'It's crazy, it's crazy'
This 'Witch' boasting wicked marketing brew
July 27, 1999
By Jamie Allen
ATLANTA (CNN) -- Many an independent filmmaker would gladly hurt somebody they care about, or at least ask them for money, if it meant they could be in Eduardo Sanchez's shoes.
Sanchez and his creative buddies at Haxan Films in Orlando, Florida, are the envy of indie-land, and the talk of it, with their dread-filled buzzmaker, "The Blair Witch Project."
But when Sanchez, 30, arrives with "Blair Witch" producer Robin Cowie at CNN Center in Atlanta -- part of a tour to promote the film -- Sanchez looks drained and admits that he's feeling ill from something he ate the night before.
He's also sick of something else.
"I never thought I'd get tired of talking about my own film," Sanchez admits, "but at this point I'm tired of talking about my own film."
Cowie responds to this comment with an informed laugh.
They're not complaining, but you can't really blame them if they're venting a little. Try answering the same questions every day for months and you might start to feel like a customer service representative, rather than a hotter-than-thou filmmaker.
Fortunately for Sanchez's and Cowie's filmmaking future, movie fans are anything but tired of "Blair Witch." In fact, some folks are losing sleep after watching the "Project."
The film has been building on an expert marketing crescendo, led by a popular Web site launched a year before the film was released. Theaters showing the film have been selling out from Los Angles to New York. "Blair"-mania is expected to reach a new climax this coming weekend when the movie opens in wide release in 1,000 theaters.
When asked what it feels like to be the talk of the industry, both Sanchez and Cowie, who last summer were sweating out a low-budget existence in Orlando while gearing up for the release of this film, answer in unison: "It's crazy, it's crazy."
'Savor the moment'
Unless you've been hiding under a rock, or perhaps lost in the woods, you've heard the buzz of "The Blair Witch Project." The cost-effective heebie-jeebie film uses what filmgoers don't see to scare them. It debuted at Sundance earlier this year and has graduated to sleeper hit of the summer.
Shot like a documentary, "Blair Witch" is a fictional account of three film students who head off into the Maryland hinterland to investigate the centuries-old tale about a witch who over the years has been blamed in several gory and unexplained murders in the area.
The students, filming their every step for movie audiences, get lost, and get more than they bargained for when the Blair witch, or something, stalks them to the end.
In limited release, the film has dominated the competition in per-theater average. This past weekend, top box office draw "The Haunting" took in $11,752 per theater. "Blair Witch," meanwhile, averaged $64,500 per theater, according to Artisan Entertainment, which bought the rights to the film for $1 million after it screened at Sundance.
Sanchez and Cowie, who met while at the University of Central Florida film school and are still laid back enough to allow this interview to be taped on a handi-cam, realize that they should enjoy the moment.
"One of the guys from Artisan told me the other day, 'Everything that could possibly go right on the film has gone right on this film, and you're never going to experience that again in your career and I'm never going to experience it again in my career. So savor the moment, because this is as good as it can possibly get, that it's ever gotten with any indie film, so don't expect it to happen again,'" Sanchez says.
'I think we can scare them'
The idea that eventually became "Blair Witch" was thought up by Sanchez and Dan Myrick in 1991. They were sitting in their apartment talking about how it had been a while since they had seen a movie that really scared them.
Then they started considering what did scare them, and the conversation led back to those 1970s "pseudo-documentaries" on things like Bigfoot and UFOs. They were fascinated by the way the shows blurred the line between fiction and reality.
"We figure that the reason they scared us ... they came across as completely real in our youthful minds," says Sanchez. "We were thinking if we can do this to an adult audience, a '90s audience that knows all the tricks of the trade, then I think we can scare them, and that's exactly what we did."
Greg Hale soon joined the project and the trio eventually headed to the Maryland woods with their three actors (Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard, who lent their names to the project for authenticity) and shot the film.
Cowie and Michael Monello signed on in post-production as producers, raising cash from family and friends to finance the film. Haxan ("haxan" is Swedish for "witchcraft") Films was born.
