A crafty ‘Witch’

Ten summers ago, a group of independent filmmakers came up with a Web-based, viral marketing campaign that proved so effective -- and influential -- in creating buzz and audience anticipation that it overshadowed the very movie it was designed to promote.

These guys were never heard from again -- but their promotional savvy lives on.

That’s the conventional wisdom about the no-budget, exercise-in-imagination horror flick “The Blair Witch Project.” But like most things surrounding a movie that trafficked heavily in mythology, the truth is a bit more complicated, not to mention happier (at least for some of the principals involved).

When it opened on 27 screens in mid-July 1999, “Blair” found an eager audience that had been primed for months through the film’s innovative website and the free publicity it garnered at overflow screenings at Sundance and Cannes. Many at the early screenings believed that the film’s novel premise -- three student filmmakers disappear in the woods while shooting a documentary about the legend of a local witch and their footage is found a year later -- contained some grain of truth.


“The blurb on the poster said this was ‘found footage,’ and there was nothing in the marketing to lead you to believe it was anything but that,” says “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” director Scott Derrickson, who saw “Blair” on its opening day at the Nuart.

That perception was reinforced by the movie’s clever website, launched before Sundance, which expanded the “Blair” lore with bogus news reports, historical time lines and video interviews. At a time when the Internet was still but a toddler, the website catered to a small, but very influential group of fans.

“Did the marketing overshadow the movie? Yeah, in some respects,” “Blair” co-director Eduardo Sanchez says. “But since we created 90% of the marketing, I never had a problem with that.”

“Blair” holds up as a nifty exercise in terror but its relevance extends far beyond its artistic merit, even as its “Cops"-inspired, hand-held aesthetic has become ingrained in the film fabric, integral in such outings as last year’s “Cloverfield” and even in big-budget, whiplash-inducing movies such as J.J. Abrams’ recent “Star Trek.”

The movie’s “reality” may have been manufactured but it set the template for such television shows as “Survivor” and “Fear Factor” that arrived in its wake, programs in which producers put their “characters” through deprivation and punishment in the name of entertainment. And, really, in terms of authenticity, what Sanchez and co-director Daniel Myrick inflicted upon their actors in the Maryland woods wasn’t much more staged than the maneuverings of a Mark Burnett reality production.

Another “Blair” reality had an even greater reach. Made for $35,000 and taking in nearly $250 million worldwide, “Blair” inspired a gold rush of do-it-yourself filmmakers to run to the local electronics store, pick up a Hi8 camera and make their own movies.

“ ‘Blair’ looked like it was shot on toilet paper,” says Joshua Leonard, one of the movie’s young leads. “There was absolutely nothing elevated or untouchable about it. It was like when you and your buddies were 14 and you heard a Germs album and you’re like, ‘I could do that.’ ”

Plenty thought along those lines. Submissions to the Sundance Film Festival have nearly doubled since “Blair,” helped by the influx of cheaper, easier to use technology. But, for all the effort, nothing has popped. So where can you find all those movies? Try YouTube, a website still six years away from its inception when “Blair” arrived in theaters.

Of course, making that kind of scratch while landing simultaneous covers on Time and Newsweek is a bit much to expect from any artistic endeavor. Sanchez describes “Blair” as a “perfect storm,” a freaky convergence of content, Internet buzz and savvy marketing that comes along once in a generation. Love it or hate it (and there were plenty in both camps), the film became a touchstone for a generation of moviegoers and filmmakers.

“Everyone remembers where they were when they saw it,” says Mark Duplass, whose movies (“The Puffy Chair,” “Baghead”) written and directed with his brother, Jay, have become key entries in the independent film movement.

“It became hugely influential,” Duplass says. “The semi-improvised nature, the hand-held digital camera work, the naturalistic acting inside a genre piece, the idea of ‘We don’t have a [lot] of money, so let’s build a budget that’s appropriate, so we can execute it correctly.’ Those guys were ahead of the pack.”

Duplass costars with “Blair’s” Leonard in the upcoming indie comedy, “Humpday,” an entry that won praise at Sundance this year. The movie has enjoyed such success on the festival circuit that, for the first time, Leonard, 34, says he’s no longer introduced at parties as “Josh, that guy from ‘Blair Witch.’ ”

The other participants haven’t been as fortunate in finding a follow-up. Leonard’s costars, Heather Donahue and Michael Williams, have appeared in only a handful of movies. Williams returned to his day job moving furniture in upstate New York. Donahue, whose terrified, flashlight-illuminated visage became synonymous with the movie, became the butt of “Blair” parodies. She has since distanced herself from the film. (“She really got boxed in with the public’s perception,” Leonard says.)

When Artisan, the film’s distributor, demanded an immediate sequel, directors Sanchez and Myrick passed. (That movie, “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” bombed.) Burned out on the genre, they also declined offers to direct cookie-cutter horror sequels such as “The Exorcist 4" and “Freddy vs. Jason.” By the time they were ready to return to scaring people, they found that the heat from “Blair” had dissipated.

“I can see how people think we’re one-hit wonders,” Myrick, 46, says. “I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself to relive the ‘Blair’ days. I can get down on myself sometimes.”

That said, after cashing their multimillion-dollar “Blair” paychecks, Myrick and Sanchez, 40, each married their longtime girlfriends and became fathers. Each has continued to make movies, though their genre projects have all gone straight to video. Each seems to enjoy a balance between work and family that evades many in the business.

And they’re now ready to make another “Blair” movie. They pitched a period prequel to Lionsgate (which owns the franchise’s rights since buying Artisan), but it was deemed too costly. The filmmakers are now bandying about ideas for a low-budget, contemporary sequel.

“I’m a firm believer that you’re where you’re at by your own choices and, for better or worse, we’re operating on a small level by choice,” Myrick says. “We’ve got a lot of movies left in us.” He pauses, and then laughs. “They may all be ‘Blair’ movies but that’s better than nothing.”