Goth Chick News: The Blair Witch Kids Strike Back

Goth Chick News: The Blair Witch Kids Strike Back

The Blair Witch Project Cast: Heather, Mike and Josh

I have long since been an awed admirer of the genius behind The Blair Witch Project (1999). With a production budget of around $60K the film grossed nearly $250M: roughly a return of 4000x. Considering a movie is labeled “blockbuster” if it returns 3x The BWP was a flipping phenomenon. Not to mention the writers/directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez kicked the project off while they were still film students at University of Central Florida, and the three 20-year-old stars, Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard, who showed up at an open casting call, had never acted in a movie. It also introduced us to the concept of a “found footage” film.

Unbelievable, “lightning strike” kind of success.

With 2024 being the 25th anniversary of BWP, I assumed there would be some press attention in various forms, though this particular form wasn’t what I was expecting.

If you don’t remember, BWP spawned two additional franchise films. Blair Witch (2016) tells the story from the perspective if Heather Donahue’s brother James (the names of the original cast were used for their characters, and this will be important later). After viewing Heather’s footage following her disappearance, he and his friends head to the forest believed to be inhabited by the Blair Witch to try to determine what happened to her. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) is about a group of tourists who arrive in Burkittsville, Maryland after seeing BWP, to explore the mythology and phenomenon, only to come face to face with their own neuroses and possibly the witch herself.

The original BWP was distributed by Artisan Entertainment back in 1999. Artisan was the largest independent studio before Lionsgate purchased them in 2003. This meant Heather, Mike and Josh didn’t earn SAG-AFTRA membership for BWP, and as a result were not entitled to the same residuals as SAG-AFTRA actors. So even though they were referenced by name and image in both the other films, they received no compensation.

And this is where things get interesting.

Earlier this month at a the movie theater industry’s annual convention CinemaCon in Las Vegas, Adam Fogelson, chairman of Lionsgate Motion Picture Group, and Jason Blum, founder and CEO of horror movie production juggernaut Blumhouse, made a not-unexpected announcement considering this is BWP’s silver anniversary. Lionsgate and Blumhouse are partnering to develop and produce a new take on The Blair Witch Project. This will be the first film in a multi-picture pact with Blumhouse reimagining horror classics from the Lionsgate library. Remember, BWP is now a Lionsgate property with their acquisition of Artisan.

Fogelson said,

We are thrilled to kick this partnership off with a new vision for Blair Witch that will reintroduce this horror classic for a new generation. We couldn’t be more pleased to be working with them on this and other projects we look forward to revealing soon.

Said Blum,

I’m very grateful to the team at Lionsgate for letting us play in their sandbox. I’m a huge admirer of The Blair Witch Project, which brought the idea of found-footage horror to mainstream audiences and became a true cultural phenomenon. I don’t think there would have been a Paranormal Activity had there not first been a Blair Witch Project, so this feels like a truly special opportunity and I’m excited to see where it leads.

This idea has not been lost on the original BWP cast, who recently reached out to Lionsgate to ask for what they feel is fair compensation for their role in the pivotal original film. Heather, Mike and Josh feel Lionsgate shouldn’t continue profiting off of their hard work and likenesses without the same sort of rights and payment SAG-AFTRA actors receive.

They are requesting “meaningful consultation on any future Blair Witch reboot, sequel, prequel, toy, game, ride, escape room, etc., in which one could reasonably assume that Heather, Michael & Josh’s names and/or likenesses will be associated for promotional purposes in the public sphere.” Additionally, the trio has asked Lionsgate for residuals “equivalent to the sum that would’ve been allotted through SAG-AFTRA, had we had proper union or legal representation when the film was made.”

Recently, Josh Leonard noted on Facebook that after the film’s release, Artisan only paid each of the cast members $300,000; just enough for Mike Williams to pay off his student loans while leaving him stuck in a furniture job. The trio ended up collectively suing Artisan to win control over their own names after the distributor claimed copyright over the film.

Josh wrote,

I’m so proud of our little punk-rock movie, and I LOVE the fans who keep the flames burning. But at this point, it’s 25 years of disrespect from the folks who’ve pocketed the lion’s share (pun intended) of the profits from OUR work, and that feels both icky and classless.

BWPs original writers/directors Myrick and Sanchex also released a statement in support of the cast’s request, which was co-signed by BWP’s producers Gregg Hole, Robin Cowie and Michaal Monello.

While we, the original filmmakers, respect Lionsgate’s right to monetize the intellectual property as it sees fit, we must highlight the significant contributions of the original cast – Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Mike Williams. As the literal faces of what has become a franchise, their likenesses, voices, and real names are inseparably tied to The Blair Witch Project. Their unique contributions not only defined the film’s authenticity but continue to resonate with audiences around the world.

I wasn’t sure what to initially think when I first read the headline about Heather, Josh and Mike appealing to Lionsgate. I mean it sucks, but they aren’t the first actors to have not had a backend deal when one of their projects went nuclear. However, I have read over a dozen different accounts of the story in preparation for writing this article, and I have to say I’m now firmly in their corner. Though they may not have a legal argument, they certainly have an ethical one.

The other two BWP films weren’t particularly successful so to this day if you talk or think about BWP, your mind inevitably goes to Heather, Josh and Mike. Plus, their likenesses and names were literally associated with BWP in those other films. And though Blumhouse’s new version of BWP may try to entirely ignore the source material in its storytelling, you’re never going to be able to entirely ignore the source material. BWP was groundbreaking in its first-person perspective, its microbudget, its casting and its record box office return. It was truly “new” filmmaking and it’s not right for Lionsgate to pretend the original actors aren’t pivotal in making the IP worth something.

I also had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with Heather and Josh when they were guests at Days of the Dead here in Chicago back in 2013. Considering there was a 4000x return on investment for BWP, they let me know none of them got to cash in.

Heather Donahue quit acting in 2008, blaming the success BWP for being typecast repeatedly. She legally changed her name to Rei Hance to separate herself from her BWP character, and has said that using her real name in the film has been her biggest regret. She owns and operates a cannabis farm in California in addition to being an author. Josh Leonard has continued to act and according to IMDB currently has 91 projects to his name in television and independent film. He has also been behind the camera as a director and writer. Mike Williams is a teacher and guidance councilor at Westlake High School in Thornwood, NY, but still does some acting in indie horror films.

Though I would normally be excited about a new Blumhouse project, I wish they’d leave this one alone unless the original BWP crew gets dealt in.

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Steve A Oerkfitz

The most overrated film I have ever seen. I saw it when it first came out-Not the slightest bit scary. Just a story that petered out with little happening. I saw it with 3 bothers and all of us walked out wondering what the big deal was all about.

Thomas Parker

I can’t agree with Steve. BWP scared the hell out of me. Yes, it was basically just a campfire tale, but I was fine with that. I loved that it was more suggestion than assertion, and that the filmmakers knew that the most effective horror special effect is the dark.

Last edited 2 months ago by Thomas Parker
Adam Chase

Ok I will join to be on the side of the blair witch forever to become one of the blair witch forever

Charlie

I still freak out when I see little piles of stones in the forest…..


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