It’s every film student’s dream. You get your friends together to make your little independent movie, and it takes the world by storm. In 1999, Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez, and their friends founded Haxan Films to make a new kind of horror movie, one that combined the aesthetic of folk and urban legends with a documentarian approach. They screened the movie at a midnight showing at Sundance, which led to an immediate sale; word-of-mouth rolled into a groundbreaking marketing campaign that relied heavily on the internet, a novelty at the time. When The Blair Witch Project premiered 20 years ago this week, the modestly budgeted movie erupted into one of the biggest indie successes of all time. What made it work, how did the marketing drive the movie, where did the Sci-Fi Channel fit in, and exactly what happens in that last scene? Follow along to find out; just don’t lose your map.
1. Crafting a Company
The Swedish Film Institute’s print of Häxan.
Myrick and Sánchez studied film at the University of Central Florida in the early ’90s. Their mutual interest in paranormal documentaries and horror film led to them conceive of an idea that was a hybrid of both, much like the 1980 Italian film Cannibal Holocaust. In order to get the movie made, the pair, along with Gregg Hale, Robin Cowie, and Michael Monello, founded Haxan Films; the production company takes its name from Häxan, the silent witchcraft documentary from 1922. Myrick and Sánchez wrote a short script that shaped the story while allowing the dialogue to be mostly improvised by the actors. An audition pool of 2000 actors was whittled down to three: Heather Donohue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams.
2. Directing by GPS
Shooting took place in Maryland in 1997. The bulk of scenes were shot in Seneca Creek State Park along the Potomac River, with other scenes filmed in Burkittsville and one particularly important sequence filmed at the Griggs House in the unincorporated community of Granite. As the actors were playing a documentary crew investigating a local legend, they were outfitted with a combination of film and Hi8 video cameras. The trio of performers used GPS to find marked crates along a preplanned route in the park; inside each crate were instructions for the day including “scenes” to improvise with specifics given to each character. An initial 20 hours of footage was cut and edited to a runtime of less than two-and-a-half hours.
3. Fabricating a Legend
The filmmakers were surprised when The Blair Witch Project got accepted into the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. The movie became a surprise hit with audiences after a midnight screening. Artisan Entertainment paid $1.1 million for the distribution rights; the original production budget had been in the neighborhood of $60,000. With the ability to manage a wide release in place, the filmmakers and Artisan went to work on a ground-breaking marketing campaign.
Artisan leaned all the way on the documentary aesthetic of the film. They promoted the film as footage that was discovered in the woods after the three-person crew disappeared. Building on that, the website for the film employed old photos of the cast and fabricated news articles to cultivate the idea that the trio were missing. Even the nascent IMDB.com for the film listed the actors as “missing.” These tactics caused an explosion of interest online; USA Today posited that it was the first film to “go viral,” despite the lack of social networks at the time.
The Curse of the Blair Witch special from 1999.
Perhaps the crowning piece of marketing was The Curse of the Blair Witch, a one-hour special that ran on the SciFi Channel on July 11, 1999, ahead of the film’s release. Using documentary stylings comparable to contemporaneous programs like Unsolved Mysteries, the special wove together fake news clips and interviews with pieces of footage from the film and a created mythology surrounding Burkittsville, the legend of the Blair Witch that haunted the woods, and the missing filmmakers. The initial airing receiving huge ratings, and the special ran repeatedly over the summer; it was even offered for sale as a stand-alone VHS release.
4. The Release
The original trailer for The Blair Witch Project.
The film got a limited release on July 14 before opening wide on July 30. In its first weekend of wide release, The Blair Witch Project was number two at the box office; it came in just behind the Julia Roberts’ hit The Runaway Bride, but edged out a surprisingly crowded horror field that included Deep Blue Sea (third) and The Haunting (fourth). When horror phenomenon The Sixth Sense debuted in the top spot one week later, Blair Witch held firm at number two. During its box office run, the movie made just under $150 million in the U.S. and $248 million around the world.
Critics like Roger Ebert and Peter Travers showed up with enthusiastic support; Ebert called it “an extraordinarily effective horror film.” In fact, most critics praised the movie, with only a few dissenters. Audiences were more divided, in part because of the unconventional narrative and its abrupt ending. (Many of the viewers who didn’t “get” the ending hadn’t remembered an interview earlier in the film that mentioned Rustin Parr and the child-murders of the 1940s). Nevertheless, the film itself was a key component of end-of-the-century film conversation and was discussed, along with Sense, as part of a horror renaissance in film.
5. The Legend Lives
The trailer for Quarantine (2008).
The longest-lasting impact of The Blair Witch Project is its popularization of the “found-footage” technique. That approach has become a subgenre of horror unto itself, including the Paranormal Activity series, the V/H/S series, the REC and Quarantine series, The Den, the original Cloverfield, and others. It has also been employed for comedy (Project X), crime (End of Watch), and super-hero films (Chronicle). Since its release, the film has been celebrated on a number of lists, including the Top 100 Scariest Movies (Chicago Film Critics Association), 50 Best Movie Endings of All Time (Filmcritic.com), Top 25 Horror Movies of All Time (IGN.com), 25 Scariest Movies of All Time (Cosmopolitan), and more.
Though it entered the culture 20 years ago, the Blair Witch isn’t done with us. Though there have been a pair of (not as successful) sequels and other media tie-ins, like books and comics, interest in the concept still persists. In 2017, Sánchez said that he and the other co-creators are developing the Blair Witch for television. The series will apparently be released by Studio L, the digital release arm of Lionsgate (who purchased Artisan in 2003). While the film’s scariness and effectiveness is still debated in some quarters, no one would argue that it’s naturally frightening to be lost and alone, somewhere in the woods in the dark. The Blair Witch itself may not have been real, but its legend can live on in the shadows.
Featured Image: The original promotional poster for The Blair Witch Project. (©Artisan/Lionsgate)
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