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The Summer Of 1999: The Blair Witch Project and Napster

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It all changed for us in 1999.

That January, five filmmakers from Orlando, who formed a collective called Haxan, stormed the Sundance Film Festival with The Blair Witch Project, a crude “found footage” horror movie shot on digital video for $25,000.

Most of the country wasn’t yet wired for fast internet service but, even in the 56k dial-up internet world, Haxan created a level of hype online for Blair Witch that was unprecedented and deafening. And this was five years before Facebook, six years before YouTube and seven years before Twitter.

The movie opened on July 16th, went on to gross $140 million and became an international phenomenon. 

For Billy and I, it was the summer between our junior and senior years of college. Dave would be graduating from the FSU Film School at the end of the year, a semester early. Together we had made a few short films (actually short videos, shot on Beta SP) in high school that got us some notoriety. We then shot a film, on film, in 1997. We were trying to get traction in the industry, shopping our trailer and press kit to distributors, publicists and producer’s reps. We never even considered making documentaries.

The three of us left the theater after seeing Blair Witch that July not terribly impressed. We’d probably been exposed to too much hype. But two points stuck with us: 1) you could now shoot a movie on a $2500 camera using tapes that cost $8 and have it distributed in theaters worldwide, and 2) you could build buzz and awareness for your movie almost exclusively online, foregoing the necessity of expensive newspaper, television and radio ads.

Not to say that we were the only three people who walked out of Blair Witch with those two observations, as evidenced by the avalanche of microbudget DV dramas that swamped film festivals over the next few years. In fact it seemed that everyone thought microbudget, video-shot independent features were the future. 

But for us, it made us consider producing documentaries. Billy concluded that the picture quality produced by digital video technology in 1999 was a terrible media for telling dramatic stories; that audiences would not consistantly embrace the milky, video-sourced imagery in theaters. But now, with the tremendous expense of shooting, processing, developing and transferring film removed from the equation, one could shoot hours of interviews for less than $100 and buy a Mac-based Final Cut Pro system (which also debuted in 1999) to edit for under $2000.

There was still a disconnect in the narrative world between digital video and film; digital video signaled low-budget. However, the documentary world embraced digital video immediately and film-shot documentaries disappeared almost overnight. The playing field in the documentary world was level. Now the competitive advantage wasn’t access to expensive film equipment or lots of cash; it was simply the ability to tell a story well, and anyone with a DV camera and a Final Cut Pro system could compete on an even playing field.

Even with the democratization of movie production and marketing, distribution was still the holy grail, the choke point in the system. If you were an independent filmmaker in 1999, the only audience you really needed to care about were the two dozen-or-so acquisition executives working at the companies who acquired completed films at festivals; companies such as Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, Lionsgate, Artisan and Samuel Goldwyn. 

That September, shortly after BellSouth installed my first DSL line, I got a call from our buddy Larry Janus, a recording studio engineer who worked at Criteria Studios in its 1970s heyday and was now a nonlinear video editor: “download Napster.” 

That changed everything. All of sudden, virtually the entire history of recorded music was a click away. It seems so quaint now, but it’s impossible to describe what a radical, eye-opening concept this was. Billy, Dave and I would stay awake all night downloading music (come and get me, RIAA), convinced the service would disappear as quickly as we found it. More importantly, it made us realize that, as bandwidth increased, it would be possible to transfer large film files as easily as MP3s. Obviously we didn’t know how it would work or how we would get paid, but we knew that, in the not-too-distant future, our livelihood would no longer be determined by those two dozen acquisitions executives.

In those three months during the summer of 1999, the transformation of production, marketing and distribution began to take shape. 

Four months later, in January 2000, we started work on our first documentary, shot on digital video. It was Raw Deal: A Question of Consent.  

@AlfredSpellman

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