“The Blair Witch Project” Is A Cultural Crowning Achievement Of The 1990s
Whatever you make of the film, The Blair Witch Project should be remembered for its cultural impact
For the sake of conversation, let’s say time traveling existed. However, there is a catch. The time machine only brings a traveler to key pop culture moments of our history — the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, Woodstock or a showing of The Jazz Singer. The choices are abundant.
Without a shadow of a doubt, my choice would be any movie theater across the United States on July 30, 1999. With buttery popcorn at my side and a theater abuzz with speculation, I would sit back and enjoy the cultural phenomenon of The Blair Witch Project on opening night. Say what you will about the quality of the film, it is one of the biggest success stories in film history. Shot for only $60,000, though its actual budget after promotional material would be around $500,000, the film ending up grossing around $248 million. Think about those profit margins!
On the eve of yet another sort of hyped release — this one called Blair Witch — it is interesting to note the complete 180 turn on this story. Part of it is because of the slew of horror movies to follow that were absolute awful; the other part, I think, is a notion where people are turned off by all the re-boots happening in our media landscape.
Money and sequels aside, The Blair Witch Project is much more than a “found footage” horror movie. The film is a culture altering event, helping change the face of indie filmmaking and the horror genre. It is a tangible thing — well, if you have the DVD or Blu-Ray — that is proof of why the 1990s was a great era for film and media.
The Blair Witch Project is the brain child of filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. The inking for this film came to them in 1993, when they thought the documentaries about the paranormal were far scarier than the horror movies coming out to theaters. In 1993, they were on to something. Horror was on a steep decline in the early 1990s. With successful franchises coming from the 1980s — Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street — the 1990s saw the sequel game go to far. Elm Street and Halloween both had their 6th movie released; Friday the 13th was on its 9th. Audiences were tired, bored and done with horror.
By the mid-1990s, a filmmaking revolution was underway. Myrick and Sanchez took full notice. Independent filmmaking was becoming the new trend; the 1990s would be dominant with story after story of successful independent film. The two budding filmmakers thought they could use the new technology at their disposal and make a far scarier film than being released to theaters.
The mapped out a 35-page script, in which the dialogue would be improvised. They sent out notices to newspapers for actors with strong improvisational abilities. Myrick and Sanchez slowly but surely began hinting to outlets of the legend of the “Blair Witch”. For the next 5 years, the plan was hatched with more and more detail: where and how the film would be shot, what ultimately is the story and 2,000 hopeful actors had to be whittled down.
Aiding the filmmakers was this independent spirit that gripped the media landscape during the 1990s. On top of that, the technology to make a film was readily available for anyone who wanted to learn and successfully use. Video and sound equipment, plus GPS systems that came in handy with actors being sent off in the woods, made the dream of this more “realistic” approach to filmmaking possible for Myrick and Sanchez.
This is why The Blair Witch Project is a complete success. Initial invested by three filmmakers, there was no studio or big-time investors seeing over the project. From the minds of two guys, a film was conceived, shot and released all across the nation.
Fast forward to 1999.
At that year’s Sundance Film Festival, The Blair Witch Project was shown and picked up by Artisan Entertainment for wide release. (Which is the main goal for anyone who show their film at festivals: your film to be bought to be distributed across the nation). Up to this point, the story of The Blair Witch Project is already a great, pioneering tale of film history. However, there is another notch to the film’s legendary place in pop culture history.
The Blair Witch Project took on another trend that revolutionized the 1990s and the 2000s: the internet. The film is one of the first films to utilize the world wide web to promote the film. But, it was not just ads upon ads. Steven Rothenberg, an Artisan executive, believed portraying the film as “real” would create a buzz around the film. The film’s promotions wanted the public to think this was an actual documentary about the paranormal. The online, among the other promotional items, reflected that.
The sense that it was an actual documentary caught on like wildfire.
The website for the film had fake police reports and news footage of the events that “happened” in the film. At Sundance, the filmmakers had fliers of the film printed and distributed. On the flier, they asked, at the time, a vital question: have you seen these college students? The actor’s IMDB — the Internet Movie Data Base — profiles listed them as “missing, presumed dead”.
Upon its release, many going into the film absolutely thought it was true. The film became incredibly polarizing, yet garnered huge acclaim. Though not the first to do “found footage”, The Blair Witch Project hit at the most crucial time for horror movies. Though the horror genre had been slacking most of the 1990s, a horror renaissance was underway by the end of the decade thanks to Scream and Halloween H20. With the buzz and acclaim so high, the “found footage” aspect was highly praised. For the next decade, that style of filmmaking became a staple for horror.
The Blair Witch Project is the horror genre’s welcoming to the 21st century. Because of the money to be made in horror, especially after this film, a sequel soon followed. The film was a full production, completely opposite of the first one, and was panned by critics.
Now a third iteration of the story is about to be un-leashed. Blair Witch is a sequel to the first, and calls back the “found footage” aspect that made the original so popular. The initial reaction has been mixed. There is nothing revolutionary about this third movie. Will it be good? Time will time.
The Blair Witch Project is an important moment in the pop culture landscape. It is evidence why film had a “golden age” in the 1990s. The film helped bring back horror to the forefronts of audiences, but also how important independent filmmaking can be. It would have been an awesome moment, though knowing all I know already, to be in a theater and experience the highly discussed film that swept the nation.