As the opening song belts out fast cars champagne and caviar are what professional basketball player Jamal Jeffries (played by Miguel A. Nunez Jr.) is all about. In fact Jeffries is so taken by his own success that he doesn't sign autographs but uses a stamp. His Dennis Rodman-style antics however reach a breaking point when he strips during a game in front of millions of fans and flings his jock strap into the seats. The stunt gets him thrown out of the league and before he can say "slam-dunk " Jeffries loses his house his cars and his girlfriend. Desperate to work again at the one thing he does best Jeffries comes up with the mother of all schemes: He shaves his legs dabs on mascara and tries out for the women's league--and it works. But as he builds friendships and gains the trust of the women on his team he feels torn between his obligation to his team the Banshees and his need to return to a normal life. If you've seen the 1982 comedy Tootsie you know exactly how this film plays out. Surprisingly Juwanna Mann is not crammed with bad slapstick humor but is an entertaining twist on an old classic with a delightfully sweet storyline.
Nunez (Nutty Professor II: The Klumps) not only pulls off the Jamal/Juwanna character with ease but he pretty much steals the show here. His character comes off as endearing rather than obnoxious because he takes his role as a woman seriously and is never condescending about playing in the women's league. Nunez also delivers some great one-liners the best being when he is fighting off advances from the gold-toothed Puff Smokey Smoke. Vivica A. Fox (Two Can Play That Game) plays Michelle a fellow player whom Jeffries develops feelings for. Although it's hard to buy the sweet and almost delicate Fox in such an athletic role she pulls it off--but there is not all that much chemistry between her and Nunez. As Jeffries' crass sports agent Lorne Daniels Kevin Pollak (3000 Miles to Graceland) is seedy with just the right touch of humanity so his character is not completely despicable. The most cartoonish and unlikable character is Tommy Davidson's (Bamboozled) Puff Smokey Smoke. He has some funny lines but is too far-fetched to be believable.
Jesse Vaughan who directed a season of In Living Color makes his directorial debut with Juwanna Mann. Judging from the trailer I thought the film would be a low-brow comedy with a lot of overdone men-in-heels humor. I was instead pleasantly surprised by the film's storyline which--although it is a complete take on Tootsie--is short sweet and non-offensive. While some characters like Puff Smokey Smoke are a bit over the top Nunez's Jamal/Juwanna character is never clownish and well developed enough that you can't help but feel for his/her predicament. Some scenes appear to have a Klumps influence like the scene in which Jeffries is playing cards with his aunt and a gang of her senior friends but the overall effect is a moderately funny film peppered with some slightly funnier moments. Newcomer Bradley Allenstein had the sense to deliver a sweet comedy screenplay that was short enough and knew when to quit.
A year ago, five unknown guys from Orlando, Fla., went to the Sundance Film Festival with a cheap movie, a neato gimmick and a good publicist.
Today they return to Park City, Utah, as Hollywood players -- the creators of what might become the biggest horror film franchise ever -- and as bona fide filmmakers afforded multimillion-dollar budgets.
Their film cost $10,000 to $100,000, depending on what you read. They sold it for $1 million. It made $140 million in theaters. Maybe you've heard of it: "The Blair Witch Project."
Hands down, the "Haxan Five," as they like to call themselves (Get it? It rhymes with "Jackson Five") are the biggest rags-to-riches story ever to come out of Sundance. Sure, other nickel-and-dime neophytes such as Kevin Smith and Edward Burns have received more critical praise. But none of those guys launched a commercial juggernaut like "Blair Witch," which left most of last year's major studio films in the dust. If not for the festival, the phenomenon may have forever remained a figment of their fertile imaginations.
"Everything hinged on us getting into Sundance," Daniel Myrick, who co-wrote and directed the movie with partner Eduardo Sanchez, told the Dallas Morning News last year. "It's such a validation for our sort of filmmaking. It's like winning the lottery.
"We have these bongos in our office that we beat whenever something good happens. The day we were picked, we partied and beat on those drums all night. Now, we're living the dream, man."
How's tricks nowadays with Myrick, Sanchez and their producers, Gregg Hale, Mike Monello and Robin Cowie? Not bad at all.
This spring, they are set to begin filming their first post-"Witch" feature, a comedy called "Heat of Love" for Artisan. Earlier this month, they signed a big deal with Artisan in which Sanchez and Myrick will executive produce "Blair Witch 2," to be directed by veteran documentarian Joe Berlinger, and they will write and direct a third installment, a "Blair Witch" prequel, set for release in fall 2001. Both the sequel and prequel will be budgeted in the $7 million to $10 million range.
