The biggest movie marketing success story of the year is likely to be Paranormal Activity,
the cheap little indie horror film that Paramount has slowly but surely
turned into an event and now a moneymaker… and possibly a Saw killer.

I first heard about Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity two
years ago; the film had been screening in the Los Angeles horror
community (ie, someone had a screener and was passing it around to all
the critics and filmmakers in LA) and the buzz was strong. The film,
everybody was saying, was really scary. And it was really good. Made
for very little money, Paranormal Activity looked like an indie horror film that could get some attention and make some cash.

Then
it got bought by Paramount Vantage, and the word came down that the
plan wasn’t to release Peli’s movie but rather remake it with stