Retro Review: An Indie Movie That Blew Up

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[Featured image courtesy Acroterion via Wikimedia Commons]

The Blair Witch Project movie poster [courtesy theglobalpanorama/flixr]

The Blair Witch Project
Written and directed by Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick
Copyright 1999

“It was an indie movie that blew up. We went from the underdogs to the guys that were beating the studios.” – Eduardo Sánchez, co-director of The Blair Witch Project.

Come with me, ladies and gentlemen, to those thrilling days of yesteryear (well, 1999 to be exact). Let’s go back to the days before social media or WiFi, when dial-up internet access was the rule and America Online promotional CDs cluttered magazine displays.

Into this landscape came a micro budgeted independent movie about three wannabe documentary filmmakers who got lost in the woods, never to be seen again. The Blair Witch Project rocketed to the top of the box office in the summer of 1999 with a potent combination of original storytelling and a trailblazing viral marketing campaign. While both elements have been imitated countless times since then, few have matched the financial and critical success of The Blair Witch Project.

The story follows three student filmmakers as they journey into the woods near Burkittsville, MD. Heather Donahue wants to assemble footage regarding a local legend, The Blair Witch. Fellow students Joshua Leonard and Mike Williams are the camera and sound crew, with Heather as on-camera narrator.

By the third day of their “adventure”, the three are hopelessly lost in the woods, and, it seems, increasingly at the mercy of something that does not want them to leave. By the end, we learn that everything we’ve seen was all that appears to remain of the students.

So far, The Blair Witch Project appears to be not much beyond an artsy variation on the “don’t go in the woods” type of horror film we’ve seen before in movies ranging from Friday the 13th to (wait for it) Don’t Go In the Woods (Alone).

What made Blair Witch so different, and such a groundbreaking success? Let’s give credit to the original film. Without a solid story and a dedicated cast and crew, the following factors wouldn’t have mattered much.

Legacy of The Blair Witch

First, we have the brilliant marketing campaign that not only publicized a movie, but created an entire transmedia universe that blurred the line between fiction and reality, creating an experience that a viewer could explore at length.

The Blair Witch Project was a trailblazer, setting an example for TV shows like LOST with a variety of websites/books/references to other media that gave the impression of a “real life” historical event. The official Blair Witch website (yes, it’s still active) was set up a year before the film’s release, and presented all events and characters from the film as if they part of an actual historical event.

The “reality” of the film was augmented by supplemental products and promotions. A book by D. A. Stern, The Blair Witch Project: A Dossier, and the (known then as) Sci-Fi Channel promotional special Curse of the Blair Witch (broadcast two weeks before the movie’s release) helped re-enforce the idea that there was an entire of world of information beyond what the viewers saw in the theaters.

Secondly, there was the immense profitability of Blair Witch compared to its production and promotional costs.

Horror movies have long been one of the most lucrative movie genres. Blair Witch had an initial production budget in the $60,0000 range. After the movie was acquired by Artisan Entertainment (who paid for a series of unused reshoots and a new sound mix), the budget was in the $500,000 to $750,000 range, according to Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez.

The world wide box office for The Blair Witch Project ended up around $248 million. That’s a ROI (return on investment) of 414,233%.

Finally, Blair Witch helped establish the “found footage” genre as a lucrative subset of horror. Blair Witch is now second to one of it’s “found footage” children, the Paranormal Activity franchise in it’s astounding ROI. While not the first of its kind, it was the first “found footage” film to receive such critical and financial success, and there aren’t many today who wouldn’t recognize the now-infamous scene of actress Heather Donahue doing self-filming while sniffling about her situation. The movie had the not-so-successful sequel Book of Shadows, and there’s a third technically still in production.

The Blair Witch Project is available on most VOD platforms, as well as DVD and Blu-Ray (well, and to go along with the ’90s feel, VHS and laserdisc as well). The DVD and Blu-Ray editions have The Curse of the Blair Witch as well as The Blair Witch Legacy, which features new footage. 

Read all of our retro reviews here.

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