MARKETING THE MOST PROFITABLE MOVIE IN HISTORY

 

“Oh my God, were they killed?”

Sat in a packed cinema there was an eerie silence. The screen flickered with hollow credits as people came back to their senses. Some feeling queasy, some regaining their bravado, some searching for normalcy.

Love it or hate it, in 1999 the Blair Witch Project redefined cinema and more importantly, marketing.

Consider this, The Blair Witch Project is the most profitable film ever made. More profitable than any superhero epics, blue aliens in 3D or sinking ships.

Their initial budget of $22,500 delivered a clever, psychologically inventive film. The total worldwide gross of the film was $248,600,000.

That is an ROI of 1,104,788.89%.

And while many would have shrugged this off as a student film, the marketing of the film was a stroke of genius – and one that is replicable.

In fact, this is a strategy that I replicated with other companies and films (such as Monsters and Intact0), but more about that another time.

So, how can you also emulate this same success? Well there are some basic principles that the Blair Witch followed, you can use and implement them immediately.

Is that it?

A word of caution. No one else does this because many believe it’s “too simple” or it’s “too obvious”.

One of my clients was once telling her journalist friend how I had secured an hour long interview with a CEO who was worth $480 million.

“Well yes, that’s easy” was the retort from the put out journo. “If it was easy why doesn’t everyone do it?” replied my client.

“If you go down to the woods today…..”

Here are 5 guiding principles to a developing your own blockbuster campaign.

Principle 1: No one wants to be told, they want to discover it for themselves

With millions of marketing messages bombarding our senses every day it is difficult if not impossible to stand out of the noise. And it’s getting worse because marketing and advertising is become are becoming less effective so more money is needed to shout even louder or in more inventive ways.

In truth, the greatest marketing comes from whispers shared between friends.

Picture the scene

In 1999 the internet was in it’s infancy. In fact we were in the land of Netscape (showing my age now) and dial up where images would load a line at a time from left to right. You might have a website that had millions spent on it or a website that had been developed by some high schoolers – it was very hard to tell.

And in that digital “no mans land” it was very easy to manufacture realistic news websites that could be used to plant misinformation into the world for hungry teens who loved horror stories and urban legends.

What to do: Identify your core market, key influencers and markets and their psychological drivers and emotional pain and pleasure points.

Principle 2: Guide people to believe what they want

The Blair Witch filmmakers had no budget and knew that they had to rely on the potential audience to market the film for them through word of mouth. So taking out ads in local newspapers close to where they filmed they placed missing person ads.

They cast unknowns who had no online presence or previous film experience to speak of (no IMDB to screw things up) making it impossible to easily fact check the narrative they were creating.

From childhood we tell stories and love to scare each other with the latest horror or urban legends. What if they were planted in such a way that they seemed real and it was almost impossible to tell the origin of them?

What to do: Today businesses can still do the same by putting a narrative into the world which matches deep psychological or emotional needs. This isn’t easy, if it were your company would already be doing it.

Principle 3: Blurring the lines

With a number of similar strategies to the fake news stories and “missing” adverts it was then a question of taking the marketing to the next level.

Next the film needed to gain a distributor and which led the filmmakers heading to Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival. This is where we go from being a small film in the can to landing a distributor for your product.

When using this as an example with those who aren’t in the film industry I liken it to a new line of fruit juice and trying to get it picked up by a supermarket to stock it across the country.

Frankly, if they couldn’t get a distributor that would launch it in the cinema they may get lucky with a straight to video release (or maybe one of those Digital Versatile Discs everyone was talking about).

Fly papering posters around the event and planting seeds of curiosity with journalists a buzz soon took hold of the event. After all if this was a fictional film, where were the stars of the film? They were no where to be found. Instead the film was touted as a documentary and the filmmakers were still looking for the poor souls from the footage.

By the time the footage was viewed the distributors were salivating for this product and snapped it up for a cool $1.1m by Artisan.

What to do: Once you have built a growing social movement either online or offline within a community start to infiltrate key events where the larger financial influencers move. Build on the buzz and allow them to experience a similar effect.

Principle 4: Fan the flames

Once Artisan had invested $1.1m to secure the film distribution rights of this film the backing opened doors for the filmmakers to a new level. Within months the Artisan marketing department saw what had worked thus far and upped the game with more traditional marketing practises – posters, adverts, billboards etc.

Something the filmmakers insisted on was the absence of their leading actors. This extended to premieres where the cast were still missing presumed dead.

The press were manipulated (and loved it) running a plethora of stories covering everything from supernatural occurrences happening to those who had seen advanced copies of the film, to their own research into the town where it was filmed and (surprise, surprise) finding missing adverts of the “cast”.

Suddenly, was the film too scary, would it curse those who had watched it, some people couldn’t even watch it to the end because of the “terror”. The filmmakers were even on the front of TIME.

What to do: Once the momentum has started you must feed the flames. Provide the oxygen by strategically responding, releasing statements from 3rd parties and coordinated activities both on and off line.

This requires careful planning and consideration because you should consider herd psychology and more importantly how to steer it.

Principle 5: The “What If” factor

Once the film was released audiences flocked to finally see what all the fuss was about. After all they all wanted to see for themselves what their friends and the reliable internet had been telling them about and answer the fundamental question – “What if it’s real?”.

By allowing that moment of doubt of “is this real?” word of mouth propelled the movie beyond what Artisan’s budget could have ever achieved.

What to do: Maintaining momentum once launched is critical to ensure that this isn’t a flash in the pan. Early adopters will be first to buy and take the “risk” which they secretly enjoy. At this stage it is critical to massage positive early word and ensure this spreads as widely as possible to the 2nd tier influencers.

 

A warning: This strategy is deceptively simple as with any post mortem of hugely successful strategies a significant amount of time, work and creative thinking went into achieving the “easy”. The secret is in the knowledge and understanding of individual psychological drivers at each step of the process. Master this and you will be amazed at what you can achieve.

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