The Blair Witch Project A Backdoor Model for a Cross-Media Property
If you live in an urban area, you’ve probably seen, or at least seen a line for, a little film called The Blair Witch Project. If you don’t live in an urban area, first off, you have my sympathies, second off, you’ll probably have a chance to see it soon.I’ll get to the film towards the end, since reviewing that will cause some spoilers, and is a tangent to what’s really been interesting about the phenomena Blair Witch has conjured up. Cards on the table, it’s a neat little film. I’d put it around 3 on the star-scale, maybe a hair under, and definitely not the 4-stars I’m seeing bandied about as though some people were attempting religious conversion of the mass-market. It’s worth seeing, and the film’s makers did a wonderful, perhaps a future textbook example of a job making a viable, even interesting, film on lower budget than Imelda Marcos had for shoestrings.
No, the real interesting thing to me, is the other-media accompanying pieces Blair Witch has spawned. Pieces that have preceded the film, been used to market the film, are entertaining on their own, and not only don’t spoil the film, but actually add to the understanding of the film.
There are three components that I’ve encountered: a web site, a comic book, and a “preview” TV show on cable’s Sci Fi Channel.
Before I get into the substance of this effort, let’s take into account the over-all marketing motif: taking the film’s documentary look and making all ads, promotional materials, etc. to appear as though the documentary is real, and the events in the film really happened.
For any dim-bulbs out there, let me spell this out for you: The film is a work of fiction. There is no Blair Witch. Bill Clinton is not a virgin. As of 8/5/1999, Paul McCartney is not dead. Are you following me? If you’re not, you need to seriously consider entering yourself in the Darwin Awards.
Enter the Internet
As you may or may not know, Blair Witch Project was filmed some time ago. It’s been making the rounds on the film festival circuit for the better part of a year. These producers were no dummies, especially for college kids. As the story goes, they initially set up their web site when they came up with the idea. As they completed various stages of production, they added to it. They dropped the site’s address (http://www.blairwitch.com, not as fulfilling as typing http://www.indignantonline.com, but that’s exactly how easy it is to do) anytime they could, so when people encountered them, or the film, those people had something to point to. Blair Witch did well on the festival circuit. Real well. So people would see it, and say “Hey, my way-too-into-Night-Stalker-reruns-friend, have I got a flick for you. Here’s the web address.” Didn’t hurt that it was getting a good buzz on some of the fan-centric industry site’s either, like Ain’t It Cool News. When they signed on with a distributor, the Distributor pumped some money into the page.
“So it’s a page,” you say. “What’s the big deal? The Goldeneye web page didn’t enhance the film for me. Have you been drinking again?”
The difference between Blair Witch and Goldeneye is a matter of the nature of the content. Any 007 page is a good page, and Goldeneye’s had a trailer, pictures of Brosnon, some Bond girls, character profiles, etc. It didn’t have anything largely separate from the film, though.
Blair Witch utilizes its web site to establish background to its tale. You can read up a bit on the background of the legend of the Blair Witch. You can read about the lives of our missing heroes, video bits from the aftermath, from people who were searching for them and how their film was found. You don’t have any clue what happens in the film – other than our heroes are toast and there’s a supernatural entity involved. I suppose if I’d actually looked at the site prior to seeing the film, I might have developed a little more interest in the characters. This is accomplished by blending in sound bytes from the movie, in the case of establishing the legend, clips from the TV show for the aftermath, and what appears to be new material for background on the filmmakers (that would be our doomed heroes, not the actual director). In doing this, they conveniently side-step any references to what happens in the actual film, save setting up the background.
Please note that they’re playing it straight with the site’s content. Presentation goes out of its way not to deny the Blair Witch Project actually happened. Apparently, there are a lot of chuckleheads getting off on thinking it did, and that marketing tool has been working in SPADES. Think Orson Welles on a drinking binge with Anne Rice and you got the motif. Sneaky bastards, these guys. Raking it in, too.
