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Summer 99
How the Web has conquered Hollywood

Contradicting forecasts of the box office gurus, summer ’99 turned out to be, cinematically speaking, the summer of surprises.

Against all odds, the well planned battlefield of summer weekends was turned upside down by, more than a small film, a technological revolution: the Internet. This season that could be summed up as the battle between David and Goliath, with The Blair Witch Project as David and The Phantom Menace as Goliath indeed went to the advantage of the littler one, where the weapon is more fearsome than precise: the Web.

So, The Phantom Menace cost a paltry sum of $115 million (high caliber marketing budget not included) and brought in more that $420 million, a profit of 265%. The success was certainly important, but hardly the anticipated tidal wave, as the word of mouth was mostly negative. Cleverly, as soon as the film began to flail, the marketing campaign turned to merchandising, Lucas’s real cashcow. The Blair Witch Project, a small unexpected film, cost $30,000 to make and has already generated $128 million (with an almost non existant marketing budget) resulting in a 426,566% profit: you do the math. And its success is in no way the result of marketing. None of our walls were plastered with giant posters. No witches sprung from McDonald’s Happy Meals. The effigy of Heather Donahue was not been found on salsa jars (though she could very well be the source of a stomach ache). No, this craze was simply generated by a devastating word of mouth born from the buzz that invaded the Web and made this project the sleeper hit of the summer. Several rumors circulated on this subject. Fan sites were put up by the film crew while the studios put out anti-Blair Witch Project sites, not appreciating having the rug pulled out from their blockbusters. This phenomenon had an effect that went well beyond the good return of a small film. By granting itself the second and third place for 3 weeks, the evil witch relegated the big releases to third and fifth place for the ultimate affront. In addition, the film created an opportune wave of horror that was cleverly surfed by The Haunting, but especially by The Sixth Sense, another small more psychological horror film that has been at the head of the box office for four weeks thanks to, again, good word of mouth (which is different from The ridiculous The Haunting that could not survive its mediocrity). The Sixth Sense only benefitted from a few ads, and despite its feeble marketing budget, has just hoisted itself up onto the deck of Titanic and The Phantom Menace, the only films to have earned more than $20 million a weekend over 4 weeks. And when speaking of Internet and word of mouth, another film benefitted: Eyes Wide Shut, which was accompanied by sulphurous buzz (resulting in the best box office for a Kubrick film-it already broke even on the US market).

So the Net, thanks to fan sites, forums, and chats, is the perfect catalyst for word of mouth, becoming the new marketing super weapon. Hollywood has just discovered at its own cost that the Internet cannot be underestimated and they will not be late to react, already shifting an important part of its marketing budget to the online community.

Coming soon to your (computer) screens.

  Fred Thom

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The Blair Witch Project

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