The way the film was made is the kind of low-budget trivia that has added to the buzz surrounding it. "Blair Witch" has reached that rarified state where every fact about it is memorized and passed along by a rapt audience.
Ask a 20-something about "Blair Witch" and they might tell about a friend of a friend who thought the film was real. You might also hear that some viewers have experienced motion sickness while watching "Blair Witch," thanks to loads of shaky video.
"It's something we were worried about," says Sanchez, who admits that all buzz is good buzz. "We cut five minutes from the Sundance version and added more black and white shots to the film just to relieve that shakiness."
There's also been debate over the cost of the film.
"I heard $2,000," says Cowie, 27. "I was like, 'C'mon ...' We put it in the can for roughly the price of an expensive car. But you cannot make a film these days, getting it to final print and everything else, for less than six figures. I think it does a disservice to independent filmmakers who think they can go out an make a film for $2,000. You can't."
For the record, "Artisan is putting out an official number now of $350,000 and that's more accurate," says Cowie.
Even the marketing campaign has become a sidebar for every major media outlet. The Web site originally created by Sanchez and taken over by Artisan treats "The Blair Witch Project" as a real event, greeting surfers with the ominous introduction, "In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found."
The site goes on to offer the mythology of the so-called "Blair witch," including a timeline; fake background information on the filmmakers; evidence from a contrived investigation in the aftermath.
The site has generated millions of page views, but the filmmakers didn't stop there. They've also created a "pseudo-documentary" for the Sci-Fi Channel which includes interviews with the parents of the "missing" filmmakers, a book based on the investigation to be released next month, a comic book, and -- believe it or not -- a "musical companion piece" that is marketed as the mix tape found in Joshua Leonard's car.
The campaign has worked so well, the New York Times was moved to call it "the center of a new form of synergy and an inspired multimedia blitz." In other words, expect new films to rely on their Web sites more, and expand their plotlines to other media.
"We never meant to change things," says Cowie. "We set out to make a scary movie and I think we did that."
Sanchez agrees, saying Haxan Films was going back to the basics with "Blair Witch" -- telling a good story, and letting the rest ride that wave.
"The basic approach to horror films since the early '80s is to show as much as you can," says Sanchez. "It has gotten to the point where computer graphics has gotten so advanced that people have seen just about everything. We're done. We've reached the limit of artist imagination and now we have to go back and re-examine, start playing with the audience more, start playing with their own imagination and their own views that they bring into the film. It's time to go back."
'So cool for independent filmmaking'
Hollywood has been listening ever since "Blair Witch" blossomed into a money tree. The movie has grossed over $5 million in just two weeks on 27 screens. Some projections are hitting a final tally of $75 million.
And that's not all. At Artisan there's already talk of a sequel. But don't count on Haxan Films to re-tread that tire.
"I'm sure there will be new 'Blair' movies, but they're not going to be the same 'Blair' that you saw," says Cowie.
"Our whole theory with 'Blair' is, we'd rather let someone else screw it up than us screw it up," Sanchez says.
Besides, Sanchez and Cowie say Haxan Films has new projects, including a TV deal with FOX.
Also, "We're going to embrace our sophomore slump," Cowie says.
Sanchez says they're working on a new comedy called "Heart of Love." He describes it as "a collection of moronity that has never been seen before.
"It's going to be a unique film," Sanchez says. "We're going to jam 'Saturday Night Live' and 'Monty Python' and 'Kentucky Fried Movie' and 'Airplane' onto 'It's a Mad, Mad World' ... and then stick it in a blender and put a little 'Norma Rae' in there and 'Graffitti Bridge.' It's just going to be a completely moronic mish-mash of stupidity. Completely dumb."
The filmmakers are also prepared for "Blair Witch" backlash. When asked about that very real possibility, they shrug it off. The main message they want to send is directed at indie-land. The movie, they say, should serve as fuel for every struggling filmmaker.
"The reaction to the movie is so cool for independent filmmaking, for young filmmakers, period," says Cowie. "Everything worked and we hope people will follow and be inspired by what we do."
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