December 24, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

One of the most fascinating bits of The Blair Witch Project mythology has nothing to do with the movie’s supernatural plot; it’s deciphering whether the biggest indie success story to date is indeed the work of inspired wunderkinds, or a stroke of marketing genius hewn from the haphazard footage of unskilled directors. Critics say ”the film was a fluke, that it did the business it did because of the website,” says Eduardo Sanchez, 31, who directed the pseudo-documentary with Dan Myrick, 36. ”People are saying…’but can they make a normal film?”’ One studio exec, upon meeting the duo, had the gall to ask if they even knew how to write a script with straightforward scenes and dialogue (Sanchez and Myrick obliged with several examples).

Granted, most of Blair Witch is improvised, but Sanchez and Myrick weren’t just stumbling through Maryland woods that week in October 1997. The Florida film school pals had spent a year auditioning actors before picking unknowns Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams. And breaking the decades-old fright-fest formula — shiny knives piercing the blood-smeared flesh of helpless babes — shouldn’t be underrated either. Sanchez and Myrick intuited moviegoers’ ennui with both gore and the special effects kicked off by Star Wars, and ran screaming in the opposite direction. They also knew their target audience — raised on the handheld camera stylings of COPS and Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Of tales — would dig their film’s home-movie weirdness. M. Night Shyamalan, director of the year’s other blockbuster screamer, The Sixth Sense, certainly did. After finally seeing Blair (Shyamalan good-naturedly resented that his film had been upstaged and resisted a viewing for months), he was bowled over by the movie’s restraint and simplicity, and calls the last shot ”such a horrific image, it still bothers me.”

The payoff, of course, could have been ruined with an overly glitzy promotional trailer. But Blair’s distributor, Artisan Entertainment, brazenly followed the film’s wooded path, choosing full-scale minimalism: two sentences, a terrifying voice-over, half a face, and a website address. The deadpan site was arguably the most brilliant stroke; instead of turning it into another run-of-the-mill photo and press-release repository, Artisan stuck with the directors’ reality-blurring conceit, passing the film off as an utterly real documentary. ”It wasn’t a literal marketing campaign,” says Myrick. ”It was another complementary experience that people were gravitating to.” Stampeding to, is more like it: The site has lured 28 million visitors since March and still gets more than a million page views daily. It also helped Blair become one of the most profitable movies in history (it cost under $100,000 to make and has earned $210 million worldwide so far), made Myrick and Sanchez into cover-boy symbols of filmmaking’s new breed, and turned Artisan into a name brand even hipper than Miramax used to be.

Whether Blair Witch‘s creators and cast are truly inspired mavericks or just plain lucky will be unraveled soon enough. In January, Sanchez and Myrick hope to start shooting a trailer for their next Artisan film, the comedy Heart of Love. The moviemaking send-up will have an even more active Web component and be every bit as experimental as Blair. If Love ”doesn’t end our careers,” says Sanchez, ”we’ll do action films.” After such groundbreaking experimentation, making a run-of-the-mill Hollywood flick would be a most shocking move.

Heather Donahue,
Joshua Leonard,
Michael Williams
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