Curse of the Blair Witch: In January 1999, 'The Blair Witch Project' Debuted at Sundance. the Movie Went on to Become a Cultural Phenomenon and Make $250 Million Worldwide. and the Directors and Stars Were Never Seen Again. Exactly Five Years Later, NEWSWEEK Reopens the Case
Smith, Sean, Newsweek
Byline: Sean Smith
Steven Spielberg began to worry long before we did. It was a couple of years ago, and Daniel Myrick, codirector of "The Blair Witch Project," was visiting the set of "Minority Report." Myrick was thrilled to see the master at work. Meeting Spielberg? "That was huge!" Myrick says. "He asked me how we shot 'Blair,' and said he was really inspired by it. My jaw was dropping." Spielberg even singled out a member of the cast, Michael C. Williams, who'd played one of the three film students who disappeared in the Maryland woods. "I really liked that Michael guy," he said. "Whatever happened to him?"
He's, well... "I'm moving furniture," Williams says from his home in upstate New York. "The same job I quit on national television, on 'Conan O'Brien.' My wife and I had a baby, and I needed to support my family and not worry about whether I was going to get the next role on 'CSI'." He sighs. "We're all having a hard time. I think that's a big part of the story."
Five years ago this week, "The Blair Witch Project" debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. The sold-out midnight screening had kids lined up in the alley, with tickets being scalped for $50. Before dawn, the scrappy $35,000 mock documentary--made by five unknown guys from Orlando, Fla., and starring three unknown actors--sold to Artisan for $1 million. By the end of the year, it surpassed every record for an indie film, grossing $248.3 million worldwide. It became a cultural tsunami, creating an urban legend that spawned T shirts, books, caps and countless Web sites, and launched its cast and directors onto the covers of NEWSWEEK and Time. The film's innovative Internet-driven marketing campaign had Hollywood scrambling to catch up, and the filmmakers--pals from the University of Central Florida who had created a cinematic co-op called Haxan--were hailed as the Gen-X harbingers of a new era. "It just became this bizarro world," says co- director Eduardo Sanchez. "You're living an absolute dream, but at the same time it was really scary because, man, it was, like, 'What will they expect from us next? We'll never be able to do this again'."
Sure enough, they have yet to make another film. Today, the Haxan team (Myrick, Sanchez and producers Gregg Hale, Robin Cowie and Michael Monello) is spread out across the country. Cowie has left Haxan altogether and heads up two e-commerce companies. Williams has put his acting career on hold, and his fellow cast members, Joshua Leonard and Heather Donahue, have been working mostly under the radar. The "Blair Witch" sequel (which Haxan did not control, and hated) tanked at the box office. The predicted Internet-marketing revolution never quite took, and the company that distributed the film, Artisan, no longer exists. It was bought late last year by its competitor, Lions Gate. "Blair Witch" doesn't even hold the record as the most profitable indie movie anymore. "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" does. In short, the aftermath of "The Blair Witch Project" is as shocking as its success was. "I'm still not exactly sure what happened," Donahue says, laughing. "I can't wait to read this article, because I'd really love an update."
The biggest problem, oddly, was that no one who made the film got the credit for its triumph. Because it was shot by the actors on handheld video, and the dialogue was improvised from a plot-only screenplay, studio execs doubted that Myrick and Sanchez could direct a normal film. "A lot of people were saying, 'Do you guys even know how to write a script? Do you know how to shoot film?' " Sanchez says. Meanwhile, the actors found that much of Hollywood thought they had played themselves, reacting to the scary scenarios the directors threw in their path. "To this day I doubt they know we were acting," Williams says. "The story became all about the brilliant marketing, and we were overlooked. …