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‘Blair Witch Project’ Actors Push for Retroactive Royalties



The creative team behind the 1999 hit horror film “The Blair Witch Project” is calling for increased retroactive compensation for the movie’s three stars, as well as “meaningful consultation” on an upcoming reboot.

The request came in the form of an open letter spearheaded by Joshua Leonard, one of the film’s stars, and posted to social media on Saturday, weeks after Lionsgate and Blumhouse announced the reboot.

“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,” the letter reads, citing the two other leads along with Leonard.

It continues, “We celebrate our film’s legacy, and equally, we believe the actors deserve to be celebrated for their enduring association with the franchise.”

The letter is co-signed by the film’s directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, as well as Gregg Hale, Robin Cowie and Michael Monello, who were producers on the original film.

“The Blair Witch Project” became a pop culture phenomenon thanks to its shaky, hand-held filming and mostly improvised dialogue, in addition to its shoestring budget and a quirky internet marketing campaign.

The movie, shot in about a week on a budget of $60,000, became a surprise commercial and critical smash, grossing almost $250 million — a record for an indie film at the time.

The New York Times review called it a “most inventive departure from standard horror fare.”

Myrick and Sánchez came up with the idea as film students at the University of Central Florida. They cast Donahue (who is now known as Rei Hance), Leonard and Williams to play versions of themselves in the film as documentary filmmakers. The actors received a paltry sum compared with the gross: Hance, in an email, said she was paid $1,000 for two weeks of work. In addition, the actors were paid $300,000 up front in lieu of “back end” — a term for residuals, according to an April 11 Instagram post by Leonard.

Domenic Romano, a New York City-based entertainment lawyer, said the attempt by the original “Blair Witch” team would have little chance if they tried to take the matter to court.

The studio took the risk in acquiring it, paying them a set amount, and they could have shared the risk with the studio,” Romano said. “Instead, they did not at the time of sale,” he said, adding, “They’re trying to renegotiate the deal after the fact.”

The film’s success spurred two sequels: “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” in 2000 and “Blair Witch” in 2016. Myrick and Sánchez were executive producers on both projects, and co-writers on one. Both were commercial disappointments. There is also a “Blair Witch”-themed immersive escape room in Las Vegas.

Some of the creative personnel attached to the original film were caught off guard by the news.

“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,” Leonard said on Instagram.

Both Blum and Lionsgate declined to comment. Representatives for Myrick, Leonard and Sánchez did not respond to requests for comment.

The original film was distributed by Artisan Entertainment, which acquired the rights for $1 million after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Wanting to capitalize on the success of the original, Artisan pushed the sequel — which led to a 2002 lawsuit filed by the actors, as clips of their characters appeared in the film and promotional materials without their permission. Lionsgate acquired Artisan in 2003 and did not negotiate the original deals for the cast.

In their letter, the actors ask for residual payments tied to the “Blair Witch” franchise that they say they would have received had they “had proper union or legal representation when the film was made.” In addition, the team asks for “meaningful consultation” on future “Blair Witch” projects as well as a “Blair Witch Grant” — a yearly grant of $60,000 paid to an aspiring filmmaker looking to make their debut.

“We’ve moved on, but it seems that Lionsgate never will, so it’s time for them to pay us for these continued uses,” Hance, who declined to be interviewed, said in an Instagram post on April 13.

“This underscores the importance of having legal representation, whether that’s a good agent or a good manager,” Romano said, “or entertainment lawyers before you sign the deal.”

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