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The Blair Witch Project: The First Viral Vlog?

Movies | May 18, 2019

Were you terrified watching "The Blair Witch Project"? Source: (popsugar.com)

Remember when The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999? People either loved it or hated it, but no matter which side of the fence you are on, you have to admit that this film was groundbreaking. Shot in just eight days, with a tiny budget, and no big-studio marketing blitz, The Blair Witch Project created a lot of buzz, conversations, and debates…as well as $250 million in box office revenues. On the 20th anniversary of The Blair Witch Project, let’s look back to see what made this movie so special and why it is, essentially, the world’s first viral vlog ever. Before viral videos, and even the internet, were even a thing, The Blair Witch Project is the first ever vlog to go "viral," before the internet had even invented the term.

Film students Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez created The Blair Witch Project. Source: (siff.net)

The Brainchild of Two Creative Film Students

Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez were film school students in 1993 when they began working on an idea for a horror film. As students of film, the two friends agreed that, often, documentary films are scarier than movies because of the sense of realism and authenticity that these types of films evoke. By October of 1997, they were ready to start filming. They took out a small ad in Billboard magazine and held casting calls. They hired three unknown actors, Michael Williams, Heather Donahue, and Joshua Leonard, to essentially play themselves. In fact, most of the script called for the actors to adlib their own lines. 

The movie was filmed in the woods over eight days. Source: (themmindreels.com)

A Tiny Budget

Compared to the massive budgets for Hollywood blockbusters, the filming budget for The Blair Witch Project was tiny—only about $60,000. The movie was shot in a forest in Maryland. The actors, directors, and a cinematographer, all camped in the woods for eight days and shot more than twenty hours’ worth of footage. After 18 months of editing, the final film was an hour and a half long. 

Sound recorder Michael Williams loses control in anticipation of another terrifying night during a harrowing five-day journey through the Black Hills Forest in the low-budget thriller. Source: (headstuff.org)

A New Genre of Film

The Blair Witch Project ushered in a new genre of film, dubbed the found- footage genre. The entire movie was shot on a shaky, hand-held video camera and followed the three actors—all playing film students investigating a local urban legend—on their terrifying adventure. The Blair Witch Project was ahead of its time. Today, it is not uncommon for YouTube vloggers to bring their audience along on their adventures, switching between talking directly to the camera and showing the surrounding action. In The Blair Witch Project, the audience is told that the film footage was discovered a year after the three characters went missing. The audience felt as though they were in on the investigation as they watched the film for clues as to what happened to the trio. 

Realistic missing persons posters were all just back of the marketing backstory for The Blair Witch Project. Source:(delmarvanow.com)

The Internet as a Marketing Tool

The Blair Witch Project was the first movie to do most of its marketing on the internet, even though less than half the homes in America had internet access in 1999. Part of this had to do with the small production budget of the film. Sanchez and Myrick simply didn’t have the money for a traditional, large-scale marketing campaign. But the internet was free, or at least cheap. They created a website to inform people of the backstory of the movie, the urban legend they invented about the Blair Witch, a beast who had been killing people in the Maryland woods for centuries, according to their story. The internet also allowed them to create fake missing persons’ reports on the three characters from their movie. In the pre-fake-news nineties, people believed that the disappearances were real. 

Source: (syfy.com)

Making the Unseen Scary

Because of the filmmakers’ low budget, they couldn’t afford spectacular special effects. So, Myrick and Sanchez decided to flip the script on traditional horror movies that featured frightening and grotesque monsters. They opted to take the focus off the visual and put in on the audio. Twigs snapping, pounding footsteps, labored breathing, and the conversations of the actors create the tension and suspense of the movie. In fact, some parts of the film show only total darkness, but the audience hears what the characters hear and can feel their terror and anticipation. 

The accompanying website made the disappeared of the film students seem authentic. Source: (theringer.com)

The Film Sparked Conversations

Even though the movie came out before YouTube and social media, fans and critics still had plenty to say about The Blair Witch Project, online and in person. Internet chat rooms popped up to debate the validity of the Blair Witch story and to ponder whether the found footage was genuine or the product of filmmakers. Surprisingly, people shared their own encounter with the Blair Witch, even though Myrick and Sanchez invented this urban myth as their movie’s backstory. The conversations and debates about The Blair Witch Project only served to increase awareness about the film and to prompt others to see it. By creating a controversial conversation, the filmmakers drastically increased their word-of-mouth advertising. 

Source: (filmschoolrejects.com)

A Groundbreaking Approach

It is common for movie trailers for current movies to be plastered all over social media to hype a film before its release, but The Blair Witch Project was the first movie to fully utilize the internet as a promotional tool. In the style of a viral vlog, the movie caused a stir and set the stage for a change in movie marketing. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.