This article is the first in a weekly series throughout October looking at themes in the horror genre... spooky! First up I am looking at the 1999 film: The Blair Witch Project and how the directors made use of Transmedia Storytelling as a means to market this small budget found footage film.
Note: This article contains brief details of the plot of The Blair Witch Project so if you haven't seen it, this is your spoiler warning! I recently finished Brian Rafftery’s book Best. Movie. Year. Ever. . I was reminded about some of the films of 1999 that I really enjoyed… and some that I didn’t. The Blair Witch Project was one of those films that, at the time, didn't really jump out at me as a particularly enjoyable or a 'must see' film. The Blair Witch Project is a ‘found footage’ horror film where three amateur film makers, Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard (their real names), supposedly go out into a forest to investigate a folklore legend of the Blair Witch. The film opens with text on screen claiming:
‘In October of 1994 three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville Maryland while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found.’
Shot on hand held cameras the film follows the students entering the woods and camping out before becoming lost for several days with Josh eventually going missing. The climax of the film insinuates that the remaining two filmmakers have been killed by the witch in an abandoned building in the middle of the forest. I first watched The Blair Witch Project around 2004 when I was 14. I had no appreciation for this shaky cam, ‘nothing really happens until half way through’ film. It did put me off the idea of camping for a few years though.
After reading Raftery’s book though, I came to understand the process that the filmmakers and actors went through to create The Blair Witch Project (which actually made watching the film again really interesting). I also was made aware of the fact that it had been a form of Transmedia Storytelling where the film did not stand alone upon release. On the contrary, The Blair Witch Project’s release was flanked by several other supporting media texts which contributed to it being a multilayered narrative.
What is Transmedia Storytelling?
The term Transmedia Storytelling is often attributed to Henry Jenkins, author of several influential books on digital media including Convergence Culture. It refers to a method of unfolding a narrative with the production of separate but complementary media texts. Transmedia Storytelling is not simply the same story told in different mediums, (e.g adaptation of a book into a film) but rather that each new media text offers some additional information which enhances the overall story. Jenkins asserts that each medium should be ‘accessible on its own terms’ while simultaneously making ‘a unique contribution to the narrative system as a whole’ (Jenkins, 2007). An example of a comprehensive Transmedia Storytelling experience is the Matrix series. The success of the first film led to cinematic sequels but also a video game (Enter the Matrix) and an animated series (Animatrix) . The side stories explored in the animated series and the game sometimes overlap with the main narrative, but provide much more insight into characters who, at best, play a minor supporting role in the films. Jenkins explains this using the character Niobe in the series as an example: "In The Matrix: Reloaded, Niobe appears unexpectedly in the freeway chase just in time to rescue Morpheus and Trinity, but for people who play the game, getting Niobe to the rendezvous point is a key mission." (Jenkins, 2008: 103)
The different mediums allow for fan participation and speculation about how different elements of the story relate to one another. This participation allows audiences to become almost co-authors, adding detail and making sense of the story together. Jenkins compares fans of a Transmedia experience to hunters or gatherers of information, whose theories and connections add richness and detail to the narrative as a whole.
The Blair Witch Project as a Transmedia Storytelling Experience
Myrick and Sanchez, the directors of The Blair Witch Project, utilised the Transmedia Storytelling approach incredibly effectively, to a point where their carefully constructed narrative across TV, film and the early blossoming World Wide Web sought to convince audiences that the events of the film were a reality. Meeting Jenkins' criteria for a successful transmedia experience, each of the elements of The Blair Witch Project can be viewed in isolation and still make sense. The success of the Transmedia approach for The Blair Witch Project perhaps lay in the fact that each of the additional elements of the experience were set out to be 'discovered' by audiences with no explicit direction. This contributes to the feeling that in finding more details about the events in the found footage film you were, as an audience member, participating in uncovering more of the narrative.
The storytelling began a year prior to the film’s release. The creators set up a website (still live) which contains details of the supposed missing filmmakers. Police ‘crime scene’ and ‘evidence’ style photos alongside entries from Donaghue’s ‘found’ diary (a fully transcribed and photographed 33 pages!) acted as artefacts to legitimise the story.
