Tuesday, October 20, 2009

That's Entertainment: The Business of Paranormal Activity

Property The Daily Gamecock

It’s nearly Halloween, and that means it’s time for the studios to churn out a couple of run-of-the-mill torture slashers, recoup their costs, and call it a day.
All of them except Paramount and Dreamworks SKG, who have been running an abnormally stealthy campaign on a super-low-budget horror film, “Paranormal Activity,” making a ploy for it to be the most successful horror film since “The Blair Witch Project.”

The much-hyped film, shot on a shoestring budget of only $15,000, premiered on only 800 screens to a stunning $20.2 million weekend gross. Though it’s poised to be one of the sleeper hits of the season, the film itself has had a complicated journey, with a unique distribution strategy that has served as one of its major drawing points.

Three years ago, director Oren Peli shot a movie on digital video cameras in one week. The film, about a couple trying to document and expel spirits haunting their home, used complete unknowns and tried to capture a realistic situation as best as possible.

“Paranormal Activity” scored a slot at the 2007 Screamfest Horror Film Festival and the Slamdance Film Festival in early 2008, but it remained without a distributor to send it out to theaters until Paramount and Dreamworks SKG tried to negotiate a feature length remake on a large budget.

Then, according to a Sept. 20 article in Los Angeles Times, Peli urged Dreamworks production chief Adam Goodman to hold a test screening in March 2008. When several audience members literally left the theater in terror, the studios’ interest in distributing the original film immediately rocketed.

Most movies with a limited release premiere in big cities like New York and Los Angeles and then expand in a pre-determined pattern. The producers of “Paranormal Activity” took a slightly different approach, releasing the movie in a dozen university areas on September 25 and selling out multiple shows.

The producers next tried to market the film through an online petitioning system, where viewers would have to “demand” the film in order for it to be shown in their area. After an expansion to 20 locations on Oct. 2 and another limited expansion on Oct. 9, Paramount has now pushed the film into a wider release, with golden results.

“Paranormal Activity” bears talking about because Paramount’s ploy succeeded — by withholding the film and making fans demand it the studio forced audiences to think of it as a word-of-mouth discovery, despite its viral marketing.

Considering that horror is a genre that relies heavily on audience manipulation for maximum effect, it’s shocking how poorly studios market their thrillers and how pedestrian their executions usually are. It seems that too often they are simply thrown off the shelf for middling consumption, a kind of junk food no one takes seriously.

So this Halloween, take a chance on a film that barely made it to theaters, on a horror that’s trying to do something different, and on a studio that brought back a marketing strategy that’s almost antiquated for horror movies.

The saga of “Paranormal Activity” is one of those rare stories where a filmmaker found something primal in his material. He dared a studio to believe his film was scary. They bought it. But, more importantly, they bought it because of the audience. That’s Entertainment.

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