At the recent ARG Fest held in Atlanta, I met many wonderful people working in the world of alternate reality game design, transmedia and immersive marketing for entertainment properties and big brands. One of those people is Mike Monello of Campfire, an immersive marketing company working with Discovery Channel, HBO and USA Network . Mike was one of the producers of The Blair Witch Project, so I sat down with him to discuss some of the tactics employed during the early promotion of Blair Witch that enabled it to become the phenomenon of the new millennium for independent film and how indie filmmakers can use those same tactics in the world of social networking that is so pervasive, and essentially free, today.
MFM: Was the process of audience engagement all planned from the beginning?
Monello: "The choice that lead us all down this path was the decision to improvise the movie. When it was decided to not a write a line by line full script, we had to create a shared history for the actors to base their improvs on, in particular a mythology. So it really forced Ed [Sanchez] and Dan [Myrick] to sit down and think through the backstory, most of which would never be in the film. The first thing that was thought up was the mythology, even before the movie was cast."
MFM: How did Blair Witch first gain audience attention?
Monello: "After shooting the film in Maryland and doing a rough cut and an investor reel, John Pierson, the producer's rep, saw our reel when he came to the Florida Film Festival that year and loved it. He asked if he could use it on his show called Split Screen on Bravo as the last segment of his final first season episode. After the segment, he asked the audience 'Are the guys at Haxan Films pulling our leg or are there really witches in the woods in Maryland? Let us know at www.splitscreen.com.' Their message board was usually full of indie filmmakers talking about stuff like what was the right super 16 film stock to shoot if you want to blow up to 35mm, but then non filmmakers started posting on it and wanting to talk about Blair Witch. And Bravo kept rerunning the show because it got great reaction. A second episode aired with actual footage from the film and finally John called us up and said 'Look, these Blair Witch people are flooding out my filmmakers from the message boards, you guys have to get a website and move these people off so they have a place to go and talk about Blair Witch.' We put together a website, mostly with forums and we thought 'What can we do? The film isn't finished, we don't really have anything else to show them.' So, we brainstormed and found we had the mythology we created and decided to start putting pieces of that up because it was part of the story we wanted people to know and we were going to put pieces of it in the film."
"The more we put up, the more the people started to devour it. It was a combination of seeing pieces of footage that were really intense, with a history that had massive holes in it because we didn't put the whole thing up, and it gave a space for people to imagine what they wanted and tell each other stories. The mythology was based on stories that were around, urban legend. I don't want to say they were historically accurate because none of it was factual information, but it all had resonance with people. It gave people a reason to talk about their own local witch legends and their own scary camping experiences and it just all ballooned from there."
"We were conscious of the fact that we needed to keep everyone engaged until we had the film available to see. So, we would read the forums of what the fans were saying and looked at the topics they discussed and we'd think 'that's interesting, they are curious about this thing in particular' and we would look at the information we hadn't released yet and release what spoke to that curiosity. If we had holes in the information people wanted to know, we would fill those in."
"When we had a piece of media like photos, drawings or anything we created as part of the story, we would mail it to the fans that had websites and they would put it up. All of sudden these fans had stuff that wasn't even available on our site and that created an ecosystem where people were saying 'oh, I want to get that, send it to me.' So it was all organically growing."