The internet hates just about everything, but it especially hates movie reboots and remakes. However, the new Blair Witch movie has cleverly managed to use that venom in a positive way, and it began with keeping the movie a secret for years.
“Basically, whenever a remake or reboot or sequel is announced, there is a kind of initial backlash against it,” said Blair Witch writer Simon Barrett. “‘Why do this? Why not do something original? The original film was perfect.’ And largely I find myself kind of agreeing with that camp… We knew that there would be an initial negative reaction if we just announced the thing and let the hype around it kinda percolate for like three years while we made it.”
So they didn’t do that. From the very beginning of the film’s production to as recently as July 23 of this year, Blair Witch (written by Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard) was called The Woods. And The Woods wasn’t even announced until this past May, with a trailer that arrived with absolutely no fanfare. All people knew was it looked scary and with the indie track record of Wingard and Barrett (You’re Next, The Guest) horror film fans were instantly intrigued. Then, at San Diego Comic-Con, Lionsgate held a screening of The Woods in a theater filled with Woods posters and employees wearing Woods t-shirts.
Minutes into the film, it was obvious something was off. References began to pile up. Viewers eventually began to realize that instead of an unfamiliar new horror film, what had been called The Woods was actually a sequel to The Blair Witch Project, the influential 1999 found footage horror film. When the lights came up, all the shirts and posters had been changed to match the real film. Blair Witch was here.
It was a bold move that lit up social media and was hailed by some as one of the coolest moments at Comic-Con. “It was always the plan to keep it a secret,” Barrett said. “At one point, there was a discussion at Lionsgate [on] ‘Do we want to do this totally as a secret? Release the film as The Woods and hope that people just randomly go to see it?’ But we get the best of both worlds with Lionsgate being very brave, doing this weird reveal at Comic-Con and just kind of hoping the reaction was positive.”
For the most part, the reaction was positive; more importantly, it reframed the common Internet argument that “all remakes and sequels suck” into something new. Avoiding all of that baseless conflict, speculation and rumors that online film culture revolves around allowed a new conversation to begin. “We waited until we could be like, ‘Hey! We made a Blair Witch movie and here it is,’” explained Barrett. “So, if your initial reaction to that is ‘It sounds like bullshit,’ now you can [immediately] watch [the trailer] and see that it’s not.”
Anyone who thinks it’s bullshit may have been affected by the long history of the original Blair Witch Project. Its release changed a great deal about cinema; not only did it introduce most of the world to the found-footage horror concept, it practically created viral marketing—as well as a culture of overhype. Leading up to its release, The Blair Witch Project had so much buzz around it that when general audiences saw it for what it was, a low-budget, black-and-white experimental film, some viewers felt betrayed.
And yet, the title and franchise still mean something—it’s almost as recognizable as Saw, Paranormal Activity, or maybe even A Nightmare on Elm Street. So Lionsgate came up with a way to get around the negativity as best they could, excite the fans, and also pay tribute to the original film’s iconic marketing strategy of using the Internet to convince people into thinking the film was real, adding to their horror upon seeing the film.
“In making a sequel to The Blair Witch Project, we wanted to have something cool and something outside the box in terms of marketing to get people excited about it, the same way they were shown the first film,” Barrett said.
The plan began in March 2012, when Barrett and Wingard first met original Blair Witch Project co-director Eduardo Sanchez and producer Gregg Hale. Each pair was at South by Southwest with their own movies (V/H/S and Lovely Molly, respectively) but they became fast friends. Sanchez joined with Wingard to make V/H/S/2 and in January 2013, when that film premiered at Sundance, Wingard and Barrett finally felt comfortable enough to bring up Blair Witch. They were quickly brushed off.
A month later Lionsgate executives Jason Constantine and Eda Kowan would call them in to pitch a mystery film. “I thought they were going to talk to us about Saw or something like that,” Barrett said. “They sat us down, they wouldn’t put anything in writing and said, ‘We have the rights to The Blair Witch Project. Would you guys have any interest in working on that?’” The team couldn’t believe the timing, given their conversation just a few weeks before.
“It initially gave us this feeling of not even so much, ‘We want to do this,’ but, more a feeling like, ‘We can’t let anyone else do this. Anyone else is going to screw this up. It has to be us.’” said Barrett. “So there was no negotiation, no pitching, it was really just ‘Give us some time to think about it.’ I called them the next day to say ‘Yeah, we’re in.’”
At this point, it’s important to remember there already was a Blair Witch sequel, 2000's Blair Witch: Book of Shadows. The existence of that film was actually a key component of Wingard and Barrett joining up. It was so radically different from the original, and such a critical and financial disappointment, that basically expectations for a new Blair Witch sequel were instantly tempered. Book of Shadows’ existence gave them the confidence to return to the characters and mythology of the original film with nearly a clean slate.
“Let’s be totally blunt,” Barrett said. “If there was never another sequel to the Blair Witch Project, there would have been a different conversation. But there was a sequel and it went in a very different direction than the original. So, for me, it was a cool opportunity to do something different and new. And in some ways, not necessarily to get the franchise back on track, but take it in a new direction.”
Part of that new direction was making sure the new movie was as modern as the original Blair Witch Project had been. “Talking about it in 2013, it was very clear to me that the right approach was to use all the chronological changes and updates,” Barrett sais. “Even of just like the camping experience. In the first film, they’re arguing over maps. It’s pre-GPS devices, cellphones, and all those other things. It’s changed a lot in those 20 years. So it definitely was part of the creative approach to take advantage of that. But [I also] don’t know how else we would have done it.”
In a world where the internet can be so venomous, so early on in the development of a film, without a frame of it being released, secrecy and clever planning seems to have been the perfect way to make and release Blair Witch. Happily, the film lives up to all that marketing and maneuvering; we were in the audience for that Comic-Con screening (our review is here), and Wingard and Barrett have made a film that pays tribute to the original not just with its techniques and story, but its scares and ingenuity. (It also didn’t hurt that I thought I was going to watch some film called The Woods and ended up watching a sequel to one of the most influential horror films of all time. The surprise was wholly unique and exciting.)
You can judge for yourself when Blair Witch opens on September 16.