‘Don’t Do What We Did’ (EXCLUSIVE): ‘The Blair Witch Project’ Actors Call Out ‘Reprehensible Behavior’ After Missing Out on Profits for Decades

In the summer of 1999, Heather Donahue, Michael C

Published Time: 12.06.2024 - 22:31:25 Modified Time: 12.06.2024 - 22:31:25

In the summer of 1999, Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard were trapped in a strange sort of limbo. “The Blair Witch Project,” their debut feature, had exploded out of the Sundance Film Festival that January to become one of the most influential horror movies of the past 25 years — and, with a $35,000 budget, one of the most profitable independent films ever made. And yet Donahue was still puttering to her temp job in a 1984 Toyota Celica, before it broke down right underneath a billboard with her face on it. Williams’ boss kept asking him why he was still moving furniture in Westchester, N.Y., when he was on the cover of Newsweek. And Leonard found himself serving food to his agent at a catering gig days before he appeared on “The Tonight Show.”

Related Stories

“My agent asked me what the fuck I was doing,” Leonard says. “I said, ‘You know that I haven’t made any money.’ We were all struggling to pay the rent.”

Writer-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez had trained the actors, all in their early 20s, to operate the cameras and sound equipment and then dropped them off into the woods with a series of story prompts from which they improvised the entire film. But they couldn’t talk about it. Instead, the actors spent months laying low to preserve the fabricated conceit that “The Blair Witch Project” consists of footage shot by student filmmakers before they disappeared without a trace into the Maryland woods. Artisan Entertainment, which acquired the film at Sundance for $1.1 million, took maintaining that illusion so seriously that the actors were barred from appearing at its Cannes Film Festival premiere that May. Donahue had hired a publicist, who was then prohibited from booking interviews. After Leonard was cast in an independent film, he was admonished: He wasn’t supposed to reveal that he was an actor, let alone that he was alive.

For months, the three endured these indignities because they thought that, given how much they’d contributed to the movie’s success, the “Blair Witch” windfall would eventually arrive. Instead, to commemorate the film breaking $100 million at the domestic box office, Artisan sent each actor a fruit basket.

“That was when it became clear that, wow, we were not going to get anything,” Donahue says. “We were being cut out of something that we were intimately involved with creating.”

Even as “Blair Witch” earned $248 million worldwide, the movie’s once-in-a-generation popularity began to feel more like a chokehold. Through online abuse and humiliation, career changes and lawsuits, it’s taken a quarter century for Donahue, Williams and Leonard to loosen the bruising grip of “Blair Witch” on their lives. But they’ve never quite felt free of it.

On April 10, Lionsgate — which acquired Artisan in 2003 — revealed at CinemaCon that it was rebooting “The Blair Witch Project” with prolific horror-film factory Blumhouse to, in the words of studio chief Adam Fogelson, “reintroduce this horror classic for a new generation.” The actors felt blindsided; no one at Lionsgate gave them a heads-up that, once again, their faces and names would be all over the internet to hype a horror franchise they’d never agreed to be a part of.

“I actually was looking forward to the 25th anniversary,” Donahue says. “We had booked a couple of conventions. It’s nice to hear nice things from the fans and see the guys. It was feeling very sweet for the first time in the whole history of this thing. And then — boom — comes this announcement, and it’s like, motherfuckers.”

In response, the actors released an open letter to Lionsgate on April 20 requesting “meaningful consultation” on any future “Blair Witch”-related projects that would likely result in the use of their names and faces, and requesting retroactive and future residual payments for the movie “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.”

It’s unclear whether Donahue, Williams and Leonard will receive even a fraction of what they’re asking for. A representative for SAG-AFTRA said the union has been in communication with Lionsgate to assist the actors and is “hopeful that the performers will achieve some compensation, but when there is no union contract covering the production, the actors and the union are generally limited to appealing to fairness.” A representative for Lionsgate declined to comment for this story, and former executives at Artisan Entertainment could not be reached for comment.

Although “The Blair Witch Project” is an unrepeatable cultural phenomenon, the actors’ experience within it is, on one level, a familiar one. From “Aladdin” star Robin Williams to “Black Widow” superhero Scarlett Johansson, talent and studios have fought over profits and credit in the wake of overwhelming success for as long as there’s been a Hollywood. What Donahue, Williams and Leonard encountered, however, also speaks to how vulnerable newcomers to the industry are to the hazards of fine print and the less-regulated world of independent film.

