January evening in 1999, standing in front of the Egyptian Theatre in Park City, Utah, as the line of moviegoers snaked around the side of the building, I remember thinking, ‘Do I really want to witness this?’ It’s tough enough for me to sit through one of my own screenings with an unsuspecting audience, but when you’re told that the room is packed with potential buyers as well, the typical butterflies tickling your stomach quickly morph into screaming pterodactyls.
Ed Sánchez, my writing and directing partner on The Blair Witch Project, was feeling the same way, so we managed to sneak away for a moment to splash a little cold water on our faces and futilely attempt to center our thoughts.
We stood for a moment, staring at each other’s reflections in the mirrors before us. I couldn’t help but think of that line in Wall Street, when Charlie Sheen’s character tells to the secretary right before going in to meet the notorious Gordon Gekko: “Life all comes down to a few moments. This is one of those moments.” Ain’t that the truth?
It was shortly after that screening that we were approached by Artisan Entertainment with an offer. Gregg Hale, Robin Cowie and Mike Monello, our producers, were in on the negotiations along with the Endeavor Agency boys while Ed and I hung out in our hotel rooms, ostensibly to give the guys an “out” during discussions if things heated up. In reality, Ed and I suck at negotiating, so it was much better to have us sequestered back at the hotel where we could stew in our own juices while our girlfriends at the time (now our spouses) did their best to calm our nerves. After a sleepless night, we got the call from Gregg that the film had been sold. I was elated. Then fell fast asleep.
“If we break $10 million at the box office, we get a competition-grade foosball table.”
That was the bet we laid down to the Artisan execs over dinner during the celebration a couple of nights later. Feeling that it was a bit of a reach, even for a film they felt was a bit more commercial than some of their other releases, they gladly took the bet. We clanked our beer glasses, making it official, and proceeded to laugh about how funny it would be to see Artisan CEO Amir Malin and president Bill Block hauling a 150-pound foosball table into our shabby offices in Orlando.
In one respect, The Blair Witch Project was like many other films that had come before it: Gearing up for the festival circuit, hoping for acceptance and a coveted distribution deal that would eventually lead to us recouping our investment and getting a little respect from the industry. It didn’t take long for us to realize that things were different with this film. Or at least that’s what we were being told.
A few days into our normally scheduled screenings, the Sundance organizers booked a special engagement at the Eccles Theatre, where we appeared before a packed house, even bumping into Roger Ebert on his way into the theater. The energy of the audience was positively electric. I’ll never forget some guy standing up moments before our Q&A and screaming out, “We love your film!” to raucous applause. Before we knew it, our film became more than the guys who made it.
To say we were the proverbial deer caught in the headlights would be giving the deer too much credit for its innate sense of accident avoidance. On the outside we were attempting the whole cool, thoughtful moviemaker shtick, but inside we were in a sort of glazed paralysis; the kind a child gets when he is told to pick any toy he wants in the entire toy store, but given only 10 seconds to decide.
The reality for us in those days was that we had no reference point; no way of comparing what was right or wrong, normal or not so normal, about our evolving circumstances. We were just living in the moment, being swept along in a current of emotion, press, publicists and industry operatives who kept telling us to “be ourselves.”
I remember feeling this intense, cognitive dissonance at how organized everything around us seemed—the interviews, photo shoots, etc.—and yet how utterly scrambled my thoughts were about why it was happening to us. We’re not supposed to be able to get into the “cool” parties; we’re supposed to be the guys hustling our film out on the icy Park City sidewalks as the crowds politely pass us by on their way to the films they actually came to see.
But there we were, deal in hand, loaded to the gills with business cards and plotting a distribution strategy with the guys who had released Pi to such great success the year before.
One of the questions I’m asked repeatedly is whether we had any idea of how big The Blair Witch Project would become back in those early days. The truth of the matter is, no one knew. There is a point with some ventures, regardless of what they are, when they exceed all reasonable expectations. Logical planning, contingencies and preparation all become meaningless because something much bigger than anything you could have anticipated or comprehended is at work. This is what makes this business so unpredictable.
It’s easy to look back and attempt to deconstruct the causes of The Blair Witch Project’s success. But even with the gift of hindsight, I’m still somewhat baffled as to why it had such an overwhelming effect on so many people. There were small indicators at Sundance—lines at the screenings, crowd reactions, press interest—but nothing we felt was too far out of the realm of an enthusiastic showing at a national festival, one noted for being an over-the-top celebration of indie moviemaking. It’s supposed to be a crazy love-fest, right?
The plane ride home was a mixture of exhaustion, elation and disbelief. It was like we were all invited to a dream, but now it was time to head back to our little realities and carry on where we had left off. I laughed when I thought about actor Mike Williams jumping out of his shuttle van from the airport and being rushed into a Premiere photo shoot along with his two co-stars, Heather Donahue and Joshua Leonard. Mike had this giddy expression on his face when he looked over to us and asked, “What’s going on?” Just a few hours before, he was moving furniture.
Sundance was perfect. It was cold, snowing and in every way the complete opposite of a town where a group of Florida boys would be found shaking things up in an industry that isn’t known for embracing outsiders. That’s the beauty of Park City. Everyone has to wear a coat and it’s just a matter of time before you’ll catch a hilarious moment when a well-heeled celebrity haplessly tries to recover after slipping on an icy sidewalk. I’ll always look back fondly on those days.
I’ve learned so much as a moviemaker and as a person over the subsequent 10 years. Not to say there wasn’t much pain along the way, but as a moviemaker, you’re always striving to leave some sort of imprint on the art form of which you claim to be a part. When I allow myself a self-reflective moment on it all, for better or worse, I see that The Blair Witch Project was our mark.
Back in Orlando, we soon realized that Sundance was only the beginning. It was like being shot out of a cannon with absolutely no control over where we would land. There’s not much you can do to prepare yourself for the onslaught of attention, whether you deserve it or not. I remember visiting the local Barnes & Noble with Ed and seeing headlines about The Blair Witch Project on just about every trade magazine on the rack. We just looked at each other and shook our heads. We knew then that the party in the snow had spilled out into the rest of the world.
Still, with all the hoopla from those early showings, this little voice inside me kept asking, ‘What if it’s a big flop?’ If I’ve learned anything in the past 10 years, it’s that no one really knows which film is going to hit pay dirt. It’s an educated guess at best. We were all too familiar with the festival “success stories” that went on to die quick deaths at the local multiplex or arthouse theater, but now we were facing the brutal reality of having to put up or shut up.
The pragmatist in me was hoping that we would make enough money to pay back our investors and credit card bills and still have enough left over to treat my girlfriend to a decent vacation for having put up with this insanity for two years. At the very least, I figured we could do an afternoon at Disney World (especially since we literally lived next door to the place and had free passes).
When the film finally opened, it was nothing short of surreal—nothing I could really touch or feel. I wasn’t sure what it really all meant at the time; none of us did. We just knew that the film opened big and that was a huge relief, because it meant that Artisan might be up for hiring us again.
A few days later, it all started to sink in… Something special was happening and we were as much spectators as we were the perpetrators. It wasn’t until we got a knock on our office door early one morning, a few weeks after the film’s release, that we saw the first, tangible reward of all those years of blood, sweat and tears: A uniformed man, sweating from head to toe, held out a clipboard for one of us to sign. I don’t remember exactly who scratched down his signature that day, but I definitely remember those precious words of redemption that came out of the man’s mouth. “Where do you guys want this foosball table?” MM