Add to that all their talk show appearances, magazine interviews, the merchandising (including a hugely hyped pre-Halloween home video release, a video game version of the movie, books, etc.), and a TV show in development at Fox, it's been quite a year. Their schedules are so full, they couldn't (or wouldn't) be interviewed for this article (their publicist apologized).
"I think in terms of money, 'Blair Witch' is the most successful movie to come out of Sundance. There's not anything that comes close," says John Anderson, chief film critic for Newsday in New York and author of the book "Sundancing: Hanging Out and Listening in at America's Most Important Film Festival" (Spike Publishing).
But now that Sanchez, Myrick, et. al. are players, the player-haters will inevitably come out of the woodwork. It's already started: After receiving a big buzz-bounce out of Sundance last year, "Blair Witch" was greeted with mostly favorable reviews as critics praised it as an anti-film, a horror original. But as the film became a phenomenon, detractors appeared, saying, "it's not scary," "it's cheap-looking" or "stop shaking the camera already, you're giving me a migraine."
"The reaction was kind of funny," Anderson says. "Almost as soon as it started making money, people turned on it. There's always this perverse critical reaction when something becomes too popular, but you have to admit it had one of the great marketing plans, both by the filmmakers and by Artisan."
That marketing plan began back in 1997, when Sanchez and Myrick succeeded in getting snippets from "Blair Witch," then a work-in-progress, onto indie film guru John Pierson's cable TV show "Split Screen." From the beginning, the project was presented as if it were a true-to-life documentary, and the filmmakers neither confirmed nor denied its authenticity. To maintain a veil of mystery, they made sure the film's three actors, who portray the film crew lost in a haunted Maryland woods, didn't speak to the media until after the film was released theatrically in July.
The actors, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams, who lent their real names to their characters, have also fared well in the wake of the film's box-office bonanza. All three were complete unknowns beforehand -- they didn't even have SAG cards -- but they spent last summer making promo appearances on Jay Leno, the MTV Movie Awards and other gigs. Now they all live in Los Angeles and have agents.
Leonard has enjoyed the most immediate big-time success, recently landing a part in "Navy Divers," a mainstream Hollywood flick with Robert De Niro and Cuba Gooding Jr. He also worked on a low-budget film, "City of Bars," which was shot last year in San Francisco. Not bad for a guy whose resume previously boasted of a few films most have never heard of and stage work at the Seattle Fringe Festival.
Donahue, whose credits included stage work in New York, is now auditioning for films and spends time camping in the California mountains, an interest she developed while working on "Blair Witch." And Williams is also passing out headshots in Hollywood, having moved to the area last year after getting married. He also has diffused a longstanding rumor that he once played minor league baseball in the Yankees farm system.
What's next? Many filmmakers who hit pay dirt the first time out suffer a sophomore jinx, and the industry will surely be watching to see if the Haxan guys sink or swim with their new comedy. Will it be funny? Will it be in focus? Will there be lots of rocks and twigs?
The Haxan guys are being familiarly coy about "Heat of Love," which they have described as "'It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World' meets Ruth Buzzi and Erik Estrada."
"Whatever they do next, they're going to have to try extra hard to get over the hump," Anderson adds. "A lot of people feel like they were snookered by 'Blair Witch' because they [Sanchez and Myrick] were so cagey about the origins of the footage.
"Mainstream narrative filmmaking is a whole new ball game for them. There's no reason to think that they'll be better at it than anybody else. They caught lightning in a bottle the first time out."
With more than $140 million scared up last summer at the domestic box office, the following item should hardly come as a surprise: The Blair Witch is coming back. Soon.
Artisan Entertainment, which distributed the original "Blair Witch Project", confirmed the long-rumored follow-ups Monday, announcing plans for a sequel and prequel to the indie horror hit about three clueless film students who disappear in the woods while shooting a documentary about the legendary (but fictitious) Blair Witch.
The sequel -- which may again feature Maryland locations -- should go before the cameras as soon as next month. A fall release is planned. Helming the flick will be acclaimed documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger ("Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills"). No word on who's writing the screenplay.
What of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, who wrote and directed the original no-budget wonder? They're going to executive produce "Blair Witch 2." In the meantime, they'll continue work on "Heart of Love," a romantic comedy for Artisan which they're also executive producing.
