January, 1999. Sundance Film Festival. A mysterious new horror film from Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez is set to make its world premiere. The lights dimmed in the theater and for the next 81 minutes, the audience sat engrossed in the first-ever screening of The Blair Witch Project.
The Myrick/Sanchez publicity machine was already in motion at Sundance that year. They treated the story as a reality, proving their own acting abilities in the process.
By the end of the festival, Artisan Entertainment had purchased the distribution rights for The Blair Witch Project for $1.1 million, which had to have blown their minds considering the film’s modest budget of only an estimated $60,000.
The next step, of course, was how to sell the film to larger audiences.
Myrick and Sanchez went back to work and in the process created a cultural phenomenon using a shiny new tool that was creating its own waves at the time: the internet.
In 1999, online communication and news were still in their infancy for a large portion of the population. Search engines were crude, and pictures and other media could take a few minutes to load. IRC chat was the rage, and in only a few months, the word Napster would begin being whispered between friends.
It was a time that remains shiny with nostalgia.
If you went online and searched “Blair Witch,” you weren’t apt to find reviews so much as the now-famous “Missing” posters and interviews, “news stories,” and other documents carefully constructed by the film’s creators to give the illusion that their film did, in fact, actually happen.
Many would later argue that this was unethical, but for me, it stands out as a phenomenal example of marketing genius that deserves a place in history right next to William Castle’s vibrating seats and floating skeletons and Hitchcock’s manual on how to sell Psycho.
By early Summer 1999, the buzz had become a roar and on July 1, 1999, Artisan unleashed The Blair Witch Project on the world. By the end of that month, demand had grown so that their limited release broadened, and before long, the film with the modest budget became one of the most successful releases of all time, grossing $248 million worldwide.
On paper, those numbers are amazing, but how did that translate to the film’s reception?
In short, critics loved the film and reviews were overall positive.
Even Roger Ebert, who had more than his fair share of thumbs down for the genre over the decades gave the film four-stars writing:
“Because their imaginations have been inflamed by talk of witches, hermits and child murderers in the forest, because their food is running out and their smokes are gone, they (and we) are a lot mhore scared than if they were merely being chased by some guy in a ski mask.“
Audiences, however, were a house divided.
For myself, I remember well when I grabbed two of my best friends, Joe and Matt, and drove 60 miles to Mesquite, Texas and the nearest theater showing the film so we could experience it ourselves.
By this time, most of us knew that the film was not, in fact, “real,” but that did nothing to damper anticipation in the audience as the lights went down and the film began.
Much like that Sundance audience, my friends and I sat rapt by what we were seeing, our hands tightly gripping the armrests of our chairs, and as the film’s abrupt ending cut to black, our fellow audience members’ vocal reactions bounced off theater walls.
“That was stupid.”
“They didn’t show anything!”
“That was supposed to be scary?”
Neither, Matt, Joe, nor myself moved much, however. We sat there in stunned silence for a few moments when suddenly Matt leaned carefully forward, faced us, and quietly said, “I think that’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen.”
We stood and I took stock of the audience around me as they were making their way out of the theater. Many were laughing, poking fun at what had just seen, but like myself and my friends, there were far more than a few who sat there seemingly trying to comprehend what they had seen and why that overwhelming feeling of dread seemed so tangible.
As we made our way to the car, finally finding our voices, I look around me at the city lights and the hundreds of cars flying by on the freeway when a thought occurred to me.
A lot of those people who laughed off the film did not have to travel the 60 miles back to a rural part of East Texas in the dark. Hell, a lot of them had never set foot in the woods, much less spent time camping. They’d never had their imaginations fill them with dread when they woke from a dead sleep hearing something brush the canvas of their tents.
I related this to my friends who nodded in agreement and we made what was probably the quietest journey home from the city that we’d ever driven together before.
Now, certainly, not every fan of the film had similar backgrounds to us, and more than a fair few had grown up in the city. Likewise, surely some of the haters had spent time in the woods. Still, in that moment, my thoughts made perfect sense.
Regardless, the film soon became a part of pop culture history, reigniting what had been the dwindling flame of “found footage” horror, and spawning more than a few copycats. It’s imagery is indelibly burned into our minds.
Before long, the parodies began, and everyone from Scary Movie to “Charmed” referenced the film in one way or another.
Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez have continued to write and direct in years since The Blair Witch Project. Sanchez has directed numerous television episodes for series like “From Dusk ’til Dawn: The Series” and Myrick is helming the highly anticipated alien abduction film, Skyman, due out later this year.
To this day, however, The Blair Witch Project is the first title that comes to mind when either filmmaker is mentioned, and if you want to start a great debate among horror fans, bring the film up after everyone’s had a drink or two. You’ll soon find the room divided with no one left to moderate.
As for me, I still get a little thrill when I dust off the old DVD and settle in for a dark hike through the woods with Heather, Josh, and Mike.