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Laramie Movie Scope:
Blair Witch Analysis

Is the Blair Witch Project another Easy Rider?

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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August 14, 1999 -- "The Blair Witch Project" is a very unusual film. Online film critic Jeff Huston has dubbed the film, "the first micro-budget blockbuster."

This summer it is not unusual for a film to make $100 million at the box office, and this film should reach that mark this weekend. What makes this film different is that it was made by relatively unknown filmmakers at a reported cost of between $20,000 to $60,000 (depending on which report you believe). The film was sold by Haxan Films to Artisan Entertainment for over $1 million right after it opened early this year a t the Sundance Film Festival. The Associated Press reports that Artisan and Haxan together have spent $350,000 producing the film.

When you compare that to the cost of "Titanic" which cost over $200 million to make, the profit ratio of "The Blair Witch Project" is even bigger than super blockbuster movies like "Titanic" and "The Phantom Menace."

Box office results are analyzed on a per-screen average by entertainment business people. A hit Hollywood film averages roughly $6,000 to $15,000 per screen. "The Blair Witch Project" was hitting over $60,000 per screen in a limited release of 31 theaters a few weeks ago. That is the reason the release was increased to 1,000 theaters, where it averaged a whopping $26,528 per screen. Now it is showing in over 2,100 theaters, where it had declined to $11,438 per screen last weekend, still a very hot total, but definitely declining rapidly.

Even so, "The Blair Witch Project" could be the kind of revolutionary film some industry visionaries have been predicting for some time. The film was originally shot mostly on video tape and then transferred to film, a much cheaper way of editing and producing feature films. It was also successfully promoted using the Internet, by use of this official, very creepy, web site.

Last year a successful foreign film called "The Celebration" ("Festen") was produced in a similar manner, according to the rules of "Dogme 95," a revolutionary group of filmmakers in Denmark.

The Dogme 95 manifesto, which can be found here, says, "Today, a technological storm is raging, the result of which will be the ultimate democratization of the cinema. For the first time, anyone can make movies." The Blair Witch Project seems to be proof of that statement.

The Dogme 95 manifesto rails against the predictability and superficiality of commercial film, saying, "The result is barren, an illusion of pathos and an illusion of love." To counter these trends, Dogme 95 prescribes directors adhere to a "vow of chastity" to make films shot only with hand-held cameras using available light and with no post -production sounds or optical effects added.

"The Blair Witch Project" may not follow these rules to the letter. Indeed, the filmmakers may not have been aware of them, but the way they made their film was just as revolutionary, and it avoided artificiality.

Instead of a standard script, the filmmakers used a broad outline. The actors (Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams) learned their characters, not a standard script. They were taught how to use the 16-millimeter film and hi-8 video cameras. The actors shot their own scenes.

The filmmakers, Eduardo Sanchez and Dan Myrick (co-writers and co-directors) and the producers gave the actors the general background and sent them into the woods in Maryland's Seneca Creek State Park to make the film.

The filmmakers maneuvered the actors through checkpoints where they picked up supplies and notes telling them where to go next over an eight-day period. The filmmakers also approached the actors in the dead of night and made noises to scare them. Much of the film is improvised. Some of the fear seen in the film is a result of sleep deprivation, stress and hunger the actors actually went through in making the film.

The result is so realistic that many audience members thought the film was a documentary based on a true story. Audience members at Sundance were openly relieved when the three stars of the film, obviously very much alive, stood on stage to take questions after the showing.

American audiences seem ready to embrace an unconventional film which breaks all the rules of Hollywood . The point-of-view camera work, the lack of predictability, the documentary feel of film and the use of what are essentially old radio drama scare tactics, seem to be what makes it popular. If that is true, then this could be another small budget, big impact film like "Easy Rider" was 30 years ago, when it too, found a big audience and ushered in what some called a golden age of films in the 1970s.

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Copyright © 1999 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)