Very early on, yes. It was a weird time for internet marketing when it was possible to plant a false urban legend virally – because people were able to find true stories that were new to them so much – but not very easy to get further details verified. In other words, really easy to plant the story about missing students and get it relayed around, not so easy for an individual to check into it conclusively. The three actors were asked to lay low during the marketing, too. The marketing was superbly done, too, the accompanying deadpan “documentary” was spot on.
Bear in mind Wiki and Google wasn’t able to handhold you through stories like this, and there’s nothing actually impossible seen in the movie – only the sequels make the impossible geography of the forest explicit, I would say most people who watch the movie come away thinking the kids were just dumb and got lost, and the time-warp stuff is very easily missed.
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