The Blair Witch Project marks a watershed moment in cyber-hype. In the same way that Jaws revolutionized distribution by blasting into saturation bookings in 1975, this “little” film redefined “synergy” by synthesizing film, video and the Internet. Movie websites can no longer contain merely interviews with the cast and crew and hotlinks to Blockbuster. In a post-Blair Witch world, these sites must create interactive universes. According to Time magazine, the careful manipulation of cyberpublicity in the summer of 1999 made The Blair Witch Project: “the must-attend social event for plugged-in America” (58). While the film itself has been relegated to the waiting room of cult cinema, its repercussions continue to echo throughout the Hollywood publicity machine.
It is a story that has attained legend status. The Blair Witch Project was made for $25,000, $30,000 or $35,000 (depending on which version of the legend one hears). Artisan Entertainment paid first-time filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez $1 million for the distribution rights at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival (Corless, 59). In its first week in nationwide release, it made $50 million on 1,101 screens (Corless, 58). The film stands to be the most profitable movie ever made — in theory it earned back its production costs in the first hour of its release. The week of August 16, 1999 both Time and Newsweek ran cover stories on the film. Newsweek featured the three actors on its cover. Time placed Myrick and Sanchez within its red frame.
The Blair Witch Project is a horror story/mockumentary with a fairly facile plot. Three film students, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams go into the Maryland woods to make a documentary about a local legend — the Blair Witch. The film is Heather’s senior project and to be shot in black-and-white 16 mm. Heather, devoted to process and “her vision,” has brought a video camera to make a record of the making of the documentary. (Will self-reflexivity never end?) The three proceed to film, videotape, and wander their way through the wilderness. Trudging through the eerily banal woodlands, Heather, Josh and Michael become increasingly lost, paranoid, and angry. They are terrorized by strange noises, a Karo syrup-like substance, bunches of twigs and stacks of rocks. The film climaxes in a series of motion sickness-inspiring sequences. By the end of The Blair Witch Project, the audience can safely assume that the witch “got them” and thus the ersatz “project” has become part of the legend it sought to chronicle.
What I would suggest is that the importance of The Blair Witch Project lies in its value as an allegory. The film can be read as a cautionary tale. It details, as clearly as the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, what happens when humans seek the knowledge of a power that is beyond them. Or, more specifically, when film students graduate with their B.A.’s and go enthusiastically into the “dark night” of the film industry. Encouraged by success in an educational institution and the praise of their film professors, they forge ahead into the unknown. Happily, they include their classmates in their quest, proudly waving maps of random internship connections and phone numbers gleaned from Variety’s “In Production” column. Boisterously they announce: “I know exactly where we are, I know exactly where we’re going, I can read the map.” Then, in the midst of their voyage toward an Oscar for Best Direction, confusion sets in. Calls are not returned, people they thought were their friends disappear, the map becomes increasingly useless. Disoriented, they try to read the signs, but unfamiliar fetishes await them every morning and they fear the coming of night. Terrified, they stumble through an increasingly claustrophobic wilderness, their assertions of power transformed into a plaintive mantra of “What the fuck was that?” Ultimately they disappear, seemingly without a trace, destroyed by a power that existed long before they came along and that they never really understood in the first place.
In his chronicle of seven film school graduates’ experiences in Hollywood, Billy Frolick writes, “Film school is commonly thought to be one of the better routes toward directing professionally. But if there is a more worthless college degree than Philosophy, it might just be film” (3). With all due respect to Plato, it does not require an investment of thousands of dollars to complete a philosophy thesis. Semi-professional bindery at Kinko’s still comes in under $7.99. In 1996, Mary Schmidt Campbell, Dean of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, estimated that “the average for student films, which are about twenty minutes long, is between $10,000 and $12,000. Except for a small film allowance provided by the school, students must raise the money for their own projects” (Hawkins 10). This is true of all of the “major” and “minor” American film schools. Still, film programs continue to be huge draws for American universities.
These are the same universities that boast about placement rates as they compete with each other for prospective students. Students are the all important Full-Time Equivalencies (FTE’s) whose money pays the electric bills, waters the grass, maintains the buildings, and supports the tenured faculty. Universities sell themselves by highlighting the ways in which their educational programs provide students with “real-world” skills and contacts. Undergraduate programs remain competitive by becoming increasingly vocationalized and professionalized. Thus, higher education in America is perceived as the key to high-paying and prestigious jobs rather than an intellectual endeavor.
What is surprising is that film school has become a huge draw in the commodified educational environment. Interest in production programs has increased dramatically since the 1970’s despite the lack of placement rates and the dearth of any clear post-graduation career trajectory. In 1992, Deyso Magyar, director of the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Film and Television Studies estimated that “only five to ten percent of the 26,000 students who graduate from film study programs each year actually find their way into the industry” (Buzzell 101). That same year, applications to such programs numbered in the tens of thousands nationwide.
