The Freak Success of 'Paranormal Activity'

A decade after 'The Blair Witch Project' possessed the box-office, a new indie horror film is building similar buzz

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The journey to get "Paranormal Activity" into theaters nationwide next weekend has been anything but ordinary. The $15,000-budget indie-horror film about a young couple living in a haunted house just became the "first-ever major film" to be released as the result of an online audience poll, two years after it premiered to a much smaller audience at the Screamfest Film Festival. After being denied entry to Sundance, "Paranormal Activity," was picked up by Dream Works/Paramount, but was left sitting on a shelf while the companies messily divorced. Now, after enjoying acclaim on the college and limited-release circuits, some wonder whether "Paranormal Activity" is poised to become this decade's "Blair Witch Project." (WARNING: Some sources/quotes included may contain spoilers.)

  • Eerily Similar The AP's Glenn Whipp points out that there are more than a few shared qualities between 'Paranormal Activity' and 'The Blair Witch Project.' Indeed, director Oren Peli openly admits that 'Blair Witch' was the chief inspiration for his project in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel. As Whipp writes: "Like its predecessor, 'Paranormal Activity' has been making waves through a viral marketing campaign that has been building positive buzz through early, sold-out college town screenings and Internet chatter...And, like 'Blair Witch,' 'Paranormal Activity' is bound to divide audiences who have absorbed the hype."As such, he advises interested moviegoers to get to the film sooner rather than later, before it gets overexposed.
  • Digital Divining Of course, 'Blair Witch' was released before Twitter or Facebook were created, so comparisons between the marketing for it and 'Paranormal Activity' can only go so far. Instead, All Things Digital's Kara Swisher asks viewers to consider another, more recent film hyped to an impossibly high-level by the internet film-community; 2006's 'Snakes On a Plane.' She explains that in the case of the Samuel L. Jackson camp-thriller, "the movie buzz peaked too early, well before the film debuted, and it limped to a weak box office-leaving the blog-fueled "Snakes" as an asterisk in the annals of failed Web marketing hype." Tech-Media-Tainment Blogger Patrick Seitz agrees: "For the [marketing] strategy to be successful, a film has to deliver the goods. 'The Blair Witch Project' did so and was a huge hit. 'Snakes on a Plane' earned tons of pre-release coverage and had an ingenious online campaign, but it bombed at the box office because it didn't live up to the hype." However, with such positive reviews coming from the social web, which includes people besides film geeks, 'Paranormal Activity' seems better poised to deliver on the internet hype.
  • Thank the Angry Mobs At the Reel Addict, Kristal Cooper thoroughly investigates what accounts for the amazing turn of events that saved 'Paranormal Activity' from the same grim fate suffered by other modern festival darlings (e.g being remade into a soulless, effects-driven, big-budget version or condemned to the hell of a 'direct-to-dvd' release). One key conclusion: the voice of moviegoers made all the difference: "Buzz was starting to build amongst genre fans who were sick and tired of having to feed their craving for horror by sitting through endless studio reboots of classic fright films and bloodless PG-13 offerings made for teenagers. Quality films (like Trick 'R Treat) were getting pushed aside for yet another SAW sequel and now the news about an actually scary movie getting remade before it even got a release was too much."
  • Spooking Spielberg Several writers have focused on the involvement of Hollywood institution Steven Spielberg in the film's release, who is reported to have been spooked by a genuine, if mild, paranormal activity of his own while watching the film for the first time in his home. Following this, his DreamWorks film company purchased the rights to remake 'Paranormal Activity' on a bigger budget, but the deal never came to fruition because the original played so well with test-audiences. Daily Finance's Bruce Watson finds it ironic that the mainstream director took such an interest at all, given that 'Paranormal Activity' represents his antithesis: "Spielberg's breakthrough masterpiece, Jaws, from 1976, is widely considered the first summer blockbuster. Prior to Jaws, movies were typically released on a handful of screens -- The Godfather, in 1972, opened at just five -- and, depending on their popularity, distribution would expand...Since then, the wide-release model has evolved into today's practice, wherein major studio films open on a large number of screens, stay in theaters for a few weeks, then disappear... So the release model for Paranormal Activity represents a return to the classic audience-driven strategy."
  • Fearing None Horror blog Shock Till You Drop notes that Paramount's decision to expand 'Paranormal Activity' nationwide on Oct. 16th is actually just the beginning of an even greater attempt to reach audiences in the run-up to Halloween, pitting the film against more expensive, established horror brands: "Of course, what that means for the two other horror movies that had already been scheduled for those weeks--Screen Gems' remake of The Stepfather and the aforementioned sixth "Saw" movie--is another question. Neither of the other studios had an inkling of any sort of potential horror competition when they booked those dates and Paramount's sleeper horror hit might wind up putting a kibosh on both of them."
  • True Terror Knows No Bounds Well before it was positioned for a wide-release, 'Paranormal Activity' was something of a worldwide hit--the rights to the film were purchased by international distributors representing 52 different countries. Guy Adams takes a gander for the British newspaper The Independent. He observes that the behind-the-scenes saga of 'Paranormal Activity' reveals both Hollywood's current financial fears as well as its potential salvation: "It represents a rare good news story in an industry bracing itself for cuts to budgets and star salaries, following a slew of redundancies among leading studio executives...The billion-dollar question, of course, is whether Paranormal Activity's business model, which ignores special effects and expensive marketing in favour of simple storytelling, can be replicated."
  • Virtually Visceral Many in the movie press note rookie-director Oren Peli's previous career as a video-game programmer, but few are willing to connect it so overtly to the aesthetic of 'Paranormal Activity' as io9's Annalee Newitz. "I couldn't help but think that Peli's experience with videogame design was part of what made the film's structure work so well. Each night [depicted in the film] felt like a level, and the movie rapidly progresses to a showdown with the final boss. At no point is our terror attenuated or our attention distracted by outside things." From the skeptics camp, MSNBC's Benjamin Radford applauds the film for realistically depicting the nature of reported paranormal activity, which he says can always be attributed to common sensory tricks and misunderstandings.

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