The Blair Witch Project (1999) was one of the most profitable films in history when measured by its return on the initial investment. Made for approximately $50,000 and grossing over $100 million in US theatrical box-office alone, this financial victory of a low-budget independent film over the major studio blockbusters instigated a paradigm panic among Hollywood executives due in large part to the important role of the Internet in the film's commercial success. When the mainstream film industry had already begun to create content specific to the Web, Internet promotion was still considered to be supplementary to established media outlets, and the theatrical film was still the main component of the brand or franchise. For The Blair Witch Project , however, the Web became the central medium or the primary text for the film's narrative and its reception, as well as its marketing or "franchising" beginning more than a year before the film's major theatrical distribution. In this sense, the Web functioned in the 1990s for The Blair Witch Project in the same way that newspapers and magazines did in relation to the earliest commercial cinema in the 1890s by playing a primary role in the film's narrative and its meaning for the audience.
Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez originally launched The Blair Witch Project Website in June 1998 on their production company's Website, Haxan.com. When the independent distributor, Artisan Entertainment, bought The Blair Witch Project for $1.1 million from directors Myrick and Sánchez at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1999, the company envisioned exploiting the medium of the Web to compensate for its relative lack of funds for promotion. On April Fool's Day, Artisan relaunched The Blair Witch Project Website with additional material, including footage presented as outtakes from "discovered" film reels, police reports, the "back story" on missing film students, and a history or mythology of the Blair Witch legend. The next day Artisan sent 2,000 The Blair Witch Project screensavers to journalists and premiered its trailers on the "Ain't It Cool News" Website instead of on television or in theaters.
Although the low-budget or "no budget" quality of The Blair Witch Project became an integral part of the film's marketing strategy, shortly after acquiring the distribution rights to The Blair Witch Project Artisan spent $1.5 million on Web promotion as part of its $20 million campaign (a significantly greater percentage of the promotional budget than mainstream studio films). Resonating with the film's "mockumentary" style, at the heart of the Web campaign was the blurring of the boundaries between actual and fictional documents through additional "evidence" on the Web and the omission of any explicit admission or demarcation of the promotional material as fiction or as promotional advertising. In addition to the official Blair Witch Project Website, unofficial Websites and fan pages elaborated the film's mythology and offered original narratives. Hundreds of Blair Witch Project video parodies were distributed through the Web, and several of the film's detractors launched an anti– Blair Witch Project Web ring that included a Web page created by a group of citizens from Burkittsville, Maryland, "to explain to the world that Burkittsville was being harmed by a fictional movie set in [their] town." Debates about the film's authenticity filled Web boards, Usenet newsgroups, and online chat rooms.
In an attempt to differentiate its promotion, the May 2001 Internet campaign for the film Artificial Intelligence: A.I. adopted The Blair Witch Project 's strategy of passing off fictional Web material as the real thing, when the marketers integrated several Websites with hundreds of pages and days' worth of material that mimicked the aesthetic of real sites, such as the Website for the fictional Bangalore World University. These Websites contributed to a larger pretend Evan Chan murder mystery that complemented the film and took place in the future after the film's narrative. These fictional Websites were updated daily and, like the Web campaign for The Blair Witch Project , none revealed that they were part of a marketing campaign for A.I. Similarly, in August 2001 director Kevin Smith constructed a fake Website bashing his own film Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back , replete with fictional testimonials and video from crew members. Many fans mistook it for the real thing and posted emails to the site's creator. For the most part, these attempts to recreate the same kind of marketing success and financial return of The Blair Witch Project have been unsuccessful, and it remains an
The failure or success of a Web campaign depends in large part upon the target audience and the film's genre. Indeed, many of the examples included here are from genres that appeal to boys and young men, a demographic that comprises a large portion of overall Internet users. To offer another example from the fantasy genre, in 2001 the Wall Street Journal maintained that the Website for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings was the most elaborate and visited to date, offering audio and video clips in ten languages, an interactive map of Middle Earth, chat rooms, screensavers, interviews with members of the cast and crew, and links to some of the thousands of existing fan sites. In 2004, the narrative for the Matrix trilogy was extended beyond the final filmic installment, Matrix Revolutions , inthe form of The Matrix Online , a video game that also uses the Internet to allow thousands of Matrix fans to role-play within and to develop the film's fictional world.
While the Matrix is a deliberate example of franchising a brand across different media, films also live on beyond their official narratives through creative fan communities, such as the thousands of pages of online fiction that continue the storyline of Titanic (see http://www.titanicstories.com ) and hundreds of other films (see http://fanfiction.net ), or the active online culture surrounding the Star Wars and Star Trek films that includes online writings, artwork, games, and fan films or videos. When Lucasfilm threatened legal action against a teenage college student for creating one of the earliest and most visited Star Wars fan Websites, other fans deluged Lucasfilm with angry emails, prompting Lucasfilm to apologize to its fans for the "miscommunication" in a letter posted on the Web. Lucasfilm has since created an official partnership with the Website AtomFilms.com to distribute the many Star Wars videos and films produced by fans.