Given that I was a pretty big fan of both The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, and taking into account my reaction upon seeing Paranormal Activity this weekend, I’m starting to think that I’m something of a found-footage apologist. While many viewers get caught up on the films’ oft-shaky camera work or their logical gaps (the biggest of which is always “why do they keep FILMING?”), I struggle with neither. I find the conceit a compelling entry-point into a story and – when used effectively – extraordinarily immersive.
That said, I completely understand the most common criticisms against the afore-mentioned films and, in fact, I generally don’t disagree with them – I just don’t find them problematic enough to significantly hinder the overall experience of the movie. In fact, I’d argue that in some ways those films were doomed to be nitpicked, in part by design (since “fear” is crazy subjective) and in part by marketing.
Which is why before I talk about Paranormal Activity “the film” – which I’ll do after the break, since I plan to deal with spoilers – I want to talk about how brilliant Paranormal Activity “the marketing campaign” has been, and why it may help the film avoid the same degree of backlash that its famous predecessors fell victim to.
The LA Times put together a great feature article exploring the movie’s two-year journey to theatres, so I won’t repeat it all, but the short form is as follows: untested director makes found-footage horror film in a week for less than $15,000. It debuts at a couple of film festivals in 2007/08 and is bought by Dreamworks with plans for the director to remake the film with a bigger budget (saving the original for a DVD extra). The agreement, though, allows for a test screening of the film with an audience, which goes gangbusters and convinces Dreamworks to release the film as-is, only with a redone ending (suggested by Steven Spielberg, actually). The film gets caught up in Dreamworks’ conflict with the studio’s owner, Paramount, which stalls the release for about a year.
Here’s where things get interesting. Whether due to a lack of confidence in the film or an overabundance of it (I’m betting the former), Paramount decided on an unorthodox release strategy that hedged their bets. After showing the film at a number of genre film festivals to build some Internet buzz, they launched the movie with midnight screenings in 13 college towns across the United States. Then they promoted a website focused around eventful.com’s “demand it” feature, encouraging people to vote online to bring the movie to their city. If the film bombed, no harm and no foul. If it took off, though, they could roll it out with momentum on its side.
Well, it’s been less than a month since those college town screenings. This past weekend Paranormal Activity expanded its screen count to 760, up from only 160 the week before. It raked in a rather staggering $20 million for third place at the box office, almost equaling the take for Law Abiding Citizen playing on four times as many screens. It’s not premature to already consider it one of the year’s biggest cinema success stories – and not just because of the box office take. Over one million people have “demanded” the film online. The movie has been consistently in the Top 10 most-used terms on Twitter for two and a half weeks. And there’s been huge increases in traffic on Google for related search terms.
And this is what’s different about Paranormal Activity’s marketing campaign versus the campaigns of its predecessors: it’s not manipulating hype, but buzz.
What’s the difference, you ask? Simple: hype is generated top-down, buzz is generated bottom-up. It’s the difference between old fashioned marketing and genuine grass-roots enthusiasm. And it’s not a cut-and-dry dichotomy. For example, while film reviews are not “marketing,” per say, they still are generated by ‘experts’ as opposed to general filmgoers, so they’re closer to “hype” than, say, a post on a blog such as this one. But I’m not nearly as genuine as, say, a conversation with a friend would be (unless I am your friend…in which case, well, that just complicates everything). So some interactions are “buzzier” than others.
Blair Witch started with buzz – raves after early screenings in several U.S. cities – but the studio quickly transformed that into hype, taking the genuine sentiments of those early viewers and building a marketing campaign around it touting “the scariest movie of all time.” Cloverfield, in contrast, was almost all hype – a clever marketing campaign designed to categorically tease the film bit by bit before its release. Thus, when filmgoers flocked to both pictures on their massive single-week rollouts, most of the talk about the film had been filtered into targeted, manipulative hype. It wasn’t peers recommending the films to peers: it was “experts” and “sales pitches.” And when those films didn’t match the hype for some people, it was easy to blame the hype itself as the problem.
But it’s harder to find an easy target for buzz, which is why the slow-roll out strategy for Paranormal Activity so perfectly calculated. It makes the audience the voice of the film, not the studio. There’s no boogeyman at the top of the chain forcing the movie down audiences’ throats. You asked for the film to come to your town – and if you didn’t, your friends did. So when the film disappoints someone, there’s a greater chance that their reaction will lean towards “I guess that movie wasn’t for me,” rather than “That movie sucked.”
Of course, that’s not to say that this “buzz” is entirely genuine. The other side of the brilliant “demand it” strategic is that it feels like a “victory” when the movie arrives in your town, already pre-disposing you to enjoying it. But I don’t take the slant that this Washington Post article today seemed to, that the studio is simply manipulating people for its own selfish profit. People are joining the Paranormal Activity bandwagon of their own accord; they WANT to help promote the film.