Film production programs do not cite placement statistics in their admissions materials. Instead, they sell a dream. On the base level, film schools advertise themselves by making the implicit promise that: the student + his or her parents’ money + the school’s program in film production = the name of your favorite wunderkind director. Ironically, the most popular fill-in-the-blank is Steven Spielberg – who never went to film school. Indiscriminately lumped together with USC’s George Lucas, UCLA’s Francis Ford Coppola and NYU’s Martin Scorsese, Spielberg is perceived as one of the mid-1970s “collegiate new wave” (Frolick 4). Spielberg wanna-bes are attracted by “his attitude — a fierce drive to break new aesthetic ground coupled with an encyclopedic knowledge of film history” (4). Frolick suggests, however, that it is more than mere hero-worship that brings students to production programs. As a group, Frolick characterizes “most film students” as “driven by arrogant, at times delusional, beliefs about themselves. They believe they have stories to tell, but that writing is too limiting; that they are not simply actors or dancers but can manipulate performance; that they understand visual composition but cannot find in still photography the third dimension they need” (3). While this is clearly observable in the ill-fated, tyrannical, and whiny Heather, it is overly simplistic to attribute the creative drives of a group of students to mere celebrity emulation or psychological aberration.
I would suggest that the rise in the popularity of film production programs indicates that youth are media savvy and understand the power of the image. The same images that tell them they must have NIKE and Tommy Hilfiger to belong, that they must lose weight or bulk up to fit in, also tell them that to have power, one must make images. Control over the image, its creation and distribution, is the highest form of fame and fortune in our postmodern capitalist culture. Why, then, wouldn’t students seek out training in image production? Why wouldn’t they voyage into the woods in search of such power?
Certainly Andy Warhol’s prediction that “In the future, everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes” seems to have come true. Warhol made Joe Dallesandro, Ultra Violet, Candy Darling and the other “Superstars” famous for at least twelve minutes each. Yet what we learn from “The Factory” over and over again, like so many silkscreened Elvises, is that the power, the fame, the glory, and the money go not to the image, but to its maker. Young people who have learned about their world through tabloid exposés and news magazine shows know that Rock Hudson was gay, Judy Garland was addicted to pills prescribed by an MGM doctor, and that actresses over 33 have trouble finding work. They’ve seen the “stars” through rehab, recovery, and relapse. For them, those in front of the camera are idle rather than idol images. The true power is behind the camera, calling the shots. The American promise of individual potential — that “anyone can grow up to be President” — has been rendered impotent (pun intended). The new aspiration, the new promise, is that “anyone can grow up to be Steven Spielberg.” It is this promise that film schools sell to prospective students. It is this promise that keeps students flocking to the film schools.
And yet this flocking could be an optimistic sign for those of us who study and teach media and communication. It may indicate that our students recognize the influential power of the image in consumer society. Knowing that culture is created by those who produce and control these images, they seek to occupy those positions themselves. Some seek to replicate the images of the hegemonic powers, others to challenge the images that have shaped them. All of them wish to realize their “vision” and by so doing transform the representations that create meaning and identity in our culture.
Few ever achieve these goals. While the movement in other disciplines is toward increased vocationalization, film programs remain almost purposely naive to the realities of the marketplace. Students are not taught how to negotiate the industrial landscape of the image-makers — how to loosen the hold that an ever-decreasing number of CEO’s have upon the creation and circulation of images. The challenge is for the film school faculty members. How can these educators, many of whom have themselves taken refuge from the wilderness of the industry in the universities, teach not only image creation but industrial negotiation? How can they demystify the witch — a force which is impervious to imagery and destroys those who try to capture it?
Ansen, David and Corie Brown. “How ‘Blair Witch’ is Spooking Tinseltown.”
Newsweek. August 16, 1999. 50-55.
Block, Mitchell. “The Training of Directors: From School to Screen.”
Journal of the University Film Association.” Fall, 1980, V32(4) 35-44.
Buzzell, Linda. How to Make It in Hollywood. New York: HarperPerrenial, 1992.
Corliss, Roger. “Blair Witch Craft.” Time. August 16, 1999. 58-64.
Frolick, Billy. What I Really Want to Do Is Direct. New York: Plume, 1996.
Graham, Amy and Robert Morse. “How U.S. News Ranks Colleges.”
U.S. News and World Report. August 30, 1999. 84-105.
Hawkins, Denise. “Flocking to Film School: Learning the Realities of Hollywood in the Classroom.”
Black Issues in Higher Education. January 11, 1996. V12(23) 8-15.
Kelly, Karin and Tom Edgar. Film School Confidential. New York: Perigree, 1997.
Leland, John. “The Stealth Blockbuster.” Newsweek. August 16, 1999. 44-59.
Myrick, Daniel and Eduardo Sanchez. The Blair Witch Project. Haxxon Entertainment, Artisan. 1999.
—. The Curse of the Blair Witch. Haxxon Entertainment. The Sci-Fi Channel, 1999.