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‘The Blair Witch Project’ at 20: Why It Can’t Be Replicated

More than a year before “The Blair Witch Project” hit theaters and became a cultural phenomenon, its central mystery had already gone viral.

According to the movie’s fledgling promotional website, which presented itself as a real investigative project, three film students — Heather, Mike and Josh — had ventured into the Maryland woods in 1994 to shoot a documentary and then disappeared. Their footage was recovered a year later, providing evidence to support a disturbing legend. The online message boards began to buzz, with questions about the story’s veracity.

The hype, intrigue and skepticism surrounding the account, fueled by the internet’s advent, grew through the movie’s premiere, in July 1999. What eventually emerged — a feature-length film made of spliced together scenes of shaky home video footage — made the demise of its three characters seem all the more authentic and terrifying.

Of course, the whole thing was fiction. But a lot of viewers didn’t know that going in.

“The prime directive we had was that the film had to look completely real,” said Eduardo Sánchez, who conceived and directed the entire thing with Daniel Myrick, from the manufactured legend to the film itself.

“The lighting had to make sense, the sound couldn’t be great,” he continued. “There wasn’t going to be a soundtrack. It was just edited footage.”

Today, “Blair Witch,” released 20 years ago this week (and streaming now on Hulu), remains an inflection point for the movie industry. Produced for $60,000, the film went on to make $248.6 million at the global box office, an indie record at the time. Its amateur aesthetic prompted a generation of filmmakers to pick up a camera, however low-tech. It exposed new possibilities for marketing in the internet age. And it was a ubiquitous part of pop culture, spawning myriad imitators and spoofs, in turns inspired by and mocking its shaky cinematography and selfie-style confessionals.

“Blair Witch” could also be just plain scary — in a way that tapped perfectly into the trends and anxieties of the moment.

“In many ways mainstream moviegoing audiences simply forgot horror could be scary in this way,” said Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, author of the book “Found Footage Horror,” in an email. “There was something in the air in 1999 that made us acutely aware that technology could be linked to some kind of vague, chaotic unknown, and ‘Blair Witch’ tapped into this at exactly the right moment.”

“Blair Witch” didn’t invent the found-footage movie. Film historians credit Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 thriller “Cannibal Holocaust,” which similarly featured the disappearance of a young movie crew, as the first. But the “Blair Witch” creators understood there was a fresh appetite for the concept. By 1999, reality TV programs like “Cops” and “The Real World” were on the rise, and the internet was providing a conspiratorial and conversational hub for its users.

That convergence primed viewers for a low-fi aesthetic that, in the right hands and with the right idea, could lead to something novel. It also allowed for an extremely low budget.

[Read the original Times review from 1999.]

“For us, video was about to become as good as film,” Sánchez said. “All of a sudden, you could edit on your computer.” Audiences seemed willing, he added, to accept “these new types of media and new types of stories that were being told.”

To make the film, Myrick and Sánchez used only Hi8 and 16-millimeter formats. (Hi8 is video, used in a digital hand-held camcorder.) Their surprising success inspired many young filmmakers to view amateur equipment as an opportunity, not a limitation.

“Everyone now can afford a camera — has a camera in their pocket — and can, if they think out of the box properly, do something very new,” said Aneesh Chiganty, the director of the breakout thriller “Searching,” from last summer.

He added: “Seeing a group of people like the whole team behind ‘Blair Witch’ succeed at the level they did back then was an injection of adrenaline as filmmakers.”

After the release of “Blair Witch,” the found-footage concept quickly spread. Low-budget features like “August Underground” and “Septem8er Tapes” aimed to replicate the “Blair Witch” formula, but without the mystery surrounding their origins, they couldn’t reproduce the immediacy and potency.

In 2009, however, Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” seemed to recapture some of the elusive “Blair Witch” alchemy, using unknown actors and improvised dialogue. This time, the characters were just regular homeowners, using a surveillance camera with night vision to capture the movements of a supernatural demon inside their house.

Shot independently on a $15,000 budget, but distributed by Paramount, the movie grossed $193.4 million globally.

“If someone decides to do it honestly, and has a great idea, it can always be effective,” Peli said.

