie, made it seem like the hot ticket to get (call it the “I’ll only go to a club if there are a lot of people who can’t get in” principle), and ensured that the distributors didn’t overreach themselves in terms of their advertising. Now this kind of slow build-up seems like the smart strategy.

Instinctively, the path Blair Witch trod does seem to make more sense. Though surprisingly few people in marketing will admit this, hits are rarely made. They’re almost always genuine bottoms-up phenomena. (Just go back and look at the advance buzz on Titanic to see how the massive success of that film came completely out of left field.) And catering to that grassroots mentality by allowing word of mouth to do its work can be an excellent approach, especially when you combine it with a brilliant use of the Internet, which is the finest tool for word-of-mouth ever created.

And yet it’s worth remembering that Austin Powers, which was the anti-Blair Witch in its marketing, was a huge hit. And if Wild, Wild West hadn’t opened the way it did, I doubt it would have made $20 million. Giving that film time to build would not have worked.

The banal point is that marketing and distribution campaigns really do need to be specific to the films they’re intended to promote. The more complicated point is that studios need to recognize just how much of what happens to their films is out of their control. Which means that instead of building the Maginot Line of marketing, they should worry about the stuff that is in their control: salaries, overhead, and quality. Remember what happens when you build a better mousetrap?