About a decade ago, the team behind the biggest hit of the decade wrote a screenplay for the prequel. It had been a long time coming. In 1999, the shaky-cam horror movie “The Blair Witch Project” grossed nearly $250 million around the world, turning the microbudget chronicle of a few friends who venture into the woods and never returned into an unexpected phenomena. “We had a plan for if it failed, what do with our finances without declaring bankruptcy,” said Eduardo Sanchez, who co-directed with Daniel Myrick. “We didn’t have a plan if it became the highest-grossing independent film of all time.”
However, distributor Artisan Entertainment had plenty of ideas. In the immediate aftermath of “The Blair Witch Project” taking off around the world, the company announced its investment two follow-ups, only one of which came to fruition. Myrick and Sanchez, eager to try something different, instead threw themselves into raising funds for a romantic comedy called “Heart of Love” that never panned out. Artisan rushed into sequel mode, producing the ill-received “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” which was directed by documentarian Joe Berlinger and took place outside of the mythology launched by the first film.
Four years later, after the failing Artisan was absorbed by Lionsgate and “Heart of Love” fell by the wayside, Myrick, Sanchez and “Blair Witch” producer Gregg Hale met with executives to pitch a new entry in the “Blair Witch” universe — a prequel set in 18th century New England that explains the origins of the supernatural events haunting the wayward filmmakers in the first film. (Years later, a filmmaker named Robert Eggers would inadvertently make a similar New England-based supernatural thriller set in the era called “The Witch.”) For the trio, who had developed an elaborate universe as the backdrop to their original film, the found footage trope was just one of several ways to explore a universe of narrative possibilities.
Lionsgate felt differently. “We were definitively shut down,” Hale recalled. “They instinctively wanted something more distinctly connected to the original film. As the guys who had made the first film, it was weird for us to go back to the found footage well.”
And so they moved on: As the production company Haxan Films, Hale and Sanchez have made a string of well-received low budget horror efforts, including the alien invasion thriller “Altered” and “Lovely Molly.” Fellow producer Mike Monello headed to New York to co-found the transmedia consulting company Campfire Media, while Myrick launched a solo directing career with eerie productions such as 2008’s “The Objective” — in which a group of soldiers trapped on an Afghan mountain encounter mysterious forces — and the forthcoming “Under the Bed.”
Meanwhile, Lionsgate found a way to relaunch the “Blair Witch” story with a new set of collaborators — “You’re Next” director and writer Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett — who used the found-footage device to retread much of the same material while situating the events in the context of a modern-day sequel. While Sanchez and Myrick have been publicly supportive of the new installment, it was clear that they didn’t have much control either way. “We would’ve loved to make a ‘Blair Witch’ movie,” Sanchez said. “They just decided to go in a different direction. We had no power. It’s not ours — it belongs to Lionsgate.”
The company has been transparent about the decision to work with relative newcomers rather than considering the Haxan team’s earlier ideas. “Because so much time has gone by since the original, we felt that we needed to go in a creative direction that was a sequel to the original which made use of the passage of time,” said Lionsgate executive Jason Constantine. He called Sanchez and Myrick’s ideas “great and compelling,” but added that “they would have been strong creative directions to go with if it had been in closer proximity time-wise to the original 1999 movie.”
In other words, they missed their window. The group faced so much pressure with their overnight success that they never managed to land on a strategy for capitalizing on it. “Look, I don’t know that anybody could’ve gone through all the craziness and not have it affect your expectations somewhat,” Hale said. “For Dan and Ed, it was nutty to go from struggling to pay your bills for your first movie to being on the cover of Time. Sorting through all that stuff did cloud things to a degree. We probably didn’t capitalize on it as well as we could have in the early days.”
But that doesn’t mean their opinion has changed about Artisan’s speedy attempts to exploit the film’s initial success. “Everybody wanted a fucking IPO,” Hale said, noting that most of the pressure was coming from Bain Capital, the global investment first that owned Artisan. “That was their strategy — have a big IPO and make a bunch of money. They wanted to say ‘Blair Witch 2’ was in production, and we didn’t that to be our next film.” Hale admitted they could have tried a more constructive tactic. “If we had a little more savvy to look at the picture and balance it out with our personal desires, the picture stuff might’ve won out,” he said. “We could’ve compromised with a film that made us feel good.”
Still, the team was allowed to leave their mark on the new project, consulting on tidbits of mythology that surface in Barrett’s screenplay and taking on executive producer credits. “Simon is a very meticulous writer who really did his research,” Hale said. “We just made sure that if he deviated from the mythology, the deviation made sense.” Sanchez insisted that he was appreciative of working with a team that wanted to work in harmony with the first film. “I was honored, honestly, that the original material still held an important place in these guys’ hearts,” he said.
In May, when the film was still a closely-kept industry secret, the original team watched the new film at a Lionsgate screening room. “I needed some time to digest it,” Sanchez said. “There was this double-shock of me seeing this pretty intense horror movie, and then realizing that it’s a ‘Blair Witch’ movie created by some other people.”
It remains unclear if that shock will translate into enough commercial potential for Lionsgate to stay in the “Blair Witch” business. Despite the hype, “Blair Witch” was projected to make around $10 million on opening weekend — not great, but still twice as much as its budget. “This is a franchise that has been kind of dormant for a while, so doing it right now is actually a daring decision in a way,” Wingard said. “When we signed onto this thing, it wasn’t like a no-brainer.”
For now, the original creators are saddled with dreams of what might have been. “I always thought there was enormous unrealized potential in the larger ‘Blair Witch’ mythology,” said Monello, whose consulting efforts revolve around a lot of the same world-building that the first film offered up. “I wish we could have been able to do it the way we wanted back then, but seeing it brought back is a great validation of what we really originally created.”
The new “Blair Witch” made a surprise appearance at San Diego Comic Con over the summer, but received its official premiere in the Midnight Madness section of the Toronto International Film Festival. Barrett and Wingard enjoyed a lively reception with the late-night audience, engaging in an audience Q&A with flashlights on their faces while the credits still rolled in a dark room. But Sanchez, Myrick, and the other members of the original team were absent. They had their excuses: Sanchez is in post-production on his new feature, while Myrick had to go to Vancouver to shoot an episode of “Supernatural.” He and Hale are making progress on casting another horror film. They have found their ways forward, with or without “The Blair Witch Project,” even if they haven’t cut all ties to it.
“On a day-to-day basis, I’m really happy with the way we’re engaging with the film business,” Hale said. “Undoubtedly, we have ‘Blair Witch’ to thank for that.” Sanchez put it bluntly: “I couldn’t be happier about being somewhat relevant in this world.”
—Additional reporting by Graham Winfrey