It was spooky, the way The Blair Witch Project seemed to come out of nowhere. The movie started at the University of Central Florida film school. Two students, Daniel Myrick, and Eduardo Sanchez, proposed it as a “Mockumentary,” or fake documentary. They concocted a legend about a local woman from Burkittsville, Maryland, who was accused of witchcraft in 1785 and left to die in the Blair woods. These woods become the site of a series of macabre murders and disappearances over the years, so three film students go to investigate, and they also disappear. A year later, their footage is found.
It took Myrick and Sanchez a few years to raise the $30,000 they needed to shoot the movie. They hired three actors, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams, to play the student filmmakers, and told them that they would have to improvise most of the action and dialog, as well as shoot the movie themselves. The young, unknown actors were happy for the work, at least at first. They were told to camp out in the woods for six days and nights. At night, the directors would make noises and rustle the actors’ tent to scare them. They would also hang creepy stick figures in trees around the tent where the actors would discover them in the morning. There was no script. Instead, each morning the actors were handed film canisters containing private messages like, “You don’t trust Heather, take control.”i Each was told not to share these messages with the other actors, just to act accordingly and record everything on the 16 millimeter film camera and 8 millimeter video camcorder they were given. After camping out for six nights, it didn’t take much acting to be convincingly dirty, hungry, tired, and, well, scared.
The directors then took the footage that the actors had shot and blended in a series of fake interviews with local townspeople, cops, and historians. When they were done, they didn’t have much money left to promote the film, but they did have 18 hours of leftover footage and hundreds of pages of story notes—the same stuff that the studios throw out after production. These directors put their spare material on the Net instead. The movie’s Web site at www.blairwitch.com featured police reports and newsreel-style interviews to create the illusion that everything in the movie was real. It included fake newspaper clippings and Heather’s “diary.” It targeted a small, influential target audience that might actually seek out a witchy Internet site. These early adopters, many of whom thought the story was real, started putting up their own fan sites. They also set up hypertext links between the various sites, as well as to other film or occult sites, funneling thousands of people a day through the Blair Witch experience.
The buzz was pretty solid by the time the directors entered the film in the Sundance Film Festival, which had been founded by Robert Redford to nurture young, talented filmmakers and help them connect with film distributors. The screening at the festival, however, did not suggest a promising future for the film. The distributors, all Hollywood professionals, saw a film that had no recognizable actors, no special effects, and no on-screen violence. Worst of all, it had terrible lighting and the camera work was so jumpy that a large portion of the audience left half way through the showing. One distributor, however, a small independent studio called Artisan Entertainment, saw promise in the film, and bought it for $1 million.
By the time the movie came out in the summer of 1999, the audience was primed for it because of the buzz from the web site. The film earned $48 million in its first week of wide release, and by the end of the year had earned $140 million. Industry insiders predicted that video, DVD and foreign sales would bring the film’s revenues to twice that. Myrick attributed the film’s success to its low budget simplicity: “When you don’t have money and resources,” he said, “You’re forced to get down to the essence of storytelling. Or at least have a good story.”ii Hollywood insiders had another explanation: “We’ve all had Web sites for all our movies for years,” said one studio marketing head. “But this was a Web site that was an entertainment experience in itself. The movie was an extension of the Web site, not the other way around. That’s what was new.”iii
i Cited in John Leland, “The Blair Witch Cult,” Newsweek, August 16, 1999, p. 47.
ii Quoted in Leland, “The Blair Witch Cult.”
iii Unnamed executive cited in David Ansen and Corie Brown, “A Hex Upon Hollywood: The Blair Witch Project Brew of Net Buzz and Low-Budget Thrills Has Tinseltown Spooked,” Newsweek, August 16, 1999, p. 50.