Few films of the last quarter century have had as much impact on the horror genre as 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.
First, the film ushered in the still highly popular “found footage” trend in horror. Second, it became one of the earliest case studies on how to effectively use online marketing. And third, it still stands as one of the most highly profitable films of all time when comparing The Blair Witch Project budget to its financial return.
It’s that early investment in an indie film and its eventual worldwide financial success that we’re breaking down. So let’s begin!
The Blair Witch Project began as a collaboration between film school students Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez who would go on to write, direct, and edit the movie together. The idea for it came from the filmmakers’ shared opinion on the horror genre. Both had seen videos of “real” horror and paranormal happenings that they felt were scarier than many movies on the same subject matter.
The two crafted a 35-page screenplay that was deliberately lacking in dialogue. They decided early on that they wanted their actors to improvise it instead. Myrick and Sánchez eventually cast Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard as their leads.
Cast and crew then headed off to the Maryland woods to film for eight days and shot the indie flick – for 24 hours a day! To fully immerse the actors in their roles, production kept interactions with them to a minimum.
Donahue, Williams, and Leonard would instead go to various checkpoints each day to find notes from the directors, as well as fresh batteries for their cameras and modest food supplies.
In addition to the isolation the actors endured during the shoot, Myrick, Sánchez, and the rest of the Blair Witch crew relied on other tactics to get “authentic” performances from them. Especially at night, production would make terrifying sounds, shake the tents, and resort to other harassing measures to keep their actors exhausted and on high alert.
When production wrapped, Myrick and Sánchez had nearly 20 hours of footage to cull into a tight 90 minutes for what would be The Blair Witch Project movie premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. From there, the film’s distribution rights were bought by Artisan Entertainment for $1.1 million.
The Blair Witch Project movie budget was initially between $35,000 and $60,000 with an eventual worldwide box office of just over $248 million. Nearly 25 years later, The Blair Witch Project budget and profit return have kept the film as one of the most profitable horror flicks ever. Others in this category include the indie classic Halloween (1978) and Blair Witch’s found-footage peer Paranormal Activity (2007).
The best estimate for The Blair Witch Project budget breakdown is that principal photography cost approximately $35,000. Of that number, nearly $25,000 went to talent costs, as each actor was paid $1,000 per day for the eight-day shoot.
However, at least $25,000 more was spent on post-production. Some sources further indicate that additional costs were up to several hundred-thousand dollars before the Sundance premiere. Those numbers account for a number of needs, including a sound remix and transfer to 35mm. Though figures vary, the final Blair Witch budget before its Sundance debut sits at $200,000 to $750,000.
Available Blair Witch budget breakdowns provide little information on where the initial funds for principal photography came from. This potentially points to self-funding by Myrick and Sánchez.
However, the co-directors did present an eight-minute documentary to film investors with the indication that the footage was legitimate and the individuals in it were indeed missing. This early marketing strategy to position the footage as real worked, and an undisclosed investment sum was provided for Myrick and Sánchez to complete The Blair Witch Project movie in full.
When accounting for its highly successful marketing strategy, though, The Blair Witch Project budget blew up to nearly $8 million. Once it picked up the film, Artisan Entertainment went full steam ahead with a campaign that helped to make this indie horror flick a worldwide sensation.
The creative use of the Blair Witch budget largely boils down to the opportunities afforded to Myrick and Sánchez on account of their concept.
Working on almost-nothing funds like The Blair Witch Project budget is not necessarily new. It simply points to how inventive and resourceful indie filmmakers must get to make it work. For instance, Myrick notes that he and Sánchez were able to save money by using as their production base the house that Sánchez and his girlfriend were living in during that time.
However, because the concept involved “found footage,” the filmmakers could have only their actors manipulating the equipment to provide it. As a result, Donahue, Williams, and Leonard were pulling double-duty as both actors and camera people. Not bad for $1,000 a day each for their 24/7 services.
Speaking of… When it comes to stretching that Blair Witch budget, it truly was a stroke of genius for Myrick and Sánchez to hire unknowns Donahue, Williams, and Leonard to star in their film.
For one, it gave the filmmakers leverage as it pertained to paying their actors. Pay of $1,000 a day for essentially a 24-hour shoot was an incredible rate that favored the directors. It was also a situation feasible only for non-union actors who weren’t protected by mandates specifically made to safeguard talent.
Two, Myrick and Sánchez understood that their concept of a found-footage horror film would work only if the performances were believable. To that end, they created conditions for their actors that mimicked those of the characters they played. That meant in part just tents for lodging and minimal food each day. In the absence of hotels, trailers, and crafty, these steps undeniably helped The Blair Witch Project budget go a little further.
