Blairwitch.com Brews A Box-Office Smash

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A minimalist, mainly black-and-white Web site has made the low-budget horror film "The Blair Witch Project" possibly the first Internet-driven movie release.


Blairwitch.com, created by Haxon Films for the film's screening at the Sundance Festival in January, contains newspaper cuttings, photos, journal entries relating to the disappearance of three student filmmakers in the woods of Maryland while shooting a documentary about the legendary Blair Witch.


All of the material is fake, including the pictures of the characters' relatives, who do not even appear in the film, and a fictional article from a 1941 edition of a Washington newpaper.


However, the site caused such a sensation that the film industry is crediting it with drawing record-breaking crowds. The "mockumentary" has already grossed $100 million.


"It's been a huge, huge success, a hundred times more successful than anything we've ever done," said Jessica Rovello, a Web manager at Artisan Entertainment, a fledgling company that bought the rights to the film - which cost $60,000 to make - for $1 million.


"The aim was to concentrate purely on the mythology rather than use the Web in a promotional sense. People love delving into the plot. The content lent itself to the site, it created a wealth of material and information which would be impossible with other films."


The Web site is highly interactive and makes use of audio and film clips added in weekly installments. But while the pages have been developed using the latest Web design technology, the plain typeface and subject matter give it the feel of a conspiracy theory-type site.


"It's created a whole back story ... the idea that this was a true story," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., which monitors the box office.


"It's the first time a synergy has been created between the movie and the Web. If you see the movie, you would want to look at the Web site. If you look at the Web site, you want to look at the movie. It actually encourages people to go and see the movie a second time," he added.


The site has also been used in a $15-million marketing campaign to promote the film. The address has appeared on posters, and promoters at Landmark Theatres screening the film have left bundles of sticks and piles of rocks - which are featured in the plot - around Dallas, Minneapolis and Denver underneath posters referring people to the Web site.


Artisan also employed interns to tell young people in bars and clubs about the film and the Web site.


"It's certainly attracted people in their 20s. It's taken the use of the Internet in the movies to a new level," said Cary Jones, vice president of marketing at Landmark.


The success of the site has not gone unnoticed elsewhere in the film industry.


"They did an amazing job," said David Katz, spokesman for Miramax.


Miramax, like other major companies, uses the Net in a limited capacity "to pass on information," such as where and when the movie is being shown.


There are exceptions, such as "Star Wars Episode 1" and Warner Bros.' "The Iron Giant."


"News of the release of 'The Iron Giant' created a buzz on the Internet. We took an overwhelmingly positive action to encourage that buzz by going into newsgroups and answering fan messages," said Don Buckley, vice president of theatrical marketing and new media at Warner Bros.


"The industry is talking a lot about using the Internet, but whether it will change the way the industry promotes films remains to be seen," Buckley added.
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