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Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

More Thoughts On “Paranormal Activity”

I had the pleasure of seeing “Paranormal Activity” (PA) again last week, this time accompanied by LIVE filmmaker commentary, something I discovered recently that the DVD didn’t include!  Here are a few more quick lessons and reflections on the film I gathered from the event:

* I say several times in every class I teach and it is repeated and confirmed by most of my guest speakers—test screen your film in post as many times as necessary.  It is impossible to remain objective about what is working and what isn’t, what the audience is feeling or understanding or isn’t, during the many months you are editing your film.  The best indie films I know have used little test screenings throughout the post process to measure the work being done and gage reactions to both the film overall and to specific scenes or moments.  These screenings are not a sign that you don’t know what you’re doing as a filmmaker. They are a way to make sure you are doing what you think you are doing.  PA test-screened the film something like 50 times according to the filmmakers, mostly to confirm their theories on what was working or what wasn’t.  These screenings don’t have to be a big deal.  Invite a few friends, but most importantly, have friends invite friends who don’t know you or the film.  Hand out some sort of written questionnaire immediately after the screening, before openly discussing the film, and take all comments, especially those with specific ways to change the film with a grain of salt.

* A corollary to test screenings is to design a way to easily and inexpensively do re-shoots on your film.  Again, not a sign of failure.  Woody Allen re-shoots nearly 30% of his films after the initial shoot.  PA was able to shoot little additional scenes or re-shoot scenes that they determined through test screenings weren’t working.  Of course the ending is famously a result of re-shooting.  If you own the camera and editing system, and have access to actors and locations, re-shooting shouldn’t be too difficult.

* Indie films take a long time to reach the end of their road, even the most successful ones. PA was shot in 2006, premiered in its first film festival in 2007, and didn’t reach a wide audience until the end of 2009.  You need to be patient and not accept as failure that your film wasn’t written, shot, edited and released in a year.

* Nobody really knows anything, to paraphrase William Goldman.  Distributors passed on PA TWICE!  They passed twice on a film that ultimately made over $100 million in the domestic box office.

* You have to trust your gut.  With a film like PA, that has the potential to be a hit but whose potential is obviously well-hidden, you have to believe in what you’re doing, have a strong vision, and trust that vision as people and events contradict you.  I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve gotten from folks on my mailing list (and here in comments posted) about how BAD this film was.  Yes, this film is not “Star Wars,” equally loved by everyone.  There are people who hate it and can’t understand why it was ever released in the first place. But obviously, there are many more who love it.  This dissonance is where the opportunities for the film (and for the many other indie films that ultimately break it big) lie.  If the opportunities were so obvious in the first place, these wouldn’t have been indie films.  A studio would have forked over millions and made the film in the first place.

* Sometimes films just play better for an audience.  Any time something good happened for PA, it happened as a result of a screening with a live audience.  When distribs watched the film on their own on DVD (with the exception of Steven Spielberg), they passed.  Agents signed director Oren Peli after the film screened at Shriekfest. Dreamworks got involved after some of their execs attended an industry screening.  Fans started tweeting after the film opened in a series of midnight screenings. 

* To be this successful, you have to take risks and be unique.  This is the independent film way—being unique.  Derivative indie films don’t go anywhere.  Throughout the screening I attended, director Peli mentioned creative decisions that were made to buck the conventional wisdom.  Whenever there were times that we’d expect something to happen because of some prior film we’d seen, Peli made sure to counter those expectations.  This is why the film is so scary.  And there were many times the studio suggested changes that conformed to the way things are usually done, changes that would have destroyed the unique balance of elements that Peli worked so carefully to achieve.  Studio notes are often designed only to increase the appeal of a film and broaden the audience, rather than to make the film “better.”  Often when you do this you go against what makes the film work in the first place.  A perfect example was PA’s slow build.  Conventional wisdom is that audiences—especially younger audiences—do not have the patience anymore to sit through a slow opening.  Work was done to increase the pace of the opening and when those changes were tested, the test audiences indeed confirmed that the film moved along much better than before, but it was also determined that it wasn’t as scary anymore. To get the scary, you had to have the slow pace in the beginning.

* Studios are really good at marketing.  While filmmakers are being asked to do more and more of this on their own, there’s nothing better than a committed, smart and well-financed machine behind your little film.  You certainly don’t always get this, but when you do, it can pay off handsomely.  One of the brilliant marketing strokes—the inclusion in the trailer of the test screening audiences reacting to the film—was Paramount’s idea.

* You have to be a multi-tasker or have a small team of multi-taskers working for nothing or next to it to get no-budget films made. This film was made for $15k because Oren was the writer, director, producer, editor, special f/x designer, production designer, grip and electric, DP, production coordinator, music supervisor, sound effects editor, sound mixer, etc. etc. Yes, he did have to hire a makeup person to do some effects makeup, and yes he had a little help once his two producers got onboard and then again once the studio got onboard, but the film was mostly done at that point. If all you can do is direct, and you have to pay people to do all these other things, your no-budget film will become a not-so-no-budget film really fast. Oh, and it helps to be able to do all of these things sufficiently, if not spectacularly.

* Good indie films, no matter how simple they look, are not accidents. While there was certainly luck involved, and trial and error, PA was made by a very talented guy who had to made a long series of correct creative choices. I’ve been there so many times, considering those choices and taking notes from your team and getting feedback from an audience. It’s incredibly difficult to always make the right choice, to find the better way to do it, or to stick to your guns and believe that your way of doing it is correct.  Everyone who’s been there knows this.

While these phenomenon films are once-in-a-decade, it is important for aspiring no-budget filmmakers to note that there are many more lesser, but still significant success stories out there to provide you with inspiration.  For some of you, PA’s success will be enough.  For other more pragmatic types, weighing the odds before jumping into the filmmaking ring, you only need to look at this year’s Sundance—another Golden Ticket opportunity with long odds—for more acknowledgment that it is all possible.  By my count, there are no less than ten narrative feature projects made on micro- or near micro-budgets in the festival, and several more documentaries.  I hope to report on some of these in this space once I return from the festival.

Written by NoBudgetFilmSchool on 01/19 at 07:48 PM

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