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Web Buzz Casts a Pall on 'Blair Witch' Appeal

Movies * The sequel's dismal opening was fueled in part by harsh cyber users' reviews.

November 01, 2000|JORDAN RAPHAEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Internet giveth and the Internet taketh away.

Just as "The Blair Witch Project" exploded from out of nowhere last summer to become one of the year's biggest movie phenomenon and gross more than $140 million domestically--thanks largely to a clever online marketing campaign--its sequel failed badly at the box office in its opening weekend, even with a clever online marketing campaign. "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" took in just over $13 million in its debut; in its opening weekend, the original brought in $29 million and in its first month $112 million.

How bad was the opening? "Blair Witch 2" couldn't even knock off the month-old comedy "Meet the Parents" from its No. 1 perch. While sequels in general--and this one in particular--aren't generally expected to do nearly as well as the originals, the extent of the drop-off here was something of a shock.

The dismal opening of "Blair Witch 2" underscores a key online lesson for studios: Netizens have become hip to the tactics of movie marketers. These jaded cyber-dwellers can sniff manipulation a mouse click away. And when they are displeased, they will fight back--and speak their mind.

The backlash against "BW2" began months before the film's opening, with negative buzz fueled by speculation that Artisan Entertainment--the studio that released both "Blair Witch" films--was putting out just another slasher flick. Hours after the movie hit theaters, the reviews started streaming onto message boards.

"I am horribly disappointed," wrote "Niptuc," a musician from Somerville, Mass. "It feels like a hijack of the original concept and adds nothing to my interest in the mythology that the original story established."

An online user nicknamed "Dr. Strangelove" was more blunt: " 'BW2' is definitely amongst the worst sequels in movie history. To be honest, I still can't believe how bad it really is. Is this some bad dream?"

"I just wish they left it alone," lamented another online poster. To be sure, some of the online assessments were positive. "It's a movie I'm gonna see again," wrote "TigaLily." "Not great, but after one viewing, I do think it's worthy of the Blair Witch name."

But on the whole, the Internet was hostile to the "Blair Witch" franchise this time around. Critics seemed to cluster on the dozens of fan sites and message boards dedicated to the film's mythology, making "BW2" to some extent a victim of the online success of the first movie.

"With the first site, it was the element of self-discovery that got people invested in the experience of the movie," said Amorette Jones, Artisan's executive vice president of worldwide marketing. "That truly became the viral component--a friend e-mailing a friend, 'Hey, I think this is true, check it out.' That was absolutely impossible to duplicate [with the sequel] because, of course, most people knew it was a movie."

Artisan supported the release of "BW2" with an extensive Internet campaign, including Web sites that tried to blur the line between fact and fiction (e.g., a dead-on news site replica for "Action News 6" of Burkittsville, Md.). Two weeks ago, the studio hosted a three-day Web fest that featured discussions with director Joe Berlinger and members of the cast, explanations of pagan and Wiccan rituals, and musical performances by Poe and Godhead.

According to some Internet observers, Artisan's Web efforts were too little, too late. "There wasn't enough on the site to get people to poke around and investigate like there was with the first one," said Patrick Sauriol, head of "Coming Attractions," a leading movie-gossip Web site. "The Web fest gave the project some buzz, but that peaked and disappeared the week after."

The original "Blair Witch" was heralded as the harbinger of a new era in movie marketing, where snazzy--and relatively cheap--Web sites would replace traditional, more expensive advertising vehicles. With a few exceptions, most notably, last summer's blockbuster "X-Men," that vision has yet to bear fruit.

"The Web is an extension of the overall marketing campaign," Sauriol said. "You need to have a good Web site. You have to attract people to come back month after month. But all that's not going to work if you have a mediocre movie."

Jones said it's very difficult to gauge the impact that an online campaign has on box-office returns. "The theatrical release is one component of 'Blair Witch,' " she said. "There are many others, including the Web site, electronic games and other licensed properties that continue to have a life of their own."

At a recent screening of "Blair Witch 2" in Century City, several moviegoers said they had never seen any of the "Blair Witch" Web sites.

Travis Brown, a 23-year-old music marketer who lives in Beverlywood, said he was attracted to "BW2" by the trailers and because he's a fan of "FreakyLinks," a Fox TV show conceived in conjunction with the producers of the first movie. "I liked this one," he said. "It totally messes with your head."

Not everyone exiting the theater was as effusive. "We had more fun commenting on the movie than actually watching," said Eric Ritter, 24, who was also enticed by the trailers. "This one was trying to do another documentary-type thing, and by this time we know it's not real, so it just lost a lot for me."

The less-than-stellar performance of "BW2" has left some wondering about the future of the franchise both in film and online. Die-hard fans, in particular, were psyched about Artisan's announcement that the next movie would delve more into the history of the witch herself.

But after the disappointing opening, online user "Akasch" wrote: "Time to start putting up petitions--cause it looks like the prequel may not happen."

Jones said, "We're still seeing a significant amount of traffic, so we know the Web site is still entertaining to people." As for a third "Blair Witch," Jones said, "We need to see a script and go from there."

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