Artisan Catches a 'Witch' After Dark

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The scariest movie at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival--a mock documentary about three supposed student filmmakers chasing witches in the haunted Maryland woods--debuted here to a packed house just after midnight Sunday, setting off an all-night negotiation and turning a pair of no-name writer-directors into stars.

Just before the sun rose over the ski slopes, Artisan Entertainment made the first buy of the festival, paying between $1 million and $2 million for worldwide rights to "The Blair Witch Project," a raw, low-budget thriller that some were calling the movie equivalent of garage-band rock.

"It's basically like a home movie of three kids going into hell," said "Blair Witch" co-writer and co-director Eduardo Sanchez.

Working through the night, Artisan, which made what many consider the best buy of last year's festival (Darren Aronofsky's "Pi"), shut out Fine Line Cinema and Miramax, among others, that had planned to begin initial discussions at daybreak.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers--five Florida-based "horror nuts," ages 27 to 35, who just weeks ago had their water shut off for lack of payment--were suddenly the talk of the town. With a first-look arrangement for future projects with Artisan, which also secured a deal for a "Blair Witch" sequel, the five friends watched their fortunes change literally overnight.

"It's a dream come true," said Dan Myrick, the other co-director and co-writer of the film, which was made by their Orlando collective, Haxan Films. "I don't think it's all sunk in yet. But we get to make more movies, that's the bottom line. And that's what it's all about."

Just Another Crazy Film-Festival Day

Myrick and his buddies had spent 48 hours in the kind of whirlwind that occurs only at festivals, where hype and adrenalin play a larger-than-usual role in how business gets done. Lack of sleep, unreliable cellular phone service and the constant knowledge that being in one screening means missing another one across town all work to create a singularly nervous excitement as acquisitions execs search for indie films with commercial appeal.

"We're in the mood to buy and we're strategically prepared to discern what's real from what's hype," Amy Israel, a senior vice president of acquisitions and co-production at Miramax, had said before Sundance began. "There's a heightened sense of frenzy, and as the festival wears on, we become easier to manipulate. At the end, you can make us cry at any movie."

The audience at the debut "Blair Witch" midnight screening was packed with executives from every major distribution company, none of whom shed any tears. But a few looked a little spooked.

The creepy premise of the film is this: In 1994, three young filmmakers hiked into Maryland's Black Hills Forest to shoot a documentary on a local legend called the Blair Witch, who some believed had haunted the region for 200 years. The three were never heard from again, says a card at the start of "Blair Witch." One year later, their footage was found.

The film is a compilation of that "real" footage, a bumpy record (shot by the actors on hand-held video and 16-millimeter cameras) of their harrowing search for, and attempts to escape from, the witch. As the main characters get more frightened, they pay more attention to surviving than to filming, with the result that much of the action occurs off-screen. As they run for their lives, for example, we don't see much of what they're running from. Several times, the screen goes blank, and the only sounds are the filmmakers' shrill screams.

Some moviegoers may find this irritating, as a few distributors did. But the folks at Artisan said they think younger viewers will be mesmerized. And given the large teenage market for edgy horror pictures (think "Scream" and its offshoots), that could mean big commercial success.

Bill Block, one of Artisan's two presidents, said he "literally could not sleep" after seeing the film, which "brings a refreshingly terrifying reality to the horror genre, based on psychological suggestion, not special effects."

Jeff Dowd, a veteran producer's rep (he helped find distribution for Joel and Ethan Coen's debut feature, 1984's "Blood Simple," among scores of other films), agreed.

"This is cinema verite documentary meets Hitchcock meets 'Scream,' " said Dowd, who was at the Sunday screening and walked out a fan. "The audience that goes to horror doesn't have a prejudice against things that aren't slick. If this movie resonates with them, it could go out and do $10-, $20-, $30-million box office."

Filmmaking by Intimidation

Artisan execs also see a great marketing opportunity in the unusual story of how the film was made, a process that the filmmakers dubbed "method filmmaking." Put simply, the technique amounts to this: Hire three actors, put them in the woods for six days and nights, and slowly scare the heck out of them.

During the shoot, the actors were given no script and rarely saw the directors. Guided by Global Positioning System handsets (GPS is satellite-based navigational technology developed by the military and available to civilians), they traveled from predetermined point to predetermined point encountering eerie situations and improvising their responses. Directing notes, minimal food rations and extra film for their cameras were left in baskets along the route.

"The idea was to beat the actors up enough that by the time the really, really terrifying stuff happened to them, they were really raw," said producer Gregg Hale, who drew inspiration for these "nightly harassments" of the actors from the physical and emotional stress he experienced in Army Survival School.

Myrick, Sanchez, Hale and the two others who comprise Haxan Films (producer Robin Cowie and co-producer Michael Monello) are all graduates of the University of Central Florida's film program, a tiny school with no reputation in Hollywood. But thanks to a publicity machine that the Hollywood Reporter described as generating "super hype," they have been taking meetings with distributors since the festival began.

Having signed with the Endeavor Agency right before Sundance (and having hired the publicity firm Clein + Walker to spread the word), the filmmakers arrived determined to establish a "Blair Witch franchise"--an idea that Block said Artisan has fully embraced.

A documentary about how the movie was made is being edited now, and there is a behind-the-scenes book planned that may include the purported journal entries of one of the film's main characters, Heather (the journal is already posted on the Haxan Films Web site, http://www.haxan.com).

"We also have a Broadway musical we're doing," joked Myrick.

Haxan Films (a name borrowed from the title of a 1922 Swedish silent horror movie) has a number of other projects in the works--42 by last count. Not all of them have to do with witchcraft.

"We definitely don't want to be gimmick filmmakers," a relieved-sounding Myrick said, admitting that he had been worried that the huge advance buzz on the film (not to mention the "Blair Witch" drink coasters that had been dropped off at every bar on Park City's Main Street) might be setting up Haxan for failure. Artisan, he said, had quieted his fears and allowed the guys from Haxan to abandon their fallback career plan: becoming professional foosball players.

"They acquired 'Pi,' a black-and-white film about higher math, marketed it right and, even more important, drew the kind of critical acclaim that helped make Aronofsky's career," Myrick said. "That's the kind of risky film 'Blair' is."

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