In their interview with Variety, the actors say that, regardless of the outcome, they felt compelled to speak out.

“I’m embarrassed that I let this happen to me,” Williams says via Zoom from his kitchen in Westchester County, N.Y., as Leonard and Donahue listen from their respective homes in New York’s Hudson Valley and rural Maine. In a flash, his face flushes and his eyes fill with tears. “You’ve got to put that stuff away, because you’re a fucking loser if you can’t,” Williams says. “Because everybody’s wondering what happened, and your wife is in the grocery line and she can’t pay because a check bounced. You’re in the most successful independent movie of all time, and you can’t take care of your loved ones.”

Williams stops, looking away from his screen as he composes himself. “This is so hard to talk about. I’m sorry. Jesus, I didn’t want to do this.”

The other actors jump in. “You’re amazing, Michael,” Donahue says.

“Do not apologize,” Leonard adds.

Williams sighs, then smiles wearily. “I’m very grateful for what I have now and how fucking hard I fought to get it. But it still impacts me. I buried all this,” he says. “Giant corporations don’t care that this happens to young artists. It’s bullshit. And that’s got to change somehow. Hopefully, we will help somebody to see: Don’t do what we did.”

In August 1997, Haxan Films — the production company founded by Myrick and Sánchez, as well as producers Gregg Hale, Robin Cowie and Michael Monello — placed an open call in Backstage for what was then titled “The Black Hills Project,” a nonunion production offering “pay, travel and meals.” For the ever-replenishing population of young, hungry, unrepresented actors in New York City and Los Angeles, it was just one more ultralow budget film in the indie-mad 1990s to offer an opportunity to accrue on-set experience. The prospect of making any money — let alone the $500 per week eventually earmarked for “The Blair Witch Project” — seemed like a bonus.

“I did a lot of work for no pay,” Williams says. “This said ‘Paid,’ so you’re like, ‘Oh, maybe I can be a professional.’”

Before the shoot began, Haxan presented the actors with a one-and-a-half-page deal memo that they remember signing with only a cursory look, save for one clause that seemed unlikely: Should the project net Haxan over $1 million, the actors were entitled to “a one percent (1%) participation in profits -

in excess of $1,000,000.”

“We just thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be ridiculous?’” Williams says.

The actors also didn’t give much thought to the clause that Haxan would have the right to use their real names “for the purpose of this film,” rather than the generic ones — Jane, Bill and John — originally assigned to their characters. The filmmakers explained that the footage they were going to shoot would comprise roughly 10 minutes of a fictional documentary about their characters’ purported disappearance while seeking evidence of the fabled Blair Witch. Using their real names would make it feel that much more authentic.

At the time, these decisions seemed inconsequential. The actors thought they’d get a VHS copy of the film they could show their friends and add to their performance reels. They were more focused on pulling off the fully improvised production for which they had to not only operate the cameras and sound equipment, but justify why their characters — especially Donahue’s, the team’s uncompromising director — would keep filming as things deteriorated.

It wasn’t until roughly a year later that the cast learned that the filmmakers had changed course and made their footage into the entire movie. Yet when “The Blair Witch Project” got into Sundance, the actors paid for their own travel and lodging.

The Haxan team did put the cast up at the lodge they’d rented for the final two days of the festival. But the actors say no one from Artisan met with them at Sundance or reached out to them in the months that followed. When Donahue went to the studio’s New York office to try to talk to executives, she was sent away with some swag.

After Artisan finally dropped the “Are they really dead?” pretense following the film’s wide release on July 30, 1999, and the actors started hitting the press circuit, their sudden, all-consuming fame made their precariously slender bank accounts that much more conspicuous. “I had an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer where I said something like, I’m the poorest famous person in America right now,” Donahue says. “Artisan reached out to tell me I can’t say that.”

As the film’s lead and its sole woman, Donahue also had to endure the brunt of the often misogynist backlash. “Heather’s portrayal of a fierce and relentless artist who would not stop filming wasn’t an acceptable archetype at the time,” Leonard says. “She was fair game to be hated on, and they were using her real name.”