In addition, Heather, Michael, and Josh – yes, they used their actual names as the characters’ names – were novice actors who perhaps were more apt to go along with these unusual conditions. Though not recommended to keep actors tired and hungry on a shoot, regardless of union status, it certainly contributed to their strong performances.
Also, the casting of no-name actors helped to ensure the success of what would become a defining marketing campaign for years to come. Myrick and Sánchez knew that to put any actor with even a moderate amount of notoriety in their film would dash any hope of convincing the public that the story was real.
Interestingly, The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first film to capitalize on such hope. Arguably the first found-footage horror film, 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust, was so successful in its depiction of “real” events that its director Ruggero Deodato was charged with murder. The unknown actors who starred in that film had to actually come forward publicly to prove that they were very much alive to get the charges dropped against Deodato.
All to say, it was absolutely essential that Myrick and Sánchez preserve the perceived realism of their film, which could be done by casting only no-name actors. And while these casting choices were beneficial in the short term as far as the Blair Witch budget was concerned, they also had a literal big picture positive impact on the film’s success as well.
When you have actors who are hungry, tired, and terrified providing your only film footage, there’s bound to be quality issues. Namely, poor sound that required correction of the film if it was ever going to get the attention of film festivals like Sundance.
Though hard to confirm, one publication even notes that the entire sound design was created from scratch in post because what they recorded in the field was unusable.
So with the initial funds they either provided themselves or were given by investors, Myrick and Sánchez went to work to ensure that their post-production needs were met. Hence, that mandatory sound remix and transfer to 35mm, which accounted for a significant part of The Blair Witch Project budget.
When trying to answer how much did it cost to make The Blair Witch Project, it’s hard to calculate just how valuable the marketing strategy was even beyond dollars and cents. Truly, it is a marketing marvel of its time that may never be replicated again.
To explain, let’s go back to the late ‘90s. The internet was nearly brand new to the masses. Masses who were far less savvy and cynical about what they read and saw online. On account of this, Myrick and Sánchez were able to take advantage of what would become one of the most impactful inventions of all time.
Even before the film’s premiere on January 23, 1999 at the Sundance Film Festival, The Blair Witch Project moviemakers had built a website suggesting that the entire story was real. The legend of the Blair Witch was real. The missing student filmmakers were real. The found footage was real. It worked.
According to Myrick and Sánchez, by the time of the first Sundance screening, audiences were lining up in the parking lot to see it. As it concerns The Blair Witch Project budget, the minimal cost and time to create and keep up the website was a minuscule investment for what they got out of it.
But they didn’t do it entirely on their own. Prior to Sundance, Kevin J. Foxe was brought on board as an executive producer on the film and hired a public relations firm to keep the momentum going on what Myrick and Sánchez had begun.
Also before Sundance came the Florida Film Festival where some Blair Witch footage was shown. Myrick and Sánchez made a point of promoting the footage as real with pleas to have audiences come forward if they had any information about the “missing” students. Even IMDb listed the actors as missing during the film’s initial release.
With the Artisan Entertainment sale, the marketing Blair Witch budget ballooned to several million. In part, it was used to make and “leak” The Blair Witch Project trailer to the hugely popular site Ain’t It Cool News. A decision was also made to have the film screen at several dozen colleges across the United States to help build positive word-of-mouth buzz.
As far as it concerns its marketing campaign, The Blair Witch Project budget benefitted greatly from the distribution sale by Artisan Entertainment. But even before its involvement, Myrick and Sánchez successfully leveraged their minimal budget of less than $100,000 to make a film with the right concept at the right time in film promotion and marketing history.
The Blair Witch Project had its first official limited release on July 14, 1999 that went to a wider release just two weeks later. Its overall domestic box office came in at $140,539,099 and its international haul was $107,760,901. It was the 10th highest-grossing film of 1999 in the United States.
The Blair Witch budget of $35,000 not only led to the hugely successful sleeper indie hit, but also other projects such as sequels, video games, comic books, and novelizations.
Arguably more important, though, has been Blair Witch’s impact on other found-footage movies. As mentioned, it instigated the still popular horror trope of found footage as seen in the successful cinematic franchises kicked off by films Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield (2008), and V/H/S (2012). Other flicks inspired by The Blair Witch Project include REC (2007), Lake Mungo (2008), The Last Exorcism (2010), Willow Creek (2013), The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014), Unfriended (2014), The Visit (2015), and Host (2020).
Less than 25 years ago, filmmakers like Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez didn’t have tools such as filmmaking apps, blogs, or podcasts to guide them. But even so, they managed to take their modest Blair Witch budget and turn it into one of the biggest indie filmmaking success stories of all time.
With those tools in abundant supply today, as well as production services like Wrapbook, indie filmmakers have more support than ever to make their funds go the distance just like The Blair Witch Project budget. So check out our resources like our film budget template and more to get started on that next great project.
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