An iconic film of the past decade just turned ten, though few seem to have noticed. Surely you remember THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, the no-budgeter that after wowing audiences at Sundance became a monster hit in the summer of 1999?
My own relationship with BWP is a complicated one. I enjoyed it, as I recall, but, more importantly, was tickled to see a digitally-lensed indie at my local multiplex. As one who spent the better part of the nineties toiling in the indie film trenches, it was a kick seeing this quintessentially independent work playing amidst overproduced Hollyweird crap like the HAUNTING remake, WILD WILD WEST and MYSTERY MEN–and out-grossing them all! This was truly a singular opportunity I sensed would likely never happen again.
Since then my enthusiasm for the film has waned somewhat. I’ve never really had any desire to see it again (part of the fun of that first viewing, remember, was seeing it on a big screen), being content with the memory of my initial viewing. The film represented a one-time-only phenomenon, as proven by the disastrous 2000 sequel BLAIR WITCH 2: BOOK OF SHADOWS, a bust in every respect.
For the record, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was shot for an alleged $22,000 over the course of eight days in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. The cast consisted of three unknowns–Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams–playing moronic film students making a documentary about a legendary figure that resides in the area…and then getting really scared. The film consists of the footage they shot, apparently found in the woods after the three disappeared (never mind that this conceit was already used in both CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and MAN BITES DOG).
There admittedly wasn’t a whole lot to BWP, but it actually benefited from its minimalism, and the fact that the footage shot actually looked like the amateur student project it pretended to be (as opposed to similar attempts like DIARY OF THE DEAD or even CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, which both fail in that respect)
BWP became a huge hit at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, and was quickly proclaimed the “scariest movie ever made.” Helped along by a clever internet campaign positing that it was an actual document, the film, released by the late Artisan Entertainment, became an immediate smash when it hit US screens in June. It began as an art house item but demand was so great the film expanded to general release, and ended up with a gross of $140 million in the US. A video mockumentary, CURSE OF THE BLAIR WITCH, was released later in ‘99, expanding the legend of the “Blair Witch” and featuring an hour’s worth of footage cut from BWP.
With such overwhelming hype followed by equally overwhelming success, a backlash was inevitable: by the end of 1999 BWP went from being the most anticipated horror movie of the year to the most despised. A lot of the hate was understandable given the build-up, but I can’t help but wonder how much of the backlash was engineered by Hollywood.
I really hate to be a conspiracy theorist, but the evidence does appear to support my contention that mainstream Hollywood actively campaigned for BWP’s dismissal. Contrary to what many film commentators seems to believe, Hollywood does not always react kindly to independent film successes. BWP, let’s not forget, followed in the wake of Robert Rodriguez’s fabled “$7,000 movie” EL MARIACHI, a no-budget production picked up by Columbia, who spent over a hundred grand getting the film into releasable condition and distributing it. It makes for quite a contrast with the independently made and released BWP, which not only caught Hollywood unawares with its success (Harvey Weinstein reportedly laughed at Artisan for shelling out for the film) but did so using the internet, a marketing tool the major studios were evidently clueless about prior to 1999. Thus the film embarrassed Hollywood on two counts.
For a comparison, look to filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, who scored an off-Hollywood smash back in 1971 with SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG–and then all-but vanished into obscurity. Van Peebles has compared Hollywood’s attitude to him and his film with that of casino owners who restrict a gambler from their establishment after a big win; it’s not by accident, Van Peebles claims, that he hasn’t made a movie in Hollywood since SWEETBACK’S unexpected success.
BWP’s cast and crew also had a rough ride in the years since its success. A 2004 imdb article reported that Heather Donahue (who landed a supporting role in the ‘00 comedy BOYS AND GIRLS and a part in the ‘02 miniseries TAKEN, but little else), Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams feared the film had “cursed their careers,” as they’ve struggled to find acting work ever since.
Co-director Sanchez claimed in the same article that “A lot of people are saying, “Do you guys even know how to write a script? Do you know how to shoot a film?” Hardly the warm reception you might expect in the wake of BWP’s massive success. Sanchez didn’t make another film until 2006’s independent production ALTERED (which wasn’t much), and Daniel Myrick with 2007’s BELIEVERS (likewise). Myrick has expressed a desire to release a director’s cut of BWP on DVD, but claims Lionsgate (which now owns the rights) isn’t interested. The disinterest is evident in the Lionsgate-run BWP website, which purports to celebrate the film’s tenth anniversary even though nothing on it appears to have been updated in years
Still, I wouldn’t cry too hard for BWP’s creators. They accomplished something few other filmmakers ever have, and made a shitload of money in the process. The real tragedy is what happened to the films that followed in BWP’s wake.
I mentioned earlier that the type of success enjoyed by BWP would likely never happen again, and indeed it hasn’t. The so-called independent success stories of recent years–NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, JUNO, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE–weren’t really independent, having been financed and/or released by, respectively, Paramount, 20thCentury Fox and Warner Bros.
In the meantime, a truly independent movie called PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007), which is said to be very BLAIR WITCH-like, was bought up and then held off the market by DreamWorks. Their alleged reasoning was to remake the film and put out the original as a DVD extra, but to date that remake hasn’t materialized and the original is still without a release. Could it be that DreamWorks is holding on to PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, which has become quite popular on the festival circuit, for fear it might become successful a la BWP and show them up? Just wondering.
However, that’s just one title. There exist many more worthy genre films that remain unreleased, or were unveiled in such limited fashion they might as well still be under wraps, including X,Y (2004), HEADER (2006), FROWNLAND (2007), ROGUE (2008), THE CHILDREN (2008) and PONTYPOOL (2009). Yes, future BLAIR WITCH-worthy successes do potentially exist, but appear to be forcibly held back from us–while in their place Hollywood has given us a plethora of remakes and sequels. Is it any wonder people are losing interest in the horror genre?
So once again, as of this year THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT officially turns 10. Whoopee.