EntertainmentThe truth behind "Blair Witch Project." Young actors reveal exploitation

The truth behind "Blair Witch Project." Young actors reveal exploitation

Heather Donahue in "Blair Witch Project"
Heather Donahue in "Blair Witch Project"
Images source: © Press materials

1:04 PM EDT, June 14, 2024

"In October of 1994 three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary...A year later their footage was found." This is how the famous cult classic "Blair Witch Project" begins. After years, the actors decided to reveal the truth about the production.

It's the biggest scam in film history. The famous "Blair Witch Project" hit theaters worldwide in 1999, arriving in our country a year later. The idea for the story was brilliantly simple. A few years earlier, two newcomers, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, came up with the Blair Witch hiding somewhere in the American woods. Three students were supposed to go into the woods to film a documentary about a local legend for a class project. They enter the woods and disappear without a trace. A year later, a tape with disturbing footage is found. They convinced everyone worldwide that this actually happened.

What happened to the "Blair Witch Project" actors?

The story itself deserves a movie or documentary series. Myrick and Sánchez put out a casting call for three actors for an independent production. They offered several days of filming, for which one could earn about $500, a resume entry, and new experiences. The promise of this modest earnings drew in three novice actors. Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams were sent into the woods without a detailed script. They only had an outline of the story; the rest had to be improvised to make it realistic.

Filming lasted eight days. The three beginners brought the directors over 20 hours of material, of which 81 minutes were used. Then, the avalanche started. The actors were marginalized. Myrick, Sánchez, and Steven Rothenberg from Artisan Studios took the spotlight, creating the phenomenon of the "Blair Witch Project." In times when there was no Facebook, no Instagram and no one particularly cared about young actors, major abuses happened. Practically anything was possible.

Rothenberg devised a promotional campaign using the actors' real names. The campaign convinced people that the individuals shown in the film were truly the missing students. People wrote on forums, inquiring whether they were alive or if anyone had seen them. A special website was created with fabricated police reports. At the Sundance Festival, where the film was showcased, flyers with information about the missing people were distributed.

They exploited young actors

Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams were invited to the festival, but they were prohibited from speaking. Years later, the actors decided to reveal how the big studio exploited them and how, despite the massive box office success of the "Blair Witch Project," they didn't receive any money.

The movie grossed nearly $250 million worldwide. "Bastards," comments Heather in an interview with "Variety." "Everyone wonders what happened. Your wife is at the grocery store and can't pay for groceries because your card is blocked. You're in the world's most popular movie, and you can't take care of your family," Williams says tearfully.

"’m very grateful for what I have now and how fucking hard I fought to get it. But it still impacts me. Giant corporations don’t care that this happens to young artists. It’s bullshit. And that’s got to change somehow. Hopefully, we will help somebody to see: Don’t do what we did," says Williams.

They emphasize that the contract with the production specified that only 10 minutes of their footage would be used, not that the "Blair Witch Project" would consist of their recordings. They didn't know they were agreeing to have their real names used in the promotion. Soon, they heard that they were considered missing or dead. They were thanked with a basket of fruit. They were arranged a few interviews, but - as Heather recalls - when she mentioned in one that she was the poorest actress of the highest-grossing film, the production forbade its publication.

"Blair Witch Project"
"Blair Witch Project"© Press materials

Only years later did the actors decide to fight for themselves and sue Artisan, the then-distributor. This was just before the premiere of "Blair Witch 2". In 2004, a settlement was reached, under which the company was supposed to pay $300,000 to each of them over a few years. In comparison, producers from Haxan and investors earned between 35 to 40 million dollars from the "Blair Witch Project."

Heather Donahue quit acting. Michael C. Williams acts occasionally but works as a school psychologist. Joshua Leonard did not leave showbiz, starring in two productions in 2022: "Collision" and "Torn Hearts."

And why is the matter resurfacing now? As we wrote, another installment of the "Blair Witch Project" is in the works. Lionsgate, with whom the actors of the first film are still at odds, is responsible for the production. They are fighting not to have their names used in the production and promotion. So far, it is only known that the film is being made and Jason Blum will be behind the camera.

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