With his new film The Village set to debut, filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan and the Sci Fi Channel may have hoped to create the type of unconventional marketing stunts that made The Blair Witch Project a phenomenon five years ago. Instead, the cable network has been forced to admit that the "unauthorized documentary" it aired Sunday night on Shyamalan's "buried secret" was part of an elaborate hoax gone awry.
The deception was part of a "guerrilla marketing campaign" that went too far, said network President Bonnie Hammer.
Sci Fi claimed last month that Shyamalan had stopped participating with a Sci Fi documentary about his life when the questions got too personal. Documentarians Nathaniel Kahn and Callum Greene pressed on and made a three-hour film, The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, without his cooperation, the network said.
The Associated Press wrote about the documentary last month, prompting other media to run accounts that also stressed the supposed conflict. In a news release last month, Sci Fi said Shyamalan had attempted to shut down production of the "disturbing expose."
It was all a lie, and there is no buried secret, Hammer said.
The tactic is reminiscent of the bogus Web sites and manufactured mythology that preceded the 1999 release of the ultra-low-budget horror film The Blair Witch Project. That film went on to gross close to $250 million worldwide, and since then others in the industry have attempted to use these and other forms of "viral marketing."
But The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan campaign went further, issuing blatantly false press releases and encouraging journalists to unwittingly write inaccurate articles about the purported documentary.
"This marketing strategy is not consistent with our policy at NBC," said Rebecca Marks, NBC Entertainment spokeswoman. (Sci Fi, available in some 83 million homes, has recently been taken over by corporate parent NBC Universal.)
"We would never intend to offend the public or the press and value our relationship with both," Marks said.
Disney, whose Touchstone Pictures will release The Village on July 30, said it had nothing to do with the ploy.
Hammer said she had been in on the hoax from the beginning and took responsibility for it. "We created a fictional special that was part fact and part fiction, and Night was part of the creation from the beginning," she said. Shyamalan couldn't be reached for comment.
Sci Fi did not send a complete copy of the film to television critics, but sent a half-hour tape of highlights last week that, in some spots, hinted it might be a mockumentary.
One telltale sign that the rift wasn't real is that the documentary includes extensive film clips from The Village. It's unlikely Disney or Shyamalan - whose credits include The Sixth Sense and Signs - would have authorized their use if there really was a conflict with the documentary's filmmakers.
"Perhaps we might have taken the guerrilla campaign one step too far," Hammer said. "We thought it would create controversy and it probably went one step too far."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.