The Blair Witch Project trio condemns Lionsgate's 'reprehensible' treatment: 'We were being cut out'

The Blair Witch Project stars Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams continue speaking out on their poor treatment, like getting sent a mere fruit basket when the 1999 film broke $100 million at the box office.
missingposte_20000518_09714.jpg / William Thomas Cain/GettyImages

Let’s take a ride in the way-back machine and step out in 1999, when a little independent film called The Blair Witch Project became an iconic film. We won’t argue about whether or not it was the first found footage film, instead stating the indisputable fact that it was the most successful one (not to mention one of the most profitable independent films) of all time.

At the heart of The Blair Witch Project were three unknown actors: Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams. It was each of their first films, and none of them expected it to become a massive hit.

The production was unique in that the actors were encouraged to improvise most of their dialogue. There was a screenplay, but it mostly contained the events that were to take place, and there were times when only one of the actors knew what was going to happen next. They also filmed most of the movie themselves (Leonard has always claimed he was only cast because he knew how to operate a camera). The shoot took eight days to complete on an original budget of $35,000.

When The Blair Witch Project screened at Sundance, it became a sensation, and Artisan Entertainment bought the rights for $1.1 million. The brilliant marketing campaign was part of the film's appeal, leading people to believe it was a true story. The actors were instructed not to discuss their involvement with it and were not allowed to attend Cannes in May of 1999. They were also forbidden from booking interviews.

The Blair Witch Project went on to gross $248 million worldwide by the time its theatrical run ended. However, the actors saw little of that money, even though their real names were even used in the film. They were paid $500 per week for their work and had to pay for their travel arrangements and lodging when the film hit Sundance. Their careers suffered, since casting agents seemed to believe they could only play themselves.

Heather Donahue Stars In The Blair Witch Project Photo Artisan Entertainment
Heather Donahue Stars In The Blair Witch Project Photo Artisan Entertainment / Getty Images/GettyImages

They were each promised a 1% participation bonus if the film exceeded $1 million in profit. Instead, when The Blair Witch Project broke $100 million, Artisan sent each of them a fruit basket. A lawsuit mounted by the three actors after Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was released netted each of them $300,000 over several years.

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

Heather Donahue

As part of the settlement, Artisan (and Lionsgate, who currently hold the rights to The Blair Witch Project and its sequels) were forbidden from using the actors’ names and likenesses in future projects, but as Donahue says in an interview with Variety, “they keep doing it anyway.”

The 2016 sequel Blair Witch includes a character said to be Heather’s younger brother, and the actress had to remind Lionsgate that they could not use her likeness or her last name.

Of course, Lionsgate and Blumhouse recently announced an upcoming reboot of The Blair Witch Project, and that’s when the three actors wrote an open letter protesting their treatment over the past 25 years.

In the letter, they asked for “meaningful consultation on any future Blair Witch-related projects that would likely result in the use of their names and faces.” They have also requested retroactive and future residuals for The Blair Witch Project, “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.”

In the Variety interview, Michael Williams spoke of his embarrassment that he had allowed himself to be treated in such a manner. He teared up as he talked about the frustration of being in “the most successful independent movie of all time, and you can’t take care of your loved ones.”

As for the acting careers of the three, Donahue’s last film was 2008’s The Morgue. Michael C. Williams appeared in 2022’s Satanic Hispanics, and Joshua Leonard has continued to work as an actor, appearing in feature films and television series/movies.

There is absolutely no doubt that these three actors played a huge part in the success of The Blair Witch Project; here’s hoping that Lionsgate will finally recognize that fact. After all, their involvement in future Blair Witch Project films would only benefit the company.

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