Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
July 30, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

On the sweltering summer streets of New York City, dozens of people pitched tents outside a theater, hoping to be among the first to snag the summer’s most coveted tickets. Across the country, millions of less adventurous fans stayed inside and logged onto their computers, hitting the movie’s website — 22 million times, at last count — for the latest scoop.

The Blair Witch Project has no stars or wars, and it hasn’t had a single TV spot to its name. But by the end of its July 16th opening weekend, the film, in just 27 theaters, had broken box office records across America, and the distributor behind it, Artisan Entertainment, had reinvented movie marketing. At one theater alone, Orange, Calif.’s AMC 30 at the Block, it grossed a staggering $164,354 over the weekend, making back its $100,000 budget on the spot. Not bad for a group of neophyte filmmakers and a two-year-old indie company.

The tale of three would-be documentary filmmakers who disappear while searching for the legendary Blair Witch in Maryland’s Black Hills, leaving only this ”footage” behind, The Blair Witch Project was conceived by two Florida filmmakers, Eduardo Sanchez, 30, and Daniel Myrick, 35. In the spring of 1998, the writing and directing partners sent actors Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard into the woods with cameras and an understanding of the film’s premise: The three were to spend a week hiking from spot to spot, where they could pick up food and film. After that, it was up to the actors to improvise their scenes, scare themselves silly, and record themselves doing it. The result is a largely black-and-white film shot on cheap 16mm and Hi8 video with two handheld cameras. ”It was supposed to look like a documentary,” explains Sanchez, ”because we had no money.”

Artisan changed that in January, when it purchased The Blair Witch Project for $1 million after a midnight screening at the Sundance Film Festival. Artisan, known as Live Entertainment before being sold in 1997 and rechristened by CEO Mark Curcio and copresidents Amir Malin and Bill Block, made its mark in the art-house community at Sundance the previous year; purchasing an obscure, mathematically themed, black-and-white film called [Pi] for $1 million, Artisan shepherded the seemingly unmarketable film to a $3.2 million box office take.

Hoping to do the same with Blair Witch, Artisan began its marketing campaign of the spook-fest ”Day One of Sundance,” says Malin. ”We met with the filmmakers and emphasized to them that the great conceit of Blair Witch is [that it looks like] a real documentary. People come in and they don’t know what’s going on.” Malin convinced the filmmakers to move the film’s opening credits to the end, adding to Blair‘s home-video-like realism, and funded work on the sound mix. While the filmmakers spiffed up the film, Artisan seized upon a brilliant — and virtually free — marketing tool.

In June 1998, before Blair Witch was even edited, the filmmakers had launched a website that gave basic information about the movie. Shortly after Sundance, Artisan took over the site, adding journal entries by one of the characters, faked police reports, and a history of the Blair Witch dating back to the 18th century. After a trailer was placed on Harry Knowles’ Ain’t It Cool News website in April, word of mouth spread across the Internet, fueled by the is-it-real-or-invented? debate. ”It’s all fiction,” Myrick says of the information offered on the site, ”but people are getting confused. We kind of count on that.”

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