The pair then looks to get back in the "Blair Witch" game, reteaming to write, direct and produce the third "Blair Witch" feature -- a summer 2001 prequel that likely will delve into the history of the Blair Witch. (Think "Phantom Menace," minus Jar-Jar.)
"Artisan views 'The Blair Witch Project' as one of the company's most viable franchises," said Artisan Co-President Amir Malin in a statement. "These additional installments will help to satisfy the high demand for this multifaceted property."
For Artisan's purposes, "multifaceted" means "major profitable" -- Myrick and Sanchez's magic gimmick of a movie cost less than $100,000 to produce. The sequel and prequel will cost $7 million to $10 million each -- still quite low by Hollywood's (inflated) standards.
The cast for the two new movies remains a mystery. Although in USA Today, Malin hinted that Heather, Josh and Mike (aka the three clueless campers) are not quite as dead as viewers of the first movie might think.
Says Malin: "Whether you will see any of the [original] characters back exists as a possibility."
Never underestimate the power of a hit franchise.
At last year's Sundance Film Festival, 26-year-old director Tony Bui scored a monster victory when his debut offering "Three Seasons," took three awards, including both the Grand Jury and Audience prizes for best picture. But despite being the toast of Park City, Utah, the film about post-war Vietnam opened quietly in May with a $47,000 debut weekend at the box office. It topped off its theatrical run in August with little more than $2 million in ticket sales.
Despite the assumption that Sundance success equals box-office success, the reality shows that more often than not, the films that win the festival's top awards have a tough time finding audiences in the real world. "I think it's just the nature of the types of films shown at Sundance," says Paul Dergarabedian of box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. "Generally, these films are not intended to be blockbusters and are more artistic in nature. The whole notion of the festival is quality of the work."
The Cinderella story of "The Blair Witch Project" filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez is often cited as the ultimate Sundance success. They were the guys with the $40,000 film that went on to gross more than $140 million. But what many fail to realize is that despite debuting at Sundance in 1999, "Blair Witch" didn't win a single prize there. It wasn't even a film in competition.
"'Blair Witch Project"'s are the Halley's comets of films," says Hollywood Reporter film writer Dana Harris. "They come every few years, and people don't realize how many indie films that do nothing come and go in between."
One of the films that fell through the commercial cracks was "Judy Berlin." The film won Eric Mendelsohn a directing award at the 1999 event. But while the film went on to work the festival scene, it never had a theatrical run in the United States.
"A lot of these films [that debut at Sundance] don't have distribution," Dergarabedian says. "And the reward of Sundance is that you might get a distribution deal, and your film gets seen. [But] a lot of movies go in and will not get distributed."
The argument that award winners at Sundance might not be representative of the general moviegoing community is a powerful one. Unfortunately, it fails to explain one of the strangest epilogues to the 1999 festival.
First-time filmmaker Gough Lewis made headlines last January with his documentary about a 22-year-old Singaporean honors-student-by-day/hard-core porn actress by night. To some, "Sex: The Annabel Chong Story," even more than "Blair Witch," was the talk of the festival. Its reach was strong and immediate: People were enthralled, outraged, disturbed and/or disgusted. But despite all the attention (and it received far, far more than either "Three Seasons" or "Judy Berlin"), the film has yet to see a domestic theatrical run. (It is finally slated to open in a limited release early next month).
In the case of "Sex," all the buzz may have actually hurt the film's chances -- as word eventually leaked that director Lewis had at one time been romantically linked to his subject. With his objectivity called into question, some believe Lewis destroyed any chance he had at making a legitimate, compelling feature.
"It didn't surprise me that ["Sex"] didn't get distribution," says Harris. "The film was a bit of a disappointment in that it was intellectually bankrupt and kind of broke the code of documentary filmmaking."
In the end, it really is the luck of the draw. Audiences are fickle, the fates are tricky, Hollywood's tough. Even some of Sundance's most-well-known alumni ("Clerks," "The Brothers McMullen" and "El Mariachi") couldn't summon the broad appeal to top $10 million at the domestic box office.
"At Sundance, you're lucky to get in at all," Dergarabedian says. "You're even luckier if you win and get a distribution deal. The formula you need at Sundance is not the same for a box-office hit.
"I don't think that's really the emphasis. The emphasis is on the quality and artistry of the work."