Hindsight on ''Blair Witch,'' after ''Snakes'' tanked: It's not the Internet buzz that makes or breaks a movie, argues Owen Gleiberman -- people should actually want to see it

By Owen Gleiberman
August 25, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Blair Witch Project: Kobal Collection

Hindsight on ”Blair Witch,” after ”Snakes” tanked

Here’s a prediction: In a decade or so, when you’re watching a dead-on Hollywood satire like Entourage, the merciless gotta-love-him capitalist rebel-suit figure won’t be an agent like Ari Gold. He’ll be a marketing executive, a man (or woman) who understands the magic mantra that movies are nothing — nothing!! — without the geniuses who sell them. The rise in power of marketers to guru status is one of the seminal stories of franchise Hollywood, and just because the trend started years ago doesn’t mean that it has stopped escalating. (Marketing honchos are now being turned into heads of production.) It’s no wonder that a film’s triumph or failure is often viewed as a consequence of marketing, pure and simple. In Hollywood, the sizzle is now treated as the steak.

So when Snakes on a Plane, with its let’s all laugh about how we love crap! title and its fluky year of fan-generated publicity, more or less tanked during its opening weekend, it had to be a marketing story. The big loser, of course, was the Internet. It doesn’t sell movies! At least, not in the way that it was presumed to. One can hardly dispute the point. Snakes on a Plane, that kitschy-catchy moniker aside, was at heart just another so what? fanciful action thriller destined to be forgotten in two weeks. Yet there’s no denying that it was a genuine shock to see how little all of the breathless Web chatter came to.

Still, if the lesson of Snakes is that the Internet is vastly overrated as a tool for creating buzz (or, at least, buzz that translates into ticket sales), that lesson holds a fascinating implication, in hindsight, for another movie that was nattered about relentlessly in terms of its Internet presence. I’m talking about The Blair Witch Project, that creepy video-cam horror movie that somehow, with no stars, no budget, no visible monsters, nothing but its artfully intangible atmosphere of black-night sorcery, was able to cross over from Sundance to gross $140 million. You remember the conventional wisdom, don’t you? I’ll put it simply: Blair Witch, after generating months of is it a movie or is it real? debate, was greeted by Hollywood, and the infotainment culture at large, as a Web phenomenon — a newfangled horror movie, to be sure, but one that succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations because it was marketed and buzzed about in a newfangled way.

Frankly, I never bought it. As a Blair Witch fan, I have had dozens of conversations in which I argued, based on little more than intuition, that the film’s status as a glorified Web virus was always overstated. Yes, people talked about the movie online, and relentlessly, but so what? Given the lackluster performance of Snakes on a Plane, the new conventional wisdom about the Internet’s limitations as a generator (and disseminator) of mass publicity suggests the following: that seven summers ago, when Blair Witch came out, the movie sold its tickets the old-fashioned way — because people had an organic desire to see it.

The marketers, however, don’t want you to think so. A Hollywood that had a healthier sense of its own mission would have rejoiced in the success of The Blair Witch Project, but, in fact, the crossover popularity of a movie like that one is an enormous threat to everything that the movie industry now stands for: the packaging of reliable concepts, sold to the public as product. And so the Blair Witch phenomenon had to be reduced, marginalized, put in its place. The notion that it was a triumph of grass-roots Internet buzz became a way of saying, in code, that the film itself didn’t matter. And that the phenomenon could even be duplicated.

It hasn’t worked out that way, of course. Snakes on a Plane was proof of that. Yet the credo of the marketing executives — that the sizzle is the steak — has gradually spread from Hollywood to the media to moviegoers themselves, and that’s what the ”phenomenon” of Snakes was really all about: fans turning themselves into marketers, all so they could be at the center of the action. Hollywood may once have celebrated the shiny new marketing tool of the Internet, but moviegoers this week should celebrate the official failure of that strategy, so that we’re not all reduced to eating sizzle.