Besides, this is the future of marketing. When we’ve grown doubtful and distrustful of traditional authorities and when the public has the tools of mass communication in their own hands, advocacy marketing cuts through like a knife. The spokespeople of today – certainly tomorrow, and arguably yesterday – are ordinary people who believe in and support products, brands, causes and, yes, movies.
And in this case, they’re supporting a pretty damn good little movie.
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I can’t properly discuss Paranormal Activity without spoilers, since an analysis of how and why it’s so effective necessitates putting everything on the table. So if you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the spoiler-free short version: Paranormal Activity an extremely effective thriller that escalates tension into genuine fear with a patience rare for the genre these days. Scariest movie ever? Hardly, and too soon. But certainly one of the more unnerving film experiences in recent times, and well worth your while to check out.
Spoilers after the fold…
It took me a while to figure out why Paranormal Activity is so effective. It’s certainly not just the “found-footage” conceit, as I found the film far, far more affecting than Blair Witch even though it feels more polished and less ‘real.’ Some credit goes to Katie Featherston’s empathetic and captivating performance as the object of the demon’s torture. And there’s no question that the film contains a number of both great jump scares (from door slams to the climatic camera throw) and unsettling images (most notably, the hours Katie spends standing in one spot, unmoving).
Friday night, as I laid in bed with a solid adrenaline rush keeping me awake, I was prepared to credit the film’s patient escalation for its success. The film never jumps one step too far; it’s content to take small, calculated paces towards the edge of madness, so that each “event” seems like a logical progression from the previous one. We don’t go from sound, for example, straight to direct physical contact; we have stuff like swinging chandeliers and baby powder footprints in the meantime. If we were to map out the movie on a graph – with the Y axis labeled “tension” – it would be a slow upward climb, not peaks and valleys like most films. It’s like director Oren Peli is leading us by the hand into hell, but goes so slowly that by the time we realize where we’re headed it’s too late to turn back.
But then I wondered if more credit needed to be given to the subtle and rather clever way that the “demon” is built. I absolutely love the scene where Micah flips through a book on demons, just going from page to page at random. The demon becomes what we want it to be because we never see it (thank goodness) and the mythology is kept vague. We don’t really learn what particularly about Katie the demon was interested in, or why it haunted Katie so long before getting serious about it. We also don’t know whether the haunting that Micah finds on the Internet is in any way related to this one. Some reviewers have criticized that diversion – along with the whole Ouija board stuff – as pointless, but that’s precisely the point: they’re presented as vague possibilities to get our imaginations rolling, and their lack of conclusion is far more unsettling than if the dots were connected.
But then as I was walking around Nocturne Halifax Saturday night, the movie still on my mind, I cracked it. All of the afore-mentioned stuff matters, but the ultimate reason why Paranormal Activity works so well is because its slow ascension of events not only raises the stakes, but it creates rules of engagement along the way – which the film then calculatingly dismantles to our horror.
Before we even have a single strange thing happen, we learn enough information to unconsciously set up our first rules: Katie describes past events with the demon where it has spoken to her or she’s felt its presence, but mentions no instances of physical contact. So part of us starts to presume that physical contact is off the table. Then when that falls by the wayside, we replace that rule with another one that will keep us secure – maybe we think that the demon won’t be able to directly interact with the characters, or it won’t enter their bedroom, or maybe it can’t manifest itself in the daytime.
It’s this last one that I appreciate the most. The film’s entire rhythm is dependent on the switching from increasingly eventful nights to worrisome but uneventful days, where both the characters and the audience gets a reprieve from the horror. So when we hear a crash upstairs in the middle of the day and find Micah’s picture smashed with a slash mark through it, our last bastion of safety has been absolutely destroyed. We’re not safe anywhere.
Which is why I absolutely love the movie’s ending, which as I mentioned has changed significantly from the original cut of the film and, on paper (since I haven’t seen the first one), changed for the better. Not only has the movie earned those two big, physical scares by that point, but notably both of the final attacks are directed not at Micah – who seems pretty dead by this point – but at the camera. Storyline wise, this makes total sense: having taken out its antagonist, the demon gets one last hurrah against Micah’s weapon of choice. Plus, if there’s any of Katie still left in there, she wasn’t much of a fan of the camera either – it’s the one piece of common ground between the demon and its new host.
But more importantly, by attacking the camera, the demon tears down any shred of security remaining. Before the final scene, we’ve seen all sorts of horrible things happen to our characters, but moviegoers could hold onto one final rule of engagement: these events are happening to characters on a screen, in a movie – not to us. So when Micah’s corpse is thrown in our face, and when a possessed Katie takes her final lunge in our direction, we are not safe. Nothing is safe anymore.