Did "The Blair Witch Project" fake its online fan base?

Glowing reviews and fan sites raise suspicions that Hollywood is planting ready-made buzz on the Net.

Published July 16, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

One of the hottest topics on the Net this summer is "The Blair Witch
a low-budget horror film that's generated more buzz than the chainsaw used in that Texas massacre. Before it even opened, the indie had inspired over 20 fan sites, a mailing list, a Web ring, a Usenet group -- and more than its fair share of glowing reports on the influential movie site Ain't It Cool News. But was all the excitement genuine?

"Internet marketing," notes Gordon Paddison, director of interactive
marketing at New Line Cinema, "is the most inexpensive and efficient mode of marketing around. And it's available to those with limited resources. Online is all about word of mouth."

"'The Blair Witch Project' filmmakers are using their friends to generate their fan sites," says another industry executive point-blank. "That was an organized effort. What happened is that they tricked the press."

Filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez declined to be interviewed for this story. But whether or not people involved with "The Blair Witch Project" have been seeding the Net with faux-amateurish fan sites or writing pseudonymous reviews of the movie, such practices seem to be increasingly popular in Hollywood. Many believe that deceptive cyberspace marketing is the movie industry's latest secret weapon in the campaign to take that opening weekend by storm.

A fan site for American Pie boasts an electronic counter labeled "Days UNIVERSAL Hasn't Shut Us Down" as well as a disclaimer that "I scammed some stuff of this movie off friends that work for a movie company in CA and posted some clips up on the net." OK. But wouldn't those purchase order numbers -- clearly visible on the purloined files -- give Universal a good idea of which employee had leaked it? And would a fan really create a scrolling credits area, playing up the film's writer, director and producers -- and pausing to add "In theaters July 9th"?

"You never quite know who the hand is -- the filmmaker, the studio. But I don't have any doubt that ["American Pie"] site was put up by somebody from Universal," says David Poland. Poland's insider column for TNT's Rough Cut, The Hot Button, frequently serves as a reality check for the Hollywood hype machine. "Can I substantiate that? No. And in fairness, when I asked, Universal denied any involvement."

The "Blair Witch Project" fan sites deploy similarly suspicious language. The creators of The Blair Witch Project Fanatic's Guide, for example, tell site visitors, "We're just very dedicated fans," and until recently offered suggestions on how other fans might help promote the movie: "Buy TBWP Stock at the Hollywood Stock Exchange! Rank TBWP at the Internet Movie Database! Rank TBWP at Ain't It Cool News!"

But the creators of the site, Abigail Marceluk and Eric Alan Ivins, seem to be more than average fans. They appeared in the Sci-Fi Channel special "Curse of the Blair Witch," and the Rough Cut site links them to the film's back story: "A bit of trivia: Abigail and Eric are the two anthropology students who discover the three film students' 'lost' footage."

Fan sites, of course, are one of those cyberspace metrics beloved by the traditional media, which uses them as a kind of compass to determine the sources of the pop culture Nile. Nearly two months before the film's release, for example, MTV News ran a story on the proliferation of "Blair Witch" fan sites -- thereby giving the film cachet with that all-important 13- to 25-year-old moviegoing demographic.

The big studios have been aware of this phenomenon for quite some time and are sometimes heavy-handed in their attempts to manipulate it. According to industry insiders, it is not uncommon at the time a movie project is announced for a studio to buy up every domain name that has the slightest connection to the project, use them to set up amateurish sites and then, when the official Internet marketing gets under way, "affiliate" with those fan sites.

"The more a film shows up on different places throughout the Net, the more traditional media decides to cover it," says Poland. "The Internet doesn't have that much of a direct promotional effect on getting people to see a movie, but when traditional media starts picking up on it, that's when a movie gets the buzz."

Harry Knowles, the self-styled film fanatic behind Ain't It Cool News, may have more to do with enticing filmmakers and producers into the gray area of anonymous self-promotion than anyone.

Knowles was a 25-year-old college dropout and dealer in movie memorabilia in 1997 when his movie review site broke ahead of the pack of other underground entertainment sites like Corona's Coming Attractions, Zentertainment Buzzstation and CyberSleaze.

His M.O.? Reviews of test screenings from anonymous moles who claimed to have infiltrated the impenetrable studio labyrinth. These reviews were coupled with message boards where other users could "Talk Back." Quentin Tarantino called him "the Wolf Blitzer of the Internet," and rumor had it that Hollywood studios circulated his photograph to make sure he didn't slip into any test screenings.

But those days are long gone. Today AICN is a full-time operation, using reports from 35 to 40 freelance movie spies, and Knowles, taking a cue from onetime mentor Matt Drudge, is reportedly trying to launch his own weekly TV show. When Premiere magazine named him to its power list of the top 100 Hollywood players last month, it raved, "His aint-it-cool-news.com Web site and its film-geek spy network have become the source of early test-screening reviews untainted by spin control."

Untainted by spin control? Not according to Poland, who views Knowles as spin central: "Studios know if you bring him on a set, you'll get good buzz out of him -- and that will translate into other media attention. Studios also send in negative things about their competitors' movies in order to torpedo them. Journalists who cover the film business look to sites like his for scoops."

Poland cites the case of "Iron Giant," an upcoming animated feature from Warner Brothers. The film has been written up on AICN 61 times, beginning back when it was in its earliest developmental stage as pre-production art. Gushed one recent anonymous reviewer, "It was one of the best movies I have seen all year. I am a 27 year old guy. This movie brought a tear to my eye ... I am a big supporter of any studio that wants to run the animation
[gantlet] with those pricks at Disney."

When the Los Angeles Times wrote up "Iron Giant" in April, it made note of the movie's "hot Internet buzz."

"Warner Brothers knew they'd get positive stuff out of [Harry Knowles]," says Poland. "There were clearly people involved with the movie saying good things about it on AICN." Poland is appalled that the newspaper took what it found online at face value, treating it as honest and legitimate adoration. "When the L.A. Times goes into a Web site, gets an unverifiable review and says this is what people are saying about this movie -- that's scary."

Of course, not all the spin that movies get online is positive. In a
recent interview, Wild Wild
director Barry Sonnenfeld fumed, "You can ruin a movie through anonymous reviews on the Internet. And don't for a minute think that studios themselves aren't anonymously writing good reviews for their own movies and bad reviews for other movies."

"Barry uses the test screening process to help tweak his films," explains Ira Rubenstein, vice-president of marketing at Columbia Tristar Interactive. "This is particularly critical for comedies. Now he can't, because people [who attended the test screening] are writing, 'It's awful, its special effects are bad, the music sucks, the timing's off.' Etc. Listen -- I find it difficult to watch films that aren't finished -- they're missing all sorts of subtle cues. And I'm in the industry. When a regular moviegoer sees a test screening, chances are he won't get it. And then if he goes off and writes about it in a way that ultimately hurts the finished movie, it undermines the whole process."

Poland says that the Net has changed the landscape so much that Hollywood execs are now talking of doing away with test screenings all together.

"Look at the monsters we've created," mused another industry executive, who asked that his name not be used. "People think they can co-opt Harry Knowles -- and sure, you can co-opt him for one film. But every time the dog turns around and bites you."

Knowles declined to be interviewed for this story. But
word has it that he hadn't actually seen "The Blair Witch Project" when he first wrote this about it on AICN: "As for movies coming up at SUNDANCE the one to see it 'THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT'!!! The most creepy fuckin mockumentary made ... ever." Figuring AICN as the best way to get the word out to an obsessive fan base, Myrick and Sanchez had apparently slipped Knowles the blurb. In the next six months, the indie film was reviewed 12 more times -- and each review was more positive than the last.

At least some AICN frequent flyers suspect that one of "The Blair Witch Project" reviewers setting the buzz-generator on high was ... someone directly involved with the film. Whoever was doing it, the reviews were working. How else to account for the increasing number of rabid fans whose postings began, "I've seen a tape of 'The Blair Witch Project ...'"? Particularly when the film's distributor, Artisan Entertainment, was enforcing a strict no-tapes policy?

"We haven't created screeners for this film," says Artisan spokeswoman Jessica Rovello. "Piracy is a big issue."

John Pierson, the independent film guru who put up part of the seed money for the film, suspects that when the hype reaches a certain level, people start confabulating. "What happens in the more buzzy world is that people end up posting about a film that they haven't seen at all -- thousands and thousands are already on board talking about a movie that they haven't seen."

You couldn't ask for a better way to promote a movie.

And "Blair Witch" fans defend the marketing campaign. As Anthony Pryor-Brown puts it: "There's a significant difference between saying, 'You liked the movie? Tell your friends,' and [studios] specifically planting people to rave about the movie." Pryor-Brown is a 38-year-old technical writer from Portland, Ore., who faithfully visits AICN once a day.

"To the extent that Ed Sanchez and Dan Myrick have been encouraging people to spread the word about 'Blair Witch,' there is indeed a publicity campaign going on," he offers, "but I'm encouraged to see that it doesn't involve huge ads in the trades, massive TV campaigns or action figures at Taco Bell. Although I probably would get 'Blair Witch' action figures if they were available."

By Patrizia DiLucchio

Patrizia DiLucchio is a writer who lives in Monterey, Calif.

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