10 Years After 'Blair Witch,' Viral Movie Marketing Grows Up

Efforts for 'Cold Souls,' 'Tron' Demonstrate What Hollywood Has Learned About the Web

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Imagine my surprise (or dismay) the other day when I read that the "Blair Witch Project" is 10 years old this summer. With the anniversary upon us, film sites are taking a look at studios' relationships with viral movie marketing and their attempts to recapture that late-'90s vibe.

Cold Souls poster

Total Film has a fantastic look at the evolution of online movie marketing starting with "Blair Witch" and ending with the upcoming blockbuster "2012." It's a fun piece, with clips, links and some good context. For instance, I had no idea that a very popular YouTube video of an office worker freaking out -- appropriately titled "Worst Office Freak Out Ever" -- was in fact a viral clip for the Angelina Jolie actioner "Wanted." As Total Film points out, "Someone forgot to tell [director Timur Bekmambetov] that viral vids only work if people have a vague idea what they're advertising. Nice idea, but a total Stealth Marketing Fail. A tease needs a payoff."

I've never really been someone who spends a lot of time with a movie's website. I like to look at trailers, see a clip or two, and I'm not a big fan of ARGs, or alternate reality games. Mostly I like sites where I can get information or build a bit of anticipation for a film. The website for "Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince" was as elegantly produced as the movie -- I enjoyed how the site cleverly used one of the movie's new features, Dumbledore's "liquid memory," as a motif throughout. Another site that held my attention was one for the Michael Mann-directed biopic "Public Enemies," which was brimming with details about John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), "Pretty Boy" Floyd and the rest, including a chronology of Dillinger's reign as "Public Enemy No. 1." The website helps clear up some inconsistencies, as the Mann pic plays a bit loose with the facts.

But those sorts of sites are for hard-core fans -- they know what they want, and it's probably downloads. So when studios are looking to capture your time-starved attention, they still take a page out of the "Blair Witch" playbook if they're not creating vivid ARGs. And that general play is to blur fact and fiction. (Then again, isn't that what some beer marketers try to do when they claim their brews are drinkable?) Two new movie websites caught my attention recently for striving for an is-it-real-or-not vibe without really blurring the lines too much.

'Blair Witch Project'
'Blair Witch Project'
When I read that "Tron" was returning to the big screen, I got excited after I saw the trailer only to be let down by a rather static "Tron: Legacy" official website that doesn't have much showing for it except the new logo and the crackle of lightening and thunder and a click-to-register call to action. But my colleagues over at Creativity tipped me to Flynn Lives, a website by ARG specialists 42 Entertainment that's set up to be a web page for the search of Kevin Flynn. (If you haven't seen the trippy 1982 film since, well, 1982, here's a refresher.) The site has mock-ups of old news articles about Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and a chronology of the group's "current movement." There's no mention of "Tron," but it has, well, a big picture of a young Jeff Bridges, and it looks like it'll be a nifty and engaging site as marketing ramps up for the movie's 2010 release.

In a similar vein, when I stumbled onto the website for the Soul Storage Co., one of the first things I spotted, because it's hard to miss, is a video with David Strathairn as "Dr. Flintstein" and, further down, "real patient" testimonial from none other than Paul Giamatti. Granted, Strathairn and Giamatti might not light up the Davie-Brown Index, but you know you know them. So you also know you're dealing with a site for a movie. And that movie is "Cold Souls."

Neil Marks, head of marketing at Samuel Goldwyn films, which is releasing "Cold Souls" Aug. 7, told me that unlike the viral marketing behind "Blair Witch," which tried to trick audiences, sites such as Soul Storage Co. -- the soul-extraction and -storage company at the heart of the film -- are designed to be destinations that give visitors just enough to be intrigued and make them want to see what the site is promoting. "You want to be just a little cryptic," Mr. Marks said, but ultimately the goal is to sell the film, not drive viewers away. The site doesn't aim to hide its relationship to a movie.

Mr. Marks said the effort is the "first 'fake' site" for Samuel Goldwyn, and the movie's twisty conceit -- Paul Giamatti plays an actor named Paul Giamatti, for example -- was the perfect vehicle to try out such an effort. And what makes the Soul Storage website so successful, he said, is how it's driving traffic to the "Cold Souls" movie site. And links to that site aren't apparent. Visitors have to drill deep to find the links and a trailer, which tells Mr. Marks the site is keeping its visitors engaged.

Soul Storage flier
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Soul Storage flier

But seeing as we're 10 years removed from "Blair Witch," Mr. Marks has other web weapons at his disposal, such as Twitter ("I'm addicted") and Facebook, which has been the No. 1 referring site for "Cold Souls." Fans of Soul Storage Co., which number about 3,000, make about 15 visits to the Facebook page, post on its wall and leave comments on status updates. "Viewers feel like they're in on the joke" and they "understand the comedic aspects," Mr. Marks said.

Of course, by now most marketing chiefs (hopefully) know that consumers know they're being marketed to, so you might as well let them in on the fun. The studio was able to use Twitter and Facebook for contests and games that stayed in the voice created on the Soul Storage site. But even by letting your audience in on the marketing, "you can't make them feel like they're shilling for a movie studio," Mr. Marks said. (But fans aren't the only ones entitled to a little fun: Guerrilla marketing was another key piece of the studio's marketing, and Mr. Marks said he helped hang tabbed fliers reading "Low on cash? Rent your soul today!" on lampposts in New York. He said he would stand back and watch people tentatively tear off a tab and look around as if they were on some hidden-camera show.)

So the lessons learned over at Samuel Goldwyn can be readily applied elsewhere: Make people feel like they're involved and that they're "not being spoken at. If people have a passion for [something] they'll want to share it with their friends." And hopefully that type of endorsement will lead to sales -- or a night spent in an air-conditioned theater in August.

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