In the midst of tough times and dire predictions for the independent film business, it’s ironic that 10 years after “The Blair Witch Project” hit theaters—and effectively changed the expectations for small-budget indie films—a new film emerges with a similar success and a very familiar plotline. Paramount’s “Paranormal Activity” may not hit BW’s $140 million domestic gross, but its $100 million-plus number is tremendous nonetheless, especially for a $15k no-budget feature that didn’t get into Sundance. It’s a bona fide Phenomenon Film, one that will surely replace BW in the comparables section of every indie film business plan hereafter written.
Nearly as eerie as the film—and it IS scary, I’m not going to deny that—is how similar it all feels to BW. If you’ve read my previous two-part entry here, you know I attributed “Blair’s” success to three elements: Mythology, Methodology, and Marketing. It seems PA is working its own version of each of those on its way to becoming a Hollywood legend. There are similar lessons to learn from PA, and like BW, most observers seem to be getting the lessons wrong, (very much like BW). First wrong lesson: attributing ALL of its success to Marketing. Certainly, like BW, marketing played an important role. But to not give the filmmaker credit for making a good film is to assume that any film well-marketed will be successful. If that were the case, we’d be talking about more than one phenomenon a decade. So what are some of the lessons no-budget filmmakers can learn from PA?
SPOILER ALERT!! If you haven’t seen the film, (really? You still haven’t seen the movie?? What are you waiting for?), get out and see it and then come back and read the rest of this entry.
Lesson One: Be Smarter Than Your Audience. I always imagine studio execs picturing the audience as a bunch of idiots (or at least as too-young-to-care), when it comes to certain creative decisions made in their movies. Even though this film is now going out to the Young and Dumb, the filmmakers were making this film to get into Sundance, (and almost made it, playing down the street at Slamdance in 2008), and that audience, which includes the fest programmers, critics, and industry folk, are looking for smart, unique films. So, while most people watching won’t think about why the camera is on, or what kind of camera is capturing the action, these filmmakers knew that their audience would be keenly observing these details.
Lesson Two: Justify Why The Camera is On and Why it is a Prosumer Camera. Like any good first-person-camera film—and believe me, I’ve seen dozens of these that never saw the light of a projector—you have to set up the proper context for why there is a camera on at different points of the day. People don’t usually go around videotaping themselves, so you have to have pretty good reasons for why the camera is recording the particular moments it’s recording. Ultimately, you have to establish a certain obsession on the part of the shooter for this to really work. In the case of BW, it was the obsessive filmmakers who had to “get the shot” no matter what. Here, you have a day-trader (brilliant! Have you ever met any of these guys?) who works at home, is a tech geek, and has just the right personality for grabbing the camera when something goes bump in the night. They even explain the “big camera” this way—he’s got money and why buy a cheap little camera. So, instead of having to watch the proceedings from the vantage point of a one-chip consumer camera, we’re treated to pretty good images from a more professional three-chip Sony FX1, and a professional shotgun mic for quality sound. And the filmmakers make a point of explaining how the camera is able to shoot all night, (it’s recording directly to a laptop computer). You don’t want the smarter, techy folks in the audience going, “Ok, wait, how are they recording all night on tape?”
Lesson Three: It doesn’t matter what camera you shoot on. The filmmakers—like the BW filmmakers—knew that ultimately, it didn’t matter what camera they shot on, as long as that aesthetic matched the material. So many no-budget filmmakers get caught up in the whole camera decision, believing if they’re not shooting on film, or not shooting on the RED, that no one will take them seriously. No one cares! The history of successful no-budget filmmaking has proven that time and time again.
Lesson Four: Methodology matters. Just as in BW, how they shot the film was critical for getting the proper result. For this kind of film, verisimilitude is the key. Any false notes and you’re done. If at any time we feel like these are just actors playing parts, we push the Game Over button on the film. So using unknown actors—good at improvisation—and having no written dialogue was a vital decision. Prepping the house—the filmmaker’s own house—for the story was a stroke of genius.
Lesson Five: Mythology matters. The filmmakers researched the hell out of paranormal phenomena and demonology, making sure the film would be as truthful as it could be. One genius story idea was having the demon follow the victim, rather than attaching it to the house. This addresses the typical audience complaint with haunted house movies—“why didn’t they just leave the house?!?” But perhaps the most intriguing part of the PA mythology was the one that the filmmakers didn’t really have any control over: the part about Spielberg taking the film home to watch, only to get locked in his bathroom and thinking the film was possessed. It doesn’t get better (or weirder) than that.
Lesson Six: Yes, Marketing does matter. Two essential marketing moves proved critical to PA’s success: staging an audience screening and videotaping the results, (which ultimately became a part of the film’s trailer); and using Eventful’s Demand feature to encourage online audiences to vote on screening the film in their city. Sure, this had been done before, (by “Four-Eyed Monsters”), but never for a studio film.
Lesson Seven: Make a good film. This is always the lesson that gets lost in these success stories. Sure there was a perfect storm of elements that contributed to PA’s success, but if the film had been “bad,” we would not be talking about it. So, why does this seemingly obvious lesson always get buried. My opinion is that there are too many people who see the film and because it’s so different, and it doesn’t appeal to them, (in other words, no blood, no explosions, no screws poised to drill into skulls), they just claim it “it sucks” and then attribute the film’s success to something other than quality. This was the claim laid on BW once it hit the mainstream. Yes, these two films are not the same old thing (really, Lesson Eight: Don’t make the same old thing); they wouldn’t have turned in to phenomenon if they were just like every other horror film out there. And yes, when you make something different, there are always those, (I won’t say morons, but you get the idea) who will reject it. But those last-to-the-party people are irrelevant in these success stories. It’s the early adaptors who become the key to these films’ successes. It’s those demanding “gatekeepers” who appreciate a well-made, unique film who get on the internet and scream to their friends that they’ve GOT to see this new movie. That they’ve got to demand it! You don’t get that kind of passion from a “Saw VI”, which was handily beaten on its opening weekend by the $15k little film that could.