There’s a couple caveats to Blair Witch’s use of the Internet. It seems there are a ton of digital copies floating around the net. Those things you started hearing about when Lucas threw a fit in conjunction with the last Star Wars release. If you work in the tech sector, you know somebody with a pirate copy they downloaded or got on CD. Nasty little rumor started, what that our intrepid creators started distributing these pirate copies, themselves. Don’t know if they did, but if they did, it worked. This is a film that a fair number of people were talking about, but that you couldn’t see for quite some time. I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t see the same thing happen when Kevin (Clerks and Chasing Amy) Smith’s new film, “Dogma,” starts playing in the UK, assuming all the U.S. distributors are too scared of the Catholic League to show the film.
Caveat two: some of the Internet buzz may be man-made. Nasty little rumors are going around that our Blair-creators started some of the fan sites, themselves, and posted some glowing reviews themselves. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. Like nobody’s ever done something like that in another medium. I say if somebody wants to spend their money like that, let ‘em. If the film sucks, everybody will find out soon enough. This one didn’t suck.
Summary for Internet Component: Blair Witch Project capitalized on the its “buzz,” especially the on-line “buzz” by making sure everyone could find their site. A site that had original content, that established the setting of the film in an interesting manner, established some back history of the premise of what’s haunting the woods, and let’s you learn about the main characters and their awful fate, without referencing events in the actual film.
Movies in comics go back to the 1940s, and perhaps even a decade earlier than that. Assuming you were coherent when the Star Wars films were first-run, I’m sure you remember the Star Wars comics and Star Trek comics. Even Freddy Krueger and the Toxic Avenger had short-lived comics.
“So what’s so special about the Blair Witch comic,” you ask? The comics I mentioned above? They do one of two things: either they adapt the film, or they’re the on-going adventures of the film’s characters, after the film is over.
Blair Witch’s comic does something similar to the web site. It contains 3 short stories, adapting incidents of the Blair Witch Curse manifesting itself. These are stories that are mentioned in passing, early in the film, but are fleshed out fully here (for those who’ve seen the film, that pun was intended). This continues with the theme of establishing background. You read this comic, you’ll have a better understanding of what kind of fire our (not remotely) intrepid heroes are playing with, when they venture into the woods.
I haven’t seen this sort of thing done with comics very often. For instance, there was a Babylon 5 comic that was considered part of the TV show’s continuity that explained a bit about the history of a couple characters, how they met, and why there was bad mojo on Mars. Similarly, I hear tell that the new Xena comic may fill-in space between episodes and be part of continuity. This is a relatively unusual thing.
As with the web site, they lay the non-fiction motif on. Too thick for my taste, in this case. The editor talks of his academic background in Folklore Studies, for crying out loud. There are even pseudo-intellectual annotations on the inside back-cover.
Once more, they have original material that doesn’t reference the plot of the actual film. While I found the writing to be a hair clipped and fragmented, this was obviously due to the non-film spoiler factor, and the attempt to leave fodder for sequels. For instance, we know the original Blair Witch is taken out in the woods to die, but we don’t know what happened to her, nor do we know exactly what happened when the original town’s population fled.
The art is pleasant, mind you I have a pre-existing Guy Davis bias. Bernie Mireault has a neat effect of a man who hears voices with the words circling and wrapping around his head in a claustrophobic manner.
Decent book. On it’s own merits, roughly three stars. A bit more if you’ve seen the film and thinking “Oh, so that’s what’s up with Coffin Rock.”
Odd thing about the comic is the sales. It was released a week before the film debuted. Roughly the same time as the first airing of the Sci Fi Channel special. By the end of the second week, the comic had completely sold out, and is currently at the printer for a second printing. The day the film debuted, I was at the Wizard World comic convention. Copies were available, but not plentiful. The second day the film was out, the convention sold out. My copy was third to last in the room, mid-afternoon. You can’t tell me everyone buying this comic had already seen the film.
