CURSE OF THE BLAIR WITCH

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. But if we had been three crappy actors, we wouldn't even be talking right now." It also didn't help that until the middle of the film's run, Artisan kept the actors in hiding to perpetuate the myth that the movie was real. "At one point you could log on to [the movie database] IMDB, and it listed Heather as 'deceased'," says the film's first publicist, Jeremy Walker. "That doesn't exactly give your career a boost."

The other issue was money. Too much of it. After a battle with Artisan over their percentage of the video profits, the Haxan five, most of whom were on the verge of bankruptcy, walked away with about $50 million. After the film's investors were paid out, after taxes and lawyers and agents, it's estimated that each partner netted about $5 million. Not a lot, by industry standards, but massive to anybody else. "It was both a blessing and a curse," Sanchez says. "If the movie had made only three or four million, we would have had to move on to a next film immediately. 'Blair Witch' made us so independent, we didn't need to make another movie pretty much forever. We didn't need to say yes to anybody."

And they didn't. They turned down the chance to direct any number of studio horror movies, including "The Exorcist 4" and "Freddy Vs. Jason," opting to make an off-beat comedy of their own, "Heart of Love." The financing later fell apart and the project was junked. Disappointing, but by then their focus had shifted toward home rather than Hollywood. "We had been struggling for so long," says Sanchez, recalling life before the "Witch" windfall. "You don't have a nice home, you don't have a nice car. Your relationships suffer because you can't really make a commitment until you've become what you want to become. So for the first time ever, we made life the highest priority." With the exception of Cowie, who already had a wife, every one of the Haxan team has married in the last five years. And, in what must be a first in the history of overnight successes, all wedded the longtime girlfriends who had loved them when they were broke. "That speaks volumes about how outside Hollywood they all were," says Donahue, who also has the same pre-"Witch" boyfriend. "That's pretty impressive."

Despite the domestic bliss, though, the actors didn't score nearly the financial payout the directors did. It's estimated that after taxes and fees, they netted only, at most, $1 million each. In L.A., that'll just cover the cost of a three-bedroom home. But the biggest shock was that the film didn't make them instant stars. "We came in with naive expectations," says Leonard, who has been acting in a few small films a year. "We thought people were going to drive us around in Town Cars all the time. We didn't approach success with the same cynicism and resentment that someone who'd been in the business for 20 years might have." Pause. "Or like I will if I ever get it again."

For the most part, the Haxan guys view the last five years as a well-earned break, and although they've been writing scripts and ideally would have made another movie already, they're relieved they didn't make one for careerist reasons. "As hokey as it sounds, I'd rather make five good films in my career than 50 OK ones," Myrick says. And they're all eager to get back in the game. Hale is almost finished with his directing debut, "Say Yes Quickly." Monello is working on a documentary and teaching a guerrilla-marketing class at their alma mater, and Myrick and Sanchez have started talks with Lions Gate about making a "Blair Witch" prequel. Even though Williams isn't thrilled to be hauling sofas, he isn't bitter--and he's got a plan to get on the screen again. "You tell Steven Spielberg, 'I'm here, baby'," he says, and laughs. "Of course, if you print that, he won't be able to find me." No worries, Steven. We've got his number. It's on the side of the truck.

CURSE OF THE BLAIR WITCH | News