‘We’re Living the Dream, Man’

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.”