The publisher is understandably happy. They’d over printed by 200% and already are back to press. The thing is, movie tie-comics don’t usually sell-out like that. Especially what are, at their roots, art-house horror movie comic tie-ins. The closest thing to Blair Witch that I’ve seen in a comic format was the adaptation of arthouse horror/SF film, Pi. Pi sold so poorly, only one of the three issues was actually printed. Yet, here’s Blair Witch, selling out before the film’s been in release for two weeks.
What does this mean? Is the comic a promotional tool? Yes, by virtue it gets the name in front of potential ticket buyers. Is the comic a merchandising scheme? Partially, since it’s highly unlikely that everyone who bought a copy, especially the first week it was on the shelves had seen the movie. Did it add fuel to already lit fire? It wouldn’t have sold out if it hadn’t.
Summary for the Comic Component: using the same principles as the web site, the comic promoted interest in the film and the background of the setting, without referencing the actual plot of the film. This time, it also promoted the film while lining the pockets of the Blair creators.
The TV Show
Ever see a television special on “The Making of” some over-hyped film? Lord knows, there’s enough of those lurking around. Most of them are just cameras filming the cameras filming the film. With some explanations of the special effects and maybe a couple sound bytes from the stars, these shows are usually cookie cutter in approach and of marginal entertainment value. Once more, Blair Witch has to be a little bit different.
The “Curse of the Blair Witch” special on Sci Fi Channel continues the established pattern of adding background, showing the aftermath, and keeping the documentary feel. This show plays off like one of those “Real Life Ghost Stories” shows that are all over late night cable. The actual film is hyped as the real footage from the filmmakers who were lost in Blair Woods (you’re starting to see why some of the limited processors thought this really happened). They have interviews with historians and gurus on the legend of the Blair Witch. Interviews with the Sheriff and the parents of the missing filmmakers as part of the aftermath. It’s actually fairly entertaining, and the production values are infinitely higher than the actual film.
Guess what? Seeing as how this special has been aired as least twice (and I think three times), I’m pretty sure somebody made some money off this.
Better yet, I’ve heard one rumor that there will be two different DVDs of Blair Witch Project. The second one (after everyone’s bought the first, naturally) will contain “background” and an alternate ending. I’m thinking most of the background is contained in the historian scenes from the TV special.
Summary for the TV Component: same basic formula of adding some background and new material to supplement the experience while hyping it. Probably made some money in the process, too. Plus it’s bonus material for the second issue of the DVD.
The Actual Film
Lurkers beware, there are going to be some spoilers here. In case somebody hasn’t seen the film, I’m going to be a little loose with the last scene. If you are planning to see the film and get to where I’ve marked final scene warning, please do yourself a favor and don’t read it. You will lose all the impact of the last scene, and the film will suck for you.
That said, I think this was a decent film. Around three stars. Nobody should be considering it four stars, if it’s put on an even playing field with the mass market. The production values aren’t there, and there are some inherent flaws, but that doesn’t stop Blair Witch from being an interesting film.
As you probably know, the film concerns three college students who decide to make a documentary about the legend of a witch’s curse upon a small town in Maryland. We start out as the students make their way to said small town and start to interview the town folk. This sequence is both clever and one of the larger flaws of the film.
The interviews with the locals waffle between cutesy humor and actual information on what the Blair Witch is. Because the interviews bounce back and forth so much, and a patch of iffy sound quality from an old woman who drops some important clues to what’s going on, you might not walk away with a clear picture of what the kiddies are walking into. This is where the 3 other Blair Witch products come in so handy. If you’ve sampled the web site, comic, or TV special, you get a clear view of what the townies are saying, or you might even get even more information. There are still a couple amusing bits, like a mother who has to reassure her toddler that the Blair Witch is just a story, but if you don’t come away with the basic background, 1) you could miss a plot-leap later on, and 2) you don’t have the suspense building as quickly.
Once they get into the woods, the largest flaw of the film happens: the lag between events. There’s too much time spent watching the characters wandering around the woods looking for things. By the time they happen on to something a bit odd, your attention span could wander. Some of the things they find, like the little piles of stones, don’t necessarily mean anything to you, unless you’ve accessed one of the promo items. If you have, yes, you know what they’re walking into. If not, yeah, it’s a pile of stones. Next.
