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Ending ‘Blair Witch’ curse

Washington Post

In October 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Md., while shooting a documentary. One year later, their footage was --

All right, you got me. It’s been six summers since “The Blair Witch Project,” but you can still tell that’s straight from the opening title of the cheapo fright flick.

Try this one: Five pals who met at the University of Central Florida disappeared after making the most profitable movie of all time. Six years later, they were found -- alive and well, a little older, a little wiser and with plans to end one long sophomore slump.

Ah, the slump. Or “that vast expanse ... that black hole,” as “Blair” producer Gregg Hale, 39, calls it. Where did they go and what did they do after “Blair” gobsmacked the globe with efficient terror (a $60,000 budget) and terrifying efficiency (word of mouth that scared up $248 million in worldwide box office)? And after co-directors Ed Sanchez and Dan Myrick stared intently from the cover of Time in August 1999 and the media heralded “Blair” as the second coming of indie film and judgment day for Hollywood?

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“Bought a bunch of ‘Star Wars’ collectible stuff,” says Sanchez, 36. “I just bought a huge Ewok.”

They’ve been nesting too. Sanchez and “Blair” co-producer Mike Monello each had two kids with their wives. Myrick, 41, and Hale each have one on the way. There was time for domesticating, you see, after “Blair’s” big bang failed to produce a galaxy of good options.

But back in ’99, nothing rivaled the visibility of Heather Donahue’s watery eyes and nose plastered on “Blair” posters, haunting the Internet. Some people were convinced the footage was real, others insisted that it was faked and that the legend of Blair Witch was a savvy publicity concoction by the guys’ Orlando, Fla.-based Haxan Films. It was fiction, but the tantalizing website triggered a wave of curiosity and a high thrill yield from simple techniques.

Hence the pressure to deliver the second time out.

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“I was really dwelling on the whole thing of like, ‘Man, the next film is going to have to be really great or else everybody’s going to know we’re frauds,’ ” says Sanchez, who lives in Frederick, Md. “But it didn’t take me that long to figure out, ‘You know what? It’s not like I’m going to change the way I make films.’ ”

Any positive thinking was snuffed out over the next two years as Haxan enlisted a fleet of lawyers to iron out profit disputes with Artisan, which released “Blair Witch 2" 15 months after the original. Myrick and Sanchez executive-produced but later disowned the film -- which critics panned -- saying it betrayed the mythology.

The five guys tried to make a goofy comedy called “Heart of Love,” but investors wanted to milk the horror vein (anyone for “Exorcist 4"?). Hale tried to launch two TV series with “Blair” co-producer Robin Cowie, then directed his first feature, “Say Yes Quickly,” which didn’t escape the swamp of Florida film festivals.

Now, 2005: What was a “Blair” cacophony is now a “Blair” buzz, a slight but steady background noise behind the boys’ latest projects.

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Currently, Sanchez and Hale are in Orlando editing “Altered,” a Haxan feature about four rednecks who capture an alien as payback for their own abduction, with Cowie and Monello producing. They plan to construct an Internet mythology around the film (sound familiar?) to entice a following and allow for sequels, video games and comic-book adaptations.

In October, Myrick begins shooting “Solstice,” an indie film he says will hark back to elemental horror films like such as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Shining.” His current project is “The Strand,” a series produced by his solo banner, Gearhead Pictures, and streamed on the Internet in 30-minute slices, about the denizens of Venice Beach.

The five guys see the Web as a lucrative and boundless platform for all kinds of distribution.

“The thing that’s exciting about the Internet for guys like me is that our site and our content is really one click away from NBC’s site and content,” Myrick says. “So it really levels the playing field for us, and it comes down to who’s going to have the best show and the best programming.”

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