It's been 25 years since The Blair Witch Project made its world premiere at a Sundance Film Festival midnight screening on January 23, 1999. But producer Mike Monello still fields questions about the horror classic all the time.
"I've come to terms with its place in pop culture, and I feel completely privileged to have been a part of something that's so meaningful to people that they want to talk about it," says Monello, founder and creative director of Campfire, a NYC-based marketing company that develops immersive experience for brands and entertainment franchises.
Directed and edited by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, The Blair Witch Project is entirely fictional but presented as a documentary about three young filmmakers who venture into a Maryland forest with their cameras and sound equipment in search of a supernatural being. They are never seen again, except for in a film "cobbled together" from the trio's "found footage." (That film, of course, is The Blair Witch Project.)
Scooped up by Artisan just hours after its Sundance premiere, the film was released in theaters during the summer of 1999. Made for less than $35,000, it raked in nearly $250 million at the box office.
A pop-culture sensation, the film scared the bejesus out of audiences—and still does—with its unnerving approach to storytelling. It also revolutionized movie marketing. In fact, The Blair Witch Project went viral on the internet before the film was finished. (Mainly on fan forums and horror sites, as social media hadn't been born.)
Here, Monello reflects on making the landmark chiller with a group of buddies, including fellow producers Robin Cowie and Gregg Hale (a Campfire co-founder). They had all studied film together at the University of Central Florida.
What did you all expect, or hope, would come out of making The Blair Witch Project?
We were all 30, or turning 30 at the time. We were feeling like we had to get real jobs and stop pursuing this filmmaking dream, and this was kind of the last hurrah for us. Our goal was to do something low budget, where we could sell enough copies of it by putting ads in the back of Fangoria magazine so we could make our investors' money back and then turn around and make a slightly larger film. Basically, our thought was, if we can keep making low-budget films, we're golden.
You created interest in the film in an unorthodox way at the time, creating a website "investigating" the mythology of the Blair Witch.
When we got in [Sundance], we already had the website up. We had started to build a fan base online, which was something that happened organically and not intentionally.
And then the fans started doing things. On Halloween in 1998, before the film was done, some fan called the FM morning radio show in L.A.—The Mark & Brian Show—and waited on hold for 90 minutes, got on the air and said to them, "Hey guys, have you heard about this Blair Witch? You should go to BlairWitch.com. It's a terrifying story."
These guys talked about our website on the air in L.A. so much that the site went down because we had, of course, the cheapest hosting service and so many people were trying to get to it.
All these other fans got on board and went, "Oh my God, that's amazing!" and they all started calling radio stations, getting the DJs to talk about the Blair Witch.
And this was not something we did or asked for. This was something that fans were doing because they had built a community on the web before the film was done.
Some fans even built their own websites.
We had all these fan websites where people said, "I'm an investigator, and I'm doing my own investigation into this mythology." We embraced that instead of wanting to hide it away. Our fans were taking our stuff and putting it on their sites, and we were linking to them to let other fans know. And CBS was sending cease and desist letters to Stark Trek fans [telling them] to remove pictures of Captain Kirk and Spock from their fan websites. The business had no idea how to deal with fans.
What can filmmakers and brands learn from what you did on the internet back in the day?
We approached the internet as storytellers and as people who wanted fans to come see our film. We weren't approaching it like marketers. We weren't treating the film like a product we wanted them to buy because we didn't have it in the market yet [when the website first went live]. Instead, we just started telling our story.
We didn't have money to play real video footage on the web. So the site was literally stills and copy. It was like a timeline of events with a lot of holes in it and a mythology that was very sparse.
Fans understood that it was participatory. They understood that their interactions on discussion boards mattered, and it made them feel valuable. They started meeting friends on the boards. We understood that emotional engagement was the most valuable thing. What the project had was open spaces for fans to be able to see themselves in it and to create within the world. It exposed what fandom was going to do to Hollywood.
After Artisan bought the movie at Sundance, you made Curse of the Blair Witch, a faux documentary for the Sci-Fi Channel [now Syfy] to promote your faux documentary film. What was the thinking behind that?
You would buy a bunch of ads on the Sci-Fi Channel, and then as part of the deal they would give you sometimes either 30 minutes or an hour if you wanted to make a behind-the-scenes or a making-of special. Artisan came back to us and said, "Hey guys, they've offered us this behind-the-scenes thing, but we don't know how to talk about the film before people have a chance to see it. Can we do something else?"
We said we could do a one-hour documentary that explored the mythology. So, they gave us that time, and Artisan gave us some money, and we made a fake documentary for our found-footage film.
We were able to make it because the process of making The Blair Witch Project we made all kinds of content around the film to explore what the film would be. We shot a 1940s newsreel with Rustin Parr [a fictional character on death row for murdering children]. We had shot a clip from a faux 1970s In Search Of type of TV show. We had shot some interviews.
And because the mythology wasn’t essential to the enjoyment of the film, it gave us this whole narrative outside of the film that we could use that didn't spoil anything in the film.
What's remarkable is all of that material was not created for promotion of the film.
How did that success of impact your career trajectory?
This movie changed my trajectory. I went to film school. My trajectory was into film. Then The Blair Witch Project happened. I loved developing narratives that were participatory and experiential rather than just a piece of static media that people watched. And so Gregg Hale, another producer at Campfire, and I, with Steve Wax and some other folks, formed Campfire because we wanted to do this work.
Campfire, originally, was going to just be a shingle where we were going to occasionally do this work. I was thinking in my head, I'm still going to make movies. But the work just kept coming and coming and coming, and it was so much fun. We've stayed very, very focused on understanding fan cultures and fan communities and how to develop stories and share stories that create a strong, deep emotional connection.
I think this is the kind of storytelling that I was born to do.
How has your experience making that horror classic informed the work you do at Campfire today?
My experience making The Blair Witch Project has informed everything I've done at Campfire. Going back to our earliest projects, such as our work to launch season 1 of True Blood, where we layered the fictional story of vampires coming out of the dark to live amongst us using digital and physical experiences from secret online groups for vampires to wrapped trucks that appeared to be delivering bottles of True Blood to convenience stores, physical mailings, live experiences at San Diego Comic-Con, a comic book, and more. We spun a large, connected story that gave fans an emotional connection before it even premiered.
While the tactics have changed dramatically, the core principles have not. Our brains are hardwired to process information as stories. So when we give you pieces A and C of a story, your brain will fill in B, which creates immersion and discovery. Connecting the story to something "real" or physical makes it tangible, and our brains do the rest. Fans engage in different ways, but across fandoms, the behaviors are remarkably similar, whether we are talking about folks who collect Hallmark Christmas ornaments or fans of Only Murders in the Building or The Walking Dead.