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After "Blair Witch,' a long dry spell

It sounds like a Hollywood horror movie.

In January 1999, two unknown filmmakers from the University of Central Florida went into the well-dressed wilds of Park City, Utah, to the Sundance Film Festival, trying to track down a mysterious but legendary god: the studio distribution deal.

Sure enough, after a midnight screening of their grainy $30,000 movie, the two filmmakers, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, found their deal, a $1.1-million payday that eventually brought their little film rave reviews, international distribution and about $250-million in worldwide sales.

The movie was The Blair Witch Project, and it became the ultimate indie: cheap, hip and enormously profitable. It made Myrick and Sanchez rich and relatively famous.

Then, just like that, they disappeared.

Call it the curse of the Blair Witch or just sophomore slump, but five years after Myrick and Sanchez burst onto the film world, they have yet to make another movie. Their last project, a comedy called Heart of Love, died in preproduction, a victim of financing problems, they say. And even as moguls prowl this year's Sundance festival looking for the next big thing, one of the Blair Witch producers, Gregg Hale, found his newest movie, Say Yes Quickly, rejected by the festival.

But the curse isn't limited to the movie's creative personnel. In December, Artisan Entertainment, the company that bought and distributed Blair Witch, was purchased by its larger and more successful rival Lions Gate Entertainment.

Even the actors from Blair Witch _ Heather Donahue (the girl with the flashlight), Joshua Leonard (the blond camera man) and Michael C. Williams (the sound man) _ have struggled thus far to turn their overnight star power into more significant movie careers.

Depending on who is talking, what befell that movie's creators and Artisan is either a commentary on the state of today's independent cinema or just a cautionary tale about the dangers of hitting it too big too soon. Or perhaps it is a judgment on the indifferent quality of Blair Witch, which hit a momentary cultural nerve. In any case, it is not what anyone involved expected.

"It's frustrating, no doubt," said Sanchez, 35. "Our experiences after Blair Witch kind of turned us off a lot of things and taught us how things worked. But we're all just trying to get back into making movies again."

That statement is particularly shocking considering the enormous hype that surrounded the debut of Blair Witch, a buzz that was built in large part through a clever, grass roots Internet promotion, suggesting that the movie was actually found film made by three students who had apparently been gobbled up by a witch in the woods near Burkittsville, Md.

The promotional scheme by Artisan, which bought the film at Sundance, and the production company, Haxan Films, built up intense expectation for the movie, particularly among horror-loving teenagers and 20-somethings. By the time Blair Witch opened nationwide in July 1999, the movie had already impressed audiences at the Cannes Film Festival _ it won the festival's youth prize _ and the Web site was getting more than a million hits a day.

The film sold out in theaters across the country, and its stars and creators made the covers of Time and Newsweek. The Internet strategy soon was being imitated by other movies and became a much-cited example of the effectiveness of so-called "viral marketing," a catchall phrase for any number of Internet-based, youth-conscious advertising campaigns.

Though the reviews weren't all positive, most critics were impressed by the filmmakers' ability to use a low-budget aesthetic _ shaky camera work, 16mm black-and-white scenes and those spooky stick figures _ to their advantage. "The imagination works overtime watching the acuity of these talented filmmakers," wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times, "and wondering what bright idea they'll have next."

As it turns out, their next bright idea was to do something completely different. Haxan and its investors earned an estimated $35-million to $40-million from Blair Witch, but neither Myrick nor Sanchez said he had any interest in an immediate sequel.

"My philosophy has always been to prefer quality over quantity," said Myrick, 40, from his home in Pasadena, Calif. "I was in no rush to make another movie just because it was easy to do."

Sanchez was even more adamant. "We just wanted to get the hell away from Blair Witch," he said. "We were trying to get out of the horror genre, so we tried to do a complete 180."

The 180 in question was a screwball, Monty Pythonesque comedy called Heart of Love about a man who discovers he is God, written to include cheesy cameos by the likes of the comedians Gallagher and Don Knotts and actors like Erik Estrada and Jimmy Walker.

Artisan started producing a string of commercial clinkers and badly reviewed art house pretenders like Soul Survivors (2001), a $14-million production that grossed less than $4-million domestically.

By late 2000, the company's debt had ballooned to $260-million, former president and chief executive Amir Malin said, a figure he says he managed to lower to $45-million at the time of the company's sale by cutting staff and overhead and eliminating the company's production group.

Haxan, meanwhile, had its own problems, struggling to nail down the financing for Heart of Love. Haxan was a five-person production company formed by former film students and college friends from the University of Central Florida who produced Blair Witch on their credit cards.

Although the film was shot in only eight days in Maryland, the project had been more than three years in the making. So when success came, Sanchez said they wanted to catch up with life again: They bought houses, they married, they had children.

"The whole starving artist thing gets kind of old when you're in your late 20s and all your friends have houses and cars," said Sanchez, who lives in Maryland with his wife, Stephanie, and two children. "I mean, had Blair Witch not happened, they would have turned my power off."

Myrick agreed, adding: "We'd been working in the business for years and struggling to get by, and suddenly we had some financial independence and stability. I was actually able to lock myself in a room and work on a project for three years."

With offers coming in for everything from Exorcist 4 to Halloween 7, Haxan set up a big office in Orlando and hired staff.

"It was a classic case of overextending," said Hale, who produced two unsuccessful television shows for Fox. "But none of us were businesspeople _ we were independent filmmakers _ so we just didn't know better."

By this year, however, the office was closed and the phone disconnected. Heart of Love was canceled in 2002.

The independent film world was also changing, with indies like Miramax looking more and more like studios, and Sundance looking more like Cannes.

But both Haxan and Artisan officials, including Malin, still say they are proud of Blair Witch, and, especially, their marketing of it.

Rachel Cohen, Artisan's former vice president of production and acquisition, said that although Myrick and Sanchez were still untested, they deserved another shot. "I think it remains to be seen if they're real filmmakers," she said. "But I absolutely think they deserve the chance to make another film."

The sale of Artisan, in fact, may actually make for a second life for Blair Witch, or so its creators hope. Last month, Sanchez and Hale met with executives from Lions Gate to pitch a number of ideas to rejuvenate the franchise, including a prequel set in the 1940s, a pre-prequel set in the 18th century, and a plain old sequel.

Hale is still trying to get Say Yes Quickly seen, and Sanchez is also shopping several new scripts. Myrick, while working with Sanchez, is shooting a pilot for a television show called The Strand.

"After taking the temperature of the studio system, I'm not in any rush to do business with those guys," Myrick said. "I'd much prefer to raise a couple million dollars and do the thing myself."

Sanchez seconded that. "We're all underdogs again," he said. "And that's how we were with Blair Witch, and that's probably why Blair Witch was what it was. Now it's time to roll up my sleeves and get it done again."