To clarify right out of the gate, I’m not talking about the marketing campaign of The Blair Witch Project. That in itself was one of the best marketing campaigns of all time, but there have been a slew of found footage features that followed on its heels and tried to adopt that same model and none of them had the cultural impact or significance that that one had.
I’m talking about the marketing of 2016’s Blair Witch, the surprise sequel to the biggest horror hit of the late ‘90s. People might point out that it didn’t actually turn out to be that great of a film, but that’s almost besides the point. I think advertising the movie as a smaller indie horror called The Woods was a brilliant thing to do. Nobody expected it to turn out to be what it actually was. And I think it got people more interested in the prospect of a new Blair Witch than they otherwise would have been.
Everyone started talking about it as soon as the true title was revealed in a way that they probably wouldn’t have done otherwise. If the marketing had always been straightforward, I don’t think it would have had nearly the same buzz. A ton of people would have dismissed it immediately, criticizing the original and complaining about the long trend of remakes and reboots in general. But instead, the hype train was so strong that most people were actually surprised when it turned out to be a critical and financial failure.
Blair Witch took what would have been a completely run-of-the-mill reboot in the modern horror pantheon and did something amazing by actually getting people excited for a movie they may not have otherwise wanted to see. Once it was revealed that The Woods was a Blair Witch Project sequel, horror fans were so surprised that they didn’t even notice that the marketing had already bypassed all the speculation time that would normally lead someone to wonder if they even wanted a sequel in the first place.
I love this kind of misdirection in marketing. I love it when a trailer starts off by making you think it’s going to be one thing and then going in a completely different direction. As much as I’m not a fan of the Resident Evil films, to this day the trailer for Resident Evil: Apocalypse is still one of my favorites. It starts out looking like a generic advertisement for a skincare product, and nails everything about those ads perfectly so that you actually believe it, but then as the trailer goes on, the model starts to decay and turn into a rotting zombie. It’s a great hook.
Blair Witch was as far as we’ve ever seen this kind of misdirect go, but I want it to go even further. I think it would have been an amazing thing if everyone had had the surprise that the Comic Con audience had. I think it would have been terrific if we didn’t know that Blair Witch was Blair Witch until we were already in the theater watching it. People would have been so hyped from the ride of it all that many in the audience would have actually been too pumped up to care about some of the shortcomings and probably wouldn’t have even noticed them until they gave it a second viewing.
I think this is a fascinating model that could be applied to so many other movies. Imagine a movie being sold as a straightforward summer camp comedy, the kind of R-rated Meatballs, Porky’s-esque hijinks that we don’t get to see much of anymore. It would be sold on that level alone. There’s always an audience for teen comedy and people wouldn’t be questioning anything if it had the vibe of a slightly more grounded Wet Hot American Summer. People would see that movie and they wouldn’t even question if it was anything other than what it advertised itself to be.
Then imagine that if a half hour into the film, Jason shows up. Nobody would know what to do or what to expect. People would lose their minds. It would work because it would still be an R-rated teen comedy, but it would take a dramatic shift into a Jason Lives kind of tone, operating under the same MPAA guidelines—but it would also lure in a totally new audience that would never go see a Jason movie if they actually knew what they were getting themselves into.
Or you could have a supernatural horror film about a family moving into a new home, so that you expect it to be a horror movie from the onset. But it centers on girl and her cat and she and this cat have just grown up together and when the cat is killed, you expect it to go in the direction of a female-driven John Wick… until the girl buries her cat in the Micmac Burial Ground and it’s revealed as a soft reboot/sequel to Pet Sematary. Or there could be a Shallows-esque shark thriller that turns out to be an actual sequel to Jaws. Maybe a gritty, David Fincher detective movie about the investigation of an impossible, grisly murder, but only when you show up to see it in theaters do you see them find a puzzle box at the scene of the crime.
The possibilities are endless and if done right could be surprising and constantly endearing. There are many, many reasons why we will never get something like this, but I think it’s something that several filmmakers would really latch onto and do amazing things with. Ultimately, studios don’t like any kind of surprises in movies as it is. They want the movie you get to be exactly what the trailer is, but two hours longer. So they’d never get behind the idea of actually holding off what the film is, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be amazing to see.