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Edinburgh Festival 99 Wednesday, 25 August, 1999, 09:54 GMT 10:54 UK
Blair Witch hits the UK
Blair Witch is presented as the work of three lost students
By BBC News Online's Matt Grant in Edinburgh

The Edinburgh International Film Festival boasted a rare chance to decide for yourself whether the shock success of the year, The Blair Witch Project, is really the scariest movie yet created.

Edinburgh Festival 1999
But the hype has followed the film across the Atlantic. Getting a ticket for the UK premiere was as likely as stumbling on stash of handheld video footage and turning it into a mega hit at the box office.

So, most of us will have to wait until the general release on Halloween. But, until then, there is blairwitch.com - a work of art in itself.

The site and film work together to weave the Blair Witch myth
The trio behind Blair Witch have taken the film industry by storm on a number of levels.

Their success in using the Internet to elaborate on the film's core myth - and as an exponential marketing device - is almost as remarkable as the fact a movie made for tens of thousands of dollars - estimates of the exact figure vary wildly - can pull in $107m in five weeks.

Film-makers Eduardo Sanchez, Dan Myrick and Gregg Hale had no early promotion beyond the Website, which they put up in June 1998, more than six months before the film was premiered at the Sundance Festival.

By the time Blair Witch opened on general release in the US, it was on its way onto the covers of Newsweek and Time.

Mockumentary turned nightmare

The film Blair Witch offers an original concept, which happened to be extremely cheap to make. It is presented as the work of three students in search of the legend of an 18th century witch in the town of Burkittsville, formerly Blair, in Deliverance country.

Their videotapes are discovered a year after their disappearance. Despite the filmmakers' original plans, it has no narrator and is presented as if it was virtually unedited.

To blur fiction and reality further, the actors - director Heather Donahue, cameraman Joshua Leonard and soundman Michael Williams - use their real names in the film.

Their documentary project turns quickly into a nightmare and they start to be pursued by a stalker, who is never shown on camera.

The filmmakers bought the actors the cheapest cameras they could find
The results are shaky and inconclusive. The filmmakers gave the actors only rudimentary instruction in using cameras and bought them the cheapest they could find, including a Hi-8 for $500 that they took back afterwards.

Myrick, Hale and Sanchez have also admitted to terrorising the actors during the solid eight-day shot, raiding their tents at night and not telling them what was really going on to instill real fear in them.

But the most frightening thing about Blair Witch is the absence of horror on screen, coupled with the ever-present suggestion of imminent danger. It works, fans say, because it creates fear within the mind of the viewer.

Film Festival director Lizzie Francke says: "The genius of The Blair Witch Project is that it is testimony to the powers of the imagination, the imagination in question being the audience's own."

Waiting for imitators

The hype surrounding Blair Witch has already led to a full-scale backlash. Jealous rivals wondered aloud how come so many unofficial sites had footage from the film.

Blair Witch's creators were charged with orchestrating the sudden appearance of dozens of other sites all dedicated to the thriller flick.

Amid the row, it emerged movie promoters regularly post fake reviews on the Net praising their films, taking pains to disguise their work through intentional spelling mistakes and poor Web design.

The actors used their real names in the movie
While all major film releases now have Net sites, they have tended to offer little more than short clips and fluffy interviews with the stars. Not having any stars, Blair Witch uses its story to flesh out the gruesome, fictitious legend at the heart of the film.

Regularly updated, the site is an experience on its own and its authenticity and stylish simplicity look set to have as much influence on the industry as the fan imitators.

Is Blair Witch the most successful - and cheap - hype of the digital age? Its success implies there must be more to it.

It has been suggested the film taps into a deep loathing of the cinematic conventions and sledgehammer marketing style of the Hollywood studios among young audiences.

But the trio behind Blair Witch are now demonstrating their distaste for slick marketing runs shallower than fans might have expected.

Already, there is a spin-off Curse of the Blair Witch, made from outtakes for the Sci-Fi Channel, a book of the film and - from the movie without a soundtrack - a CD of tapes found in Josh's car.

The Websites too point heavily towards the marketing and promotions pages of Artisan's own site. At the company, talk is already turning to the sequel and prequel.

But the greatest fear of movie executives and film festival organisers is the inevitable spate of derivative hand-shot movies and mock Websites certain to follow.

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The BBC's Tom Brook reports: "The Internet has been crucial to the film's success"
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