Hollywood Grabs Blair Witch’s Coattails

Judging from the fervent response to my piece on The Blair Witch Project, the role played by the Internet in the success of this movie is not a myth. One of the surprising things about the response, though, was how many people hated the film. In part, it did sound like a classic case of a movie that in two weeks went from being a sleeper to being overhyped, so that people who saw Blair Witch after, say, August 6 were led to believe they were about to see the greatest horror film ever made. But I was still surprised, since I thought that the quality of the film was not something people would contest.

In any case, there are two other interesting points to make about Blair Witch as a marketing/economic phenomenon. The first is that the film’s mainstream success–it’s now grossed more than $108 million–speaks to the tremendous flexibility of even as hidebound an industry as Hollywood. Blair Witch is owned, after all, by Artisan Entertainment, a small independent distribution company that specializes in true art-house films like Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club (which you should, by the way, see at all costs). But Artisan was able to get Blair Witch into 2,400 theaters all over the country in the space of just a couple of weeks.

Blair Witch was obviously heavily hyped, and the buzz on the film was good, which undoubtedly made selling the film to theater owners easier than it would otherwise have been. But there’s still something wonderful about the speed with which theaters that normally would have had four screens showing Deep Blue Sea adopted Blair Witch instead. It’s an excellent example of how quickly supply rises to meet demand with no planning involved at all.

The second point is more mundane, but also more curious, and it has to do with a weird new trend in movie advertising in which one film tries to take advantage of the buzz surrounding another film, even though the two movies have absolutely nothing in common. This strategy was used to great effect by Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, which ran ads saying, “If you see only one movie this year, see Star Wars. If you see two movies, see Austin Powers …” That, though, was a clever acknowledgement of reality. What has followed seems more like a not very well-thought-out gimmick.

First, Austin Powers mimicked the ads for Big Daddy, with Dr. Evil and Mini-Me urinating on a wall (in place of Adam Sandler and that little kid). Then, this week, nascent bomb-in-the-making Detroit Rock City has run ads featuring the faces of its four main characters, with the tagline: “In October of 1978, four high school students disappeared outside Detroit, Michigan. Twenty years later, their footage was found.”

This is, of course, a rip-off of Blair Witch (whose ads featured similar language). But what’s puzzling is the point of the rip-off. Is it that we’re supposed to think the movie was made by the people who made Blair Witch? Or are we supposed to think that Detroit Rock City is somehow like Blair Witch? Or, alternatively, are we just supposed to be amazed by the cleverness of the ad-makers, and be inspired by that cleverness to see the movie?

The answer, I think, is none of the above. Instead, with the buzz on Detroit Rock City as bad as it’s been, the marketing people essentially threw up their hands and decided that there was no point in selling the film as what it is. Instead, they wanted to see if they could catch a little halo effect from Blair Witch. Unfortunately, even as I write this down, it still doesn’t really make sense. Who would ever go see one movie because its ad campaign consisted of an homage to another? Detroit Rock City: “We’re not a sequel to Blair Witch, but oh, how we wish we were.”