Aside from the students getting lost and bitching at each other, nothing obviously freaky happens until they find a clearing filled with figures made up of sticks tied together. Once this happens, there’s no doubt that they’re lost in the woods and not only is something wrong, but it’s going to come eat them, if they’re not careful. This is good. The clearing is creepy and the reactions of the character (two wanting to clear out, pronto, while the would-be film director is obsessed with capturing everything on film) heighten the tension.
They get a little more lost, and then the night scenes start. The students will be awakened by noises. Unfortunately the audio is terrible for these noises, and you can’t really hear what the characters do, unless the print I was watching underwent some damage. You have the shaky hand-held video camera pop up in the darkness, as the frightened student pile out of their tent in an attempt to see what’s up. Good, tense stuff.
Unfortunately, from here on out, nothing interesting happens in the day. The students wander around and get more lost. They lose the map. They weep and scream at each other and just become annoying to watch. And the film spends what seems like 10 – 15 minutes on these daylight interludes. It bored me to tears. When the night comes, the Witch returns to stalk their camp and things get interesting again. On top of that, these are really annoying college students. They whine. They cry more than Kathleen Quinlan did when she single-handedly annoyed me out of enjoying Apollo 13 with her over-acted, over-wrought and repetitive scenes of teary-eyed inability to cope with life.
For my money, the film would be much better off if they re-allotted 15 to 20 minutes of time away from the daylight woods scenes and back into establishing the creepiness of Blair Witch legend before the students hit the woods. Last scene discussion warning: if you haven’t seen the movie, but plan to, go look at http://www.blairwitch.com, then see the film before you read any further.
As for the last scene, and it’s a good one, if you don’t make the connection that the Witch was possessing / influencing the fellow who killed all the children in the 40s, the last scene makes less sense. If you don’t remember that the children who were killed were made to stand in the corner, the ending isn’t going to make sense (fortunately, that point was well emphasized by the tows folk interviews).
I have mixed feelings about the last scene. Artistically, I love it to death. From the more practical point of satisfaction, it left something behind. No, we don’t know what actually whacked her majesty, the director. There have been a couple instances of ambiguity in endings of recent films that haven’t been well received. In local circles, a goodly number of people were irritated that “Ronin” never revealed the contents of the suitcase that was being chased around Europe. I laughed at that, because in “Ronin,” the premise of the film was the heroes were hired to retrieve an object on a no-questions-asked basis. With Blair Witch, from the perspective of someone who’s seen the movie cold, with no other media to guide them, the heroes don’t really know what’s chasing them, and we don’t really know what killed them. While artful, there’s something ultimately unsatisfying about the resolution. Still, that’s the whole point. Catch-22.
Don’t get me wrong. Blair Witch Project is still worth seeing. If you know anything about film production and can appreciate the budget they created this on, it’s extremely good. It’s just not something that hold a candle to, say, Lawrence of Arabia, or the Haunting of Hill House.
The real knock on the film is the lack of exposition. The premise of the film is that there is a Blair Witch Curse. What the Curse actually is, is not something that’s well defined in the film. It’s defined in the comic, the web site and the TV special, but it’s just lost in the shuffle in the actual film.
If you haven’t seen this movie, and you’re still reading this, take in one of the other three forms of Blair Witch. The web site is the poorest of the three, but you’ll understand something more of what’s going on. At first, I thought the idea of the promotional items adding to the experience of the movie was cool, largely because they don’t. Upon reflection, I think it’s the stupidest possible move. Because I avoided material before I saw the film, I missed out on background that was not adequately provided, and it lessened the film’s experience for me. That’s just wrong, and ultimately, I fear the mass-market audience will have a backlash against the film, as less people will put together the causal links that are cemented by the supplementary products.
Than again, in the world of the bottom line, the film is doing incredibly well, the comic is already in a second printing and the TV special in reruns. Somebody is making some serious money, and in Hollywood, that’s the bottom line.