“It was relentless,” Donahue says. “Just that feeling of ‘Wow, this is definitely not what I signed up for, and I have no money to protect myself from the onslaught.’”

At the end of the summer of ’99, the actors received a modest “performance bump” in the low five figures — it allowed Williams to spend more on the cocktail hour for his wedding, and enabled Donahue to buy a Mitsubishi. But as the months stretched on, their careers were stagnating. Casting directors thought they’d been merely playing themselves in “Blair Witch,” and because they’d used their real names, there was zero separation between their identities and the movie.

Friends and family kept telling them about new “Blair Witch” merch they’d seen — like the character journal Donahue wrote during filming, or comic books with all the actors’ names and likenesses. And then they learned that Artisan was using their identities in a sequel called “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.”

“It became obvious that the uses were going to be constant,” Donahue says. “At that point I thought to myself, ‘If this is what success looks like, I would like to get out of this business.’”

On the eve of the October 2000 release of “Blair Witch 2,” Donahue rallied Williams and Leonard to sue Artisan. Three years later, in February 2004, they arrived at a roughly $300,000 settlement that would be paid to each of them over several years. By comparison, The New York Times reported that year that Haxan and its investors earned “an estimated $35 million to $40 million” from “The Blair Witch Project.”

Due in part to their own financial settlement, the “Blair Witch” directors and producers declined to comment for this story beyond this joint statement: “25 years later, who would have thought we’d still be talking about ‘The Blair Witch Project,’ a film made by a group of total Hollywood outsiders? We’re hopeful Heather, Joshua and Mike find a satisfying conclusion to their conversations with Lionsgate. For us, this anniversary provides an exciting opportunity to celebrate the movie and its legacy with fans.”

More than the money, the actors say the big victory from their settlement was that Artisan — and now Lionsgate — “can’t use our names and images to make money for themselves anymore,” Leonard says.

Donahue jumps in: “But they keep doing it anyway.”

For example, in 2016, Lionsgate made a sequel, titled simply “Blair Witch,” that follows a character written to be the fictional Heather Donahue’s younger brother. When Lionsgate first approached her about the movie, Donahue says, “they made it clear” they planned to use her full identity until she invoked the settlement and forced them to remove her face and last name.

She endorsed the 2016 “Blair Witch” in the press when it opened and spoke warmly of Lionsgate’s willingness to accommodate her. But Donahue had long since walked away from the entertainment industry, hoping to remain as much of a private citizen as possible; she sees the project now as just another example of how little she’s felt considered. “I didn’t want to be any part of it in any way whatsoever,” she says of the 2016 “Blair Witch.” “I pushed back quite hard.”

Donahue says that when she subsequently informed Lionsgate of the unauthorized use of her screaming from the climax of “The Blair Witch Project” in the 2022 film “Tár,” the studio pursued a settlement without her, forcing her to seek her own financial agreement. A representative for Focus Features, which released “Tár,” declined to comment.

After taking odd jobs, Williams also stepped away from acting in the late 2000s to become a high school guidance counselor. He’s recently started acting again, but at the time that Lionsgate approached him about using his image in the 2016 “Blair Witch” film, he and his family were temporarily living out of a one-bedroom apartment after their home was ruined during a flood. Any money coming his way felt like a godsend.

Unlike his co-stars, Leonard was able to maintain a career as an actor and a filmmaker — from Lynn Shelton’s 2009 mumblecore comedy “Humpday” to his 2020 indie “Fully Realized Humans” — but he has no regrets about going public with his grievances.

“I don’t need Lionsgate to like me. I don’t care that they know that I think their behavior has been reprehensible,” he says. “I don’t want my daughter to ever feel like anything is more valuable than her self-worth.”

They all stress that they remain proud of “The Blair Witch Project” and their work in it; they just never consented to giving up their identities for free. For them, the financial equation is a simple one.

“Is there value there or not?” Donahue says. “If there’s value, compensate us accordingly, and if there’s no value, then just stop using us.”

More from Variety

More From Our Brands

ad To help keep your account secure, please log-in again. You are no longer onsite at your organization. Please log in. For assistance, contact your corporate administrator.