by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE
Last week as the national press focused on a revealing interview with Hillary Clinton, it made a few leaps and connected a few dots, creating a media frenzy that was more about the sensation than the facts. Many of the same outlets also examined the alleged similarities between “The Blair Witch Project” and “The Last Broadcast,” with similar results. Fueled by a local newspaper article and two Pennsylvania filmmakers — Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler — seeking publicity for their own movie, the press latched onto the story and implied that “Blair Witch” was a rip-off of Avalos and Weiler’s “Broadcast.”
An indieWIRE reader e-mailed me on July 16th, the same day that The Philadelphia Daily News published its exploration of the similarities between “Blair Witch” and “The Last Broadcast.” Quoting the article and suggesting that indieWIRE was somehow covering up the story, the reader practically demanded that we write this about the issue. Since then, the similarities have received considerable media attention — “They Did it First” declared Mr. Showbiz’ Jeffrey Wells a week after the Philly piece, and last week as “Blair Witch” reached the number two slot on the national box office, all hell broke loose.
“Flap Brewing Over ‘Witch’ Came First,” screamed a New York Post headline on Tuesday, at which point Entertainment Tonight weighed in, and Thursday morning, live on Good Morning America, Diane Sawyer prodded Haxan’s Dan Myrick and Ed Sanchez about the issue. Other national newswires, broadcast media outlets, and even Howard Stern, joined in as the controversy grew. “The Last Broadcast’s” Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler tried to manage the crush by talking with some of the press, while Haxan Films stayed quiet. Even though Avalos and Weiler never charged that Haxan stole their idea, the media inquiries increased, and as is often the case, press relied on the other press reports to enhance their stories. An E! Entertainment news report stated plainly that Avalos and Weiler are “outraged,” and said that “no lawsuits have been filed yet,” implying that litigation might be forthcoming. Haxan’s Myrick and Sanchez continued to remain silent, deferring to a brief statement, released by their publicist Jeremy Walker, indicating that they conceived of the film in 1992 and registered it with the WGA in 1996.
After receiving more email on the subject and in light of the increasing media attention, I reluctantly investigated further. I had hesitated because, knowing both groups of filmmakers and having tracked their movies extensively over the past two years I was confident that the media allegations were baseless — there was simply no real story there.
Late last week I finally decided to call both camps. I spoke directly, and at length, with members of both the “Last Broadcast” and “Blair Witch” filmmaking teams to try and get a better understanding of the situation. Ultimately, I concluded that there simply wasn’t a story to write. Avalos and Weiler were not alleging that Haxan Films stole their idea, nor were they pursuing litigation involving copyright infringement, they were simply saying what I believe they have been saying all along, reinforcing that their movie will soon be available on video, “If somebody enjoys ‘The Blair Witch Project’ there is a chance they will enjoy our film, and we hope they will check it out.”
Granted there are some striking similarities between “The Last Broadcast” and “The Blair Witch Project,” but the concepts for the two films were developed independently and the movies were shot without either group of filmmakers having seen the other team’s work.
Media allegations that “The Blair Witch Project” is a rip-off of “The Last Broadcast” are without merit, and again, Weiler & Avalos have not alleged that Haxan stole their idea, nor are they pursuing legal action against Artisan, Haxan or anyone involved with “The Blair Witch Project.” The only media allegation that holds up is the possibility that members of the Haxan crew may have seen “Broadcast” prior to locking their own picture and submitting their movie to Sundance.
I sincerely believe that this is a situation involving an overzealous, scandal-seeking media manipulating Weiler and Avalos’ legitimate attempts to get additional attention for their movie’s video release.
Numerous Internet articles, along with my conversations with members of the “Broadcast” and “Blair Witch” filmmaking teams, support a timeline that is clear and speaks for itself. However, rather than present a “he said, he said” article extensively detailing the facts, I will instead quickly summarize: In early August of 1997, indieWIRE first covered the “Last Broadcast” and also reported on the “Blair Witch” teaser airing on John Pierson‘s IFC-program, Split Screen. (Two-months earlier, while attending the Florida Film Festival, I learned that Pierson had met with the Haxan group, including Festival staffer Mike Monello, to discuss the project and view their tape.) Haxan began principal photography of “The Blair Witch Project” on October 23, 1997 and