Today, i’m going to look at how Blair Witch became a cultural phenomenon at the time, tomorrow take a look at the movie itself in Did you ever see… The Blair Witch Project , and on Saturday will discuss how it’s influence is still felt by the industry today in The Blair Witch Project: Ten Years On – Part 2.
The Nineties were somewhat of a boon time for low budget independent film. With Kevin Smith’s huge Clerks success, and a whole raft of Tarantino wannabes putting together their own gangster tales, everyone felt like they could become the next big thing.
In 1993, two filmmakers, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, came up with the concept for a movie about a group of characters lost in a haunted wood. They drew up a 35 page outline. The initial idea was to shoot it like a documentary, and the dialogue was to be completely improvised. Over time they developed the idea of the Blair Witch legend, and shot faux documentary footage with experts on the legend, and family members of the characters to build around the supposed ‘found footage’ that made up the core of the movie.
The writer/directors advertised the roles, looking for suitable actors with very good improvisational skills. They finally settled on Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C Williams. The three actors had to shoot the ‘discovered film’ footage guerilla style. They were given a 16mm film camera and a Hi-8 camera, and an outline of the story and basic structure. They were given minimal training with the cameras and sound equipment.
Following GPS systems to various checkpoints, the actors spent eight days and nights together at Seneca Creek State Park in Maryland, shooting hours of footage each day, which was routinely dropped off at the checkpoints. At the same time they picked up fresh batteries and film, and any relevant directing notes and suggestions required to move the plot along. As they made their way through the woods, they encountered planted props, and the filmmakers used various tricks to scare the actors, in order to allow authentic reactions to be caught on film. Eventually the GPS route led them to an abandoned house where the climax of the movie was shot.
As well as writing and direction, Myrick and Sanchez also edited the film. With around 20 hours of footage, to be cut down into a 90 minute movie, the editing process took nearly nine months. The budget of the production process to this point had been around $25000. In order to prepare a workable print to be shown at the Sundance film festival, they spent another $75000. After more work on the film, the estimated final budget was around $500000 to $750000. The showing at Sundance was a big success, and Artisan Entertainment bought the distribution rights to the movie for $1.1 million. They went on to spend an astonishing $25 million on a huge marketing campaign.
An internet campaign had begun far in advance of the movies release. The filmmakers had created a website before filming had even begun. It outlined the story of the Blair Witch, and was initially designed as a way to sell the concept to potential investors. As the general public of the internet began to discover the site, word spread. The studio picked up the ball on the internet promotion, and began the largest web hype campaign in history. The website was overhauled, and clips from the ‘found’ footage were put online.
The campaign proliferated the idea that the documentary was real, that the filmmakers had gone missing in the woods, and the tapes had been found and edited down to tell the story of what happened to the three young people. The legend spread, and pirated copies of the movie were ‘leaked’ into the hands of internet movie writers. These online journalists helped to increase the furore by singing the praises of the ‘documentary’. The rich backstory of the legend of the Blair Witch, created by the filmmakers, was so well written and comprehensive that it served to make the idea that the events were true even more convincing.
By the time the movie opened, fan sites had already been set up, and the movie had become one of the most highly anticipated releases of all time. In the week leading up to it’s release, Sci-Fi channel ran a Blair Witch documentary. The Blair Witch Project had become a cinematic event. In it’s first week, it grossed $28.5 million. By the end of it’s run, it had grossed nearly $250 million worldwide. This meant it had made the biggest box office gross to production cost in movie history. It retained this record until just a few weeks ago, when another Blair Witch-style phenomenon, Paranormal Activity took over that record.
Join me tomorrow when i take a look at the movie The Blair Witch Project itself, and then on Saturday we’ll look at The Blair Witch Project: Ten Years On – Part Two.