Missing persons posters were circulated by college students depicting the actors involved in the film. The directors also pieced together an additional short mock documentary (meta!) covering the disappearance of the would-be filmmakers with interviews with their 'family members' and investigators of the disappearance. This was aired on the sci fi channel prior to the film's release. The actors were listed on Imdb as ‘deceased’ for a period of time - a bit of a macabre move, although definitely adding another legitimising clue to be found by fans. As Sanchez et al. argue, with Transmedia Storytelling it is not enough ‘to just have lots of stuff going on’ (2016:10), there needs to be cohesion and a reason to be adding further texts to the narrative. Sanchez and Myrick did this well by keeping the narrative simple and contained but adding depth and detail with the additional elements they created. All of these elements acted as puzzle pieces of the story which, if viewed together, created a more compelling story.
As Sanchez explained in an interview with Henry Jenkins (2008) :
"What we learned from Blair Witch is that if you give people enough stuff to explore, they will explore. Not everyone but some of them will.The people who do explore and take advantage of the whole world will forever be your fans, will give you an energy you can't buy through advertising. It's this web of information that is laid out in a way that keeps people interested and keeps people working for it." - Ed Sanchez, Director of The Blair Witch Project
Found Footage as a Sub-genre
The Blair Witch Project is recognised as popularising the found footage sub genre of horror filmmaking as well as being one of the first successes of Transmedia marketing. The growth of internet use and the speed at which information can be shared and circulated means that pulling off something like The Blair Witch Project as potentially ‘real’ today seems nigh on impossible. It was an idea born just at the right time to make it novel and compelling.
Despite this, there are many films which have themselves since adopted an almost voyeuristic found footage style of storytelling. Films like the Paranormal Activity series (2007-2015), Cloverfield (2008) Unfriended (2014) include the use of found footage style production. This may be in part due to the fact that this method of filmmaking is incredibly cheap to produce (Paranormal Activity had a shooting budget of just $15,000 and earned $193.4 million at the box office globally). Found footage style horror has also found a home on the smaller screen with TV shows like American Horror Story: Roanoke adopting a mockumentary reconstruction approach. However, unlike The Blair Witch Project, there was never any speculation that these examples are works of fiction.
While found footage is in some people's minds a sub-genre that is now perhaps reached its creative limit, the Transmedia approach is more often a chosen, if not expected, aspect of visual storytelling (Hassler-Forest, 2016). Shows like The Walking Dead make use of spin off shows and game play to expand on the story world and provide additional insights or backstory to characters in the main show. Likewise, the Marvel franchise uses overlapping storylines and character relationships to strengthen fans interaction and following of the film series. When done well, the revealing of a narrative, characters and setting through multiple media texts can provide audiences with both rich and detailed worlds alongside space for speculation, link building and thus participation in the creation of the narrative as a whole. The Blair Witch Project was the first of it’s kind in many ways, and while I’m still not sure if, in the simplest sense I can easily classify it as a ‘good’ film or a ‘bad’ film, I definitely acknowledge its daring approach to creating, shooting and marketing a film. At its heart the commitment to each of the Transmedia elements are what made it stand out, made it credible and at the time made it a must see.
NOTE: The success of TBWP as a Transmedia Storytelling experience is evidenced in the still ongoing theories and commentaries going on online over 20 years after its release. (examples include Josh and Mike killed Heather and that the film involves time travel).
Hassler-Forest, D. (2016) Science Fiction, Fantasy and Politics: Transmedia World-building Beyond Capitalism. London: Rowman and Littelfield International
Jenkins, H. (2007) Transmedia Storytelling 101. Accessed: http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html [last accessed 22nd Spetember 2020] Jenkins, H. (2008) Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling in Convergence Culture. New York: New York University Press.
Sanchez - Mesa, D. et al. (2016) Transmedia (Storytelling?): A Polyphonic Critical Review. Artnodes E-Journal on Art, Science and Technology. 18