Bigger Hollywood productions, like the monster movie “Cloverfield” (2008) and the superhero thriller “Chronicle” (2012), later adopted the found-footage convention, merging the historically low-fi aesthetic of long takes and jumpy cameras with C.G.I. wizardry. More recent thrillers like “Unfriended” (2015) and “Searching” — both box office hits, both shot using only computer and phone cameras — put another spin on the subgenre.

Attempts to turn “The Blair Witch Project” into a franchise were less successful. The movie’s direct sequel from 2000 flopped, as did the third entry, in 2016 (neither was directed by Myrick or Sánchez); both struggled to create a genuine sense of terror without the mystery of authenticity that so electrified the original.

Although the numerous “Paranormal Activity” sequels didn’t match the quality of the original, either, Peli, who has stayed on as a producer for the series, made sure they at least answered a set of questions integral to the subgenre.

“Who is filming; why are they filming; why does it need to be found footage?” said Peli. “If you betray that, the audience is going to feel that. I think at some point, the industry became a victim of itself.”

In some ways, “The Blair Witch Project,” with its blurring of fact and fiction, helped create that very media landscape that would preclude its viral success today.

In the 20 years since the film’s debut, that landscape has shifted profoundly. The arrival of YouTube in 2005, which made video-sharing a global, social and economic enterprise, has deepened that blur. Add to that the rise in reality TV, fake news and phenomena like “deepfakes,” which use real images and voices to completely fabricate videos, and it becomes hard to imagine a hoax-based movie campaign ever again gaining that kind of currency.

Even the team that devised the original online strategy for “Blair Witch” recognizes today that they passed through a narrow window.

“Now it wouldn’t work,” Sánchez said. One could easily look find out on the internet that Heather from “Blair Witch” was an actress named Heather Donahue — who hadn’t disappeared at all.

Still, few have matched that team’s care and inventiveness since.

The plan seems almost quaint in hindsight, but at the time it was innovative. First, Sánchez and Mike Monello, a producer on “Blair Witch” who was instrumental in funding and publicizing the film, put together a stylistically unique website — filled with archival photos and a timeline of its purported history. (The site is no longer online in its original form; www.blairwitch.com/project/main.html “is as close to the original site as you can get,” Monello said.)

Then they monitored the site’s message board, an early internet outpost for horror fans to share theories and debate the so-called evidence.

“We’d get in and dial up our modems and see what people were saying,” Monello said. “As we got closer to finishing the film, then we started to get a little more serious.”

Sánchez, Myrick, Monello and another producer, Greg Hale, started an email newsletter for more loyal browsers and galvanized its hard-core fan base. They added details to the site as necessary. Most dedicated readers knew the story wasn’t real, but after he movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, a fresh wave of fans visiting the site weren’t so sure.

A week before the feature’s wide release, Myrick and Sánchez debuted a separate faux documentary called “The Curse of the Blair Witch” on the Sci Fi Channel (known today as SyFy). It added to the myth by using interviews and archival material they had cut from the movie. The “Curse” film was not presented as fiction.

“It was the story of the serial killer, and it was extremely well done,” Peli said. “They really created this immersive world that if you had the time and wanted to go into it, it would help you with the suspension of disbelief.”

That particular strategy may be hard to duplicate now, but the deeper lessons about connecting with fans in a media-driven age are still relevant.

“I think ‘The Blair Witch Project’ was the first example of what the power of fandom would do in Hollywood,” said Monello, now the founder of Campfire, an entertainment-marketing agency. “When you connect fans together on the internet, their shared passion deepens.”

Peli applied that lesson years later to promote “Paranormal,” which used a “Demand It” campaign in college towns: Students who wanted to see the movie needed to petition Paramount Studios through the movie’s website.

“It worked beautifully, because people took ownership of the film, to not only spread the word but to get others to demand it play in their town,” Peli said.

A decade later, the campaign for “Searching” relied on social media testimonials to spread its message.

“If you’re not a massive franchise, you have to convince people to go to the movie theater,” Chiganty said. “Real people’s reactions are the best tools you can use if the movie is good enough.”

Good certainly helps. And, as Monello noted, there’s no substitute for seizing the moment.

“We understood what we were doing on some level,” Monello said. “But an awful lot of it was right place, right time, right story. It all converged.”

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