Pitching a big tent

Can "Blair Witch 2" overcome suspicious fans and everyone who hated the first one?

By Jaime Weinman

Published October 24, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

For a moment in the summer of 1999, "The Blair Witch Project" was the movie everyone was talking about. We all heard the story of how a little horror movie, shot for $30,000 on wobbly cameras held by unknown actors, was bought for $1 million and spurred on to a $141 million box-office success by the astute, Internet-based marketing tactics of distributor Artisan Entertainment. It was the kind of movie that makes huge money, generates a thousand parodies and gets everyone talking about a revolution in marketing; it was a phenomenon. With "Blair Witch 2," due out Friday, the question is the same one asked with every sequel to every phenomenon movie: When the phenomenon is over, what's left?

It's almost impossible to recreate an entertainment phenomenon. To become talked-about and written-about, a movie needs to have, or at least seem to have, something new and surprising; sequels by their nature have no novelty and few surprises. What you usually end up with is something like "Jaws 2" -- an original formula rehashed in the vain hope that it'll still be fun even after it's become familiar. "Blair Witch 2" obviously faces the problem of the novelty having worn off, but there's another problem: the unusually strong backlash that developed against the original film after its initial success. Signs of this backlash can still be seen on Internet message boards and in chat sessions; the early, enthusiastic posts about the movie soon gave way to comments like this one, posted on the Internet discussion group alt.horror in a thread about bad horror movies: "There are worse films in theory, but the hype attached to this garbage pushed it clear of the rest!"

This backlash was at least partly due to the nature of the movie itself. Unlike previous hit horror movies like "Psycho" or "The Exorcist" -- traditional, well-made movies that used a variety of cinematic devices to scare the viewers -- "The Blair Witch Project" was a deliberately crude piece of work that looked like what it was: footage shot by and of a bunch of people in their 20s in the woods. The film looked like it could be real, and some viewers even assumed it was -- especially after being duped by Artisan's marketing tactics, which deliberately tried to blur the line between reality and fiction. (For example, Artisan pushed the directors into interviews, but tried to keep the three lead actors -- who supposedly had disappeared in the movie -- out of magazines and off of television.)

But the lack of technique also meant that after the shock of a first viewing, there wasn't much to grip an audience the second time. Moreover, once the plot of the film had become national news, the element of surprise was lost and some viewers who expected to be scared were disappointed.

Another factor creating backlash was a resentment of the distributor's much-discussed marketing tactics, which were in some ways a bigger part of the news stories than the movie itself. The "Blair Witch" Web site offered phony newscasts and an entire mythology built around the film. And a fake documentary about the fake documentary ran on the Sci-Fi Channel. The movie became so closely associated with its advertising that it became hard to tell which was which.

In marketing "Blair Witch 2," Artisan seems aware that the success of the first campaign -- like the success of the movie it was built around -- can't be duplicated. "Artisan is taking a more straightforward approach with the sequel," says Amorette Jones, Artisan's vice president of worldwide theatrical marketing. "We're not even trying to catch lightning in a bottle again. The Internet campaign is still central to the marketing strategy, but it is now being supported by a full-scale offline push."

The offline push consists of the usual round of posters (a cracked, yellowish image of what appears to be someone screaming, superimposed over tree rings) and promos, while the Internet component has been centered around the "Blair Witch Webfest," which ran from Oct. 18 to Oct. 20. Jones calls it "a cross between a traditional fan convention and an online Lollapalooza," but it looked a lot more like a central site with simultaneous features on Amazon.com (a merchandise auction) and a section on Hollywood Stock Exchange.

The original Blair Witch site still exists, but that homespun site and its once-successful emphasis on the bogus Blair Witch mythology seem almost to have been pushed to one side by the webfest. This was a much more conventional promotional campaign, with more traditional fun and games, giveaways, clips and online chats with everyone from the film's director to the head of the Church of Satan. There was a certain sense, during the webfest, that Artisan no longer had to do much to sell viewers on Blair Witch. Whereas the original, deceptively low-key campaign was designed to fascinate and intrigue people who came upon it, the webfest was founded on the assumption that people who were already fascinated and intrigued would want to celebrate that fact in a blitz of chats and graphics.

It's doubtful that the webfest was as popular as it was intended to be -- a search for the keyword "webfest" on Usenet discussion groups reveals that the event was mentioned in only 30 or so messages on all the groups combined -- but it certainly offered a reminder of the multimillion-dollar franchise Blair Witch has become, as opposed to the low-budget experiment the franchise started out with.

Of course, even with a series so closely associated with the way it's marketed, the main thing is the movie itself, and whether the sequel can inject some freshness into a now well-known premise. With nearly all-new characters, a different director (the original directors were busy with another project) and a different storytelling style, "Blair Witch 2" is straying so far from the original premise that one alt.horror poster mused that it seems to be shaping up as a movie for those who hated the original. "The only real similarities between the two films," says Jones, "are the core 'Blair Witch' mythology and the way in which they blur the lines between what is real and what is fiction." Even the famous blurring of fact and fiction, though, is less prominent than it was; the new film isn't trying to pass itself off as student footage (some of the publicity for the sequel has emphasized that the movie was shot using cameras mounted on tripods, which should come as a relief to all those who complained about the wobbly camerawork in "The Blair Witch Project") and the new publicity campaign more clearly treats "Blair Witch 2" as a work of fiction. There's even a hint of self-parody in the sequel's premise: The main character organizes "Blair Witch Tours" to capitalize on the notoriety of the Blair Witch myth, which has the potential to comment indirectly on the perception of hype and hucksterism that is sometimes associated, fairly or unfairly, with the original.

Part of what might help to give "Blair Witch 2" its own identity is director Joe Berlinger. Unlike the two young unknowns who created the original film, Berlinger is a veteran filmmaker, and he has been primarily associated not with gimmicky horror movies but with acclaimed documentaries like "Brother's Keeper" (1992) and "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" (1996), both of which he co-directed. (He's also directed episodes of the fictional TV series "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "D.C.")

The official site of "Blair Witch 2" notes that Berlinger's experience with documentaries will allow for a "blurring of truth and fiction that is such a part of the 'Blair Witch' series." But the presence of a noted director making his first nondocumentary feature (who recently participated a little bit in the backlash by telling Premiere magazine that he didn't think the original film was all that scary) also has the potential to lend the sequel an air of filmmaking skill and conscious structure that the original didn't always have. If the clever but deliberately crude "Blair Witch Project" was primarily a phenomenon, then "Blair Witch 2" has the potential to differentiate itself from its predecessor by establishing itself first and foremost as a movie.

Still, the main goal of "Blair Witch 2" is what a horror movie's goal should be: to deliver some shocks and make the viewers nervous. And if it's as successful as Artisan has reason to hope it will be, the company can then turn its attention to dealing with a new set of publicity problems -- and maybe even a new, different backlash -- for "Blair Witch 3."

Jaime Weinman

Jaime Weinman is a writer in Nepean, Ontario.

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