When it jounced onto screens 15 years ago, The Blair Witch Project didn't make as much of a splash as some expected.
While the $60,000 film, shot on consumer video cameras with unknown actors, had generated chatter on the Internet — then still largely a novelty — Blair Witch took a back seat to a hotter horror flick opening nationwide on the same weekend: M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense.
Sixth Sense would make Shyamalan a star, earn an Oscar nomination and gross $673 million worldwide. Blair Witch would never even reach No. 1 at the box office.
But critics, scholars and analysts now view Blair Witch as a game-changer, the film that established the "found-footage" genre, redefined horror and helped make reality television the dominant entertainment of the airwaves.
Adding to its mystique: Blair Witch's filmmakers, stars and even studio would largely vanish from the Hollywood landscape like the film's three college kids with Hi8 video and 16 mm film investigating a haunted Maryland woods.
"It was lightning in a bottle, but I am grateful for it every say," says Eduardo Sanchez, co-director of what would be known as Hollywood's first movie of its type.
"Here was a horror film with no special effects, no monsters, no violence or gore, and no real payoff," says Tom Schatz, executive director of the University of Texas Film Institute. "It was one of those truly mysterious, fortuitous accidents of filmmaking that is impossible to predict."
Not that Hollywood hasn't been trying. Since its release on 27 screens July 16, 1999, Blair Witch has launched myriad imitators. The movie website Box Office Mojo lists nearly two dozen found-footage movies since the film opened, including the alien-on-video kids flick, Earth to Echo, in theaters now. Three more are due in the next six months, including the sixth installment of the Paranormal Activity franchise. The found-footage thriller Into the Storm arrives Aug. 8, followed by the sci-fi tale Project Almanac on Jan. 30.
"Over the years, I think people have come to see what a landmark film The Blair Witch Project was," says Paul Dergarabedian of box office firm Rentrak. "But I'm not sure people realize just how important it was. It's a lot bigger than Hollywood's first found-footage movie."
Among Blair Witch's landmarks:
• The film remains the highest-grossing found-footage movie ever at $141 million domestically. The original Paranormal Activity is a distant second with $108 million in 2009.
• It took more than eight years for another studio film to even attempt the cheap shooting style of Blair Witch: J.J. Abrams' 2008 horror movie Cloverfield.
• Blair Witch's no-name cast remains the template for teen horror. "It's the one genre that does well without big stars," says Jeff Bock, an analyst for Exhibitor Relations. "Kids want to feel that could be them or their friends shooting the movie."
But for all the marketing and Internet hype surrounding the movie, Blair Witch's impact lasts for a more basic reason.
"Simply put," says Mark Evan Schwartz, associate professor of screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, "it worked because it was scary as hell."
'THE NEW FACE OF MOVIE HORROR'
Certainly, critics were sold from the start on the tale by first-time directors Daniel Myrick and Sanchez, who conceived a loose story about three student filmmakers (Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard, using their real names) who disappeared in the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Md., while investigating the legend known as the Blair Witch.
"When we were in college, we both thought the scariest movies out there were the documentaries on UFOs and Bigfoot," Sanchez says. "We thought, 'Why not do that with a horror story?'"
Shot over just eight days with a 68-page script that called for chunks to be improvised, Blair Witch wowed critics with its grainy footage, realistic kids and unsettling finale (spoiler alert!) — a fallen camera capturing Joshua as he stares silently into the corner of an abandoned shack.
"I have seen the new face of movie horror," gushed Peter Travers in Rolling Stone. "And its name is The Blair Witch Project, a groundbreaker in fright that reinvents scary for the new millennium."
The normally reserved Washington Post was equally effusive. Blair Witch "is the scariest movie I've ever seen," critic Lloyd Rose wrote. "Not the goriest, the grossest, the weirdest ... Just flat out the scariest." A few months after it came out, critic Roger Ebert named it one of the 10 most influential movies of the century.
Fans, too, were starting to hear about an independent movie making waves at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival.
But Blair Witch would become groundbreaking as much for its canny marketing as its unorthodox style.
With the help of art-house studio Artisan, Myrick and Sanchez built a website that helped bolster the film's sense of being a true story by documenting the "history" of the witch legend, complete with photos and "evidence" of the students' supposed 1994 disappearance.
Though it arrived five years before Facebook and seven before Twitter, Blair Witch became Hollywood's first film with viral heat, cropping up on horror fan sites and discussion forums.
"Blair Witch worked because it flew so far under the radar," says CarrieLynn Reinhard, an assistant professor of communication at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., just outside Chicago. "No big studio in Hollywood produced it, there were no big names associated with it, and no one was really talking about it or had any knowledge of it, aside from the online marketing campaign, which did not appear to be a marketing campaign."
Indeed, legions of moviegoers were fooled by the site, which stands today (blairwitch.com) and drew dozens of calls from tipsters claiming knowledge of the urban legend.
Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York City, says that the movie, combined with MTV's burgeoning voyeur show The Real World, "was a precursor to both reality TV and all kinds of independent films in the ensuing decade and a half. If the movie were made today, they'd probably work into the plot that the (discovered) film had been Kickstarted."
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
A crowdfunding site such as Kickstarter would have had no problem coming up with Blair Witch's $60,000 budget (though studio tweaks would bump the price tag to $500,000). But even with the enhancements, Blair Witch remains a dirt-cheap movie — making other filmmakers' reluctance to follow its lead more puzzling.
Dave Karger, chief correspondent for online movie-ticket site Fandango, notes that despite the critical success of the film, studios wouldn't be convinced until 2008's Cloverfield of the genre's financial possibilities.
"Every once in a while, studios need to know something wasn't a fluke," he says. "Maybe Hollywood needed to see that format work again."
It has, many times. From 2012's Chronicle to Earth to Echo, found footage has become a staple of modern cinema — to the chagrin of some.
"I am a big fan of Blair Witch," says Terrence Ross, an associate professor of communications at New York's Adelphi University. "It scared and unsettled me. But as someone who teaches young people to make movies, I fear its biggest influence was tempting too many unskilled student filmmakers to go handheld for their movies. The results were often unwatchable — unlike the great Blair Witch, which is actually masterfully shot."
On the other hand, Ross says, it "taught young and daring filmmakers that you didn't need $20 million to make a movie. In fact, you didn't even need $100,000."
Blair Witch's mystique has grown over the years, in part because of the fate of its players. Artisan Entertainment, which distributed the movie, sold its catalog to Lionsgate in 2003. Myrick and Sanchez co-directed an ill-fated sequel, 2000's Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, and have not had a big studio film since (though Myrick still works in TV). Since their splash, Donahue, Williams and Leonard have had only bit roles in TV and film. And Donahue wrote a book in 2012 about living on a marijuana farm, Growgirl: How My Life After the Blair Witch Project Went to Pot.
"It was lightning in a bottle," Dergarabedian says. "That's often an ingredient in a modern classic, which you'd have to consider The Blair Witch Project."
A classic, yes, says Reinhard. But Blair Witch also underscores a seismic shift in American moviegoing, which now considers the Internet the industry's lifeblood.
"The youth of that time were the first digital natives," she says. "What made the movie a phenomenon was how the combination of viral marketing and the found-footage style produced a movie that seemed meant for us."