It holds the record for largest profit margin of any movie ever made. It costs $22,000 to shoot and grossed $250 million. So how in the hell did 1999's The Blair Witch Project--an amateur production where a shaky camera follows three arguing people around the woods--even make it into theaters, let alone become a box office cash cow?
In short, with the best Internet and alternate media marketing stunt ever devised.
The Publicity Stunt:
A full year before the planned release of the film the official Blair Witch site showed up on the web. Keep in mind this was1998, the early days of the web when movie studios barely remembered to even buy the domain name (when The Matrix came out, TheMatrix.com belonged to a small software company, their server bombarded day and night by confused fans).
The site depicted the film as a documentary. Soon, other "independent" sites popped up, giving birth to what was possibly the first Internet grass roots campaign for a film, ever. The whole thing played up the idea that the film was the "found" footage of a group of documentarians who had vanished investigating a patch of haunted woods.
When it came time to show the actual "documentary" at film festivals, the film makers went so far as to hang "missing" posters around Sundance depicting the subjects of the film. The actors weren't allowed to make public appearances, since by far the best publicity they could generate was by playing dead. The town the film took place in (Burkittsville, Maryland) was overrun by tourists, looking for clues.
Why it Was Bullshit
Of course the movie was actually fiction and in fact the entire Blair Witch legend the "film makers" in the movie were investigating was invented for the movie. Even the "fan sites" that popped up and built up buzz for the film were rumored to be the work of friends of the filmmakers. The "witch" in the film was, of course, fabricated using a complex system of simply never bothering to show her at all.
It was probably the first successful "viral" internet ad campaign in history, setting the stage for many, many annoying imitators in the years since who realized the best way to sell something is to just lie right to our faces.
It was the summer of 1998. A simpler time. With 56K connections, the Internet was limited to grainy pictures and even text. So for our entertainment we turned to two grotesquely overbuilt monsters named Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and asked that they try to hit a ball over a fence 62 times in one season of a game that was called baseball.
While the nation was swept up in this home run chase, a few observant reporters (observant = had vision in at least one eye) began to notice some irregularities in McGwire's physique. Irregularities like Mark McGwire going from looking like this:
To looking like this:
... in just a few years.
A small percentage of the public had begun to suspect something sinister was going on, and it looked like that magical season could forever be tarnished by a steroid scandal.
The Publicity Stunt:
Enter: Androstenedione. Androstenedione, or "Andro," was a legal supplement that basically boosts testosterone production, decreases recovery time and increases muscle mass. It helps one get bigger but is somewhat benign compared to anabolic steroids and definitely doesn't carry the negative social stigma with it.
So all McGwire had to do was conveniently leave a bottle of Ando sitting out and plainly visible in his locker as the usual horde of reporters flocked around for interviews.
From the AP:
"Sitting on the top shelf of Mark McGwire's locker, next to a can of Popeye spinach and packs of sugarless gum, is a brown bottle labeled Androstenedione."
Note that "Perfectly legal explanation for why I got so fucking huge and please don't dig into this any further" wouldn't have fit on the label. The stories ran and we all believed that Andro accounted for all the muscle gain. Well that and the Popeye's spinach (because we are six-years-old).
Why it Was Bullshit:
Of course we know now that all of the cool baseball players were smoking steroids (steroids are smoked right?) and McGwire infamously took the fifth during congressional hearings on the matter. To this day he refuses to either admit or deny that he used steroids.
Everybody was willing to turn a blind eye at the time. Baseball was coming off a disastrous strike just a few years earlier, and the story of these sluggers coming back and chasing an unbreakable record was just too good to spoil with a bunch of, you know, skepticism and curiosity.
Now, we're not trying to say everybody was using steroids back then. All we're saying is that in the 140 years they've been playing major league baseball, only 18 times has somebody hit 55 home runs or more. In the five-year span from 1997-2001, it happened 10 freaking times.
Marilyn Monroe was a woman with a simple dream. She wanted to become a star. And not just a regular star, something different, something bigger and better. Like maybe a big-breasted star.
It was 1953. Tits were nowhere to be found. Guys got boners from being within 100 yards of thick wool sweater-covered knockers. Marilyn Monroe was not completely unknown but wasn't yet a household name either. She had a few movies ready for release and was on the verge of a potential career breakthrough.
The Publicity Stunt:
Right at this time some photos "leaked" from a 1949 calendar featuring an array of pretty models. While the models were not named in the calendar, a few folks had begun to suspect that Marilyn was one of them. They noticed a lot of physical similarities between one particular calendar model and Monroe. They noticed similarities in the face, in the eyes, in the hair and, oh yeah... in the giant nude tits that were on full display.
If it could be proved that it was her, the 1950s public would be outraged. If there was one thing the 50s didn't tolerate, it was nudity. Nudity and colored people.
Most would have looked for a way out of the situation but Marilyn (being the boner-inducing pioneer she was) thought she could turn it into a positive.
Against her studio's wishes (they wanted her to deny that the pictures were of her), she confessed. She gave an interview in which she admitted that it was her in the pictures but she only did it because she was broke. The resulting publicity elicited sympathy for her plight as a struggling actress.
One month later she was on the cover of Life Magazine, which was pretty much required reading in 1952, with the headline "The Talk of Hollywood." Curiosity over Monroe fueled her next movie, Clash By Night (film title double entendres were also required in those days).
The only copy of LIFE that has ever been masturbated to.
Why it Was Bullshit:
It is now believed that either Marilyn or the producer of Clash By Night Jerry Wald tipped off the reporter that broke the story, Aline Mosby, to the photos. The fact that Mosby was granted the first exclusive interview with Monroe, and the resulting boon to both of their careers, definitely raises an eyebrow.
The story that she only stooped to doing the pictures was because she was broke doesn't exactly hold up either, as she later posed nude multiple times when she definitely didn't need the money. By the 60s she would show her tits to anyone with anything remotely camera-shaped in their hands.
But if you want any indication of how well she played it, just think of how history remembers Marilyn, as opposed to how it will remember Paris Hilton (if at all). That's how it's done, kids.
Samuel can also be found contributing to a way-too-specific blog during football season at wastedoptimism.com.
For topnotch journalism on the Eminem/Bruno fiasco, here's Bucholz with How to put your balls on Eminem: A Practical Guide. Or go on a journey with Swaim as he uncovers whether or not Joaquin Phoenix is nuthouse crazy or just churning the PR machine, in Will Joaquin Phoenix Become The Craziest Celebrity Ever?.
And check out the aforementioned sex tape in our Top Picks (spoiler: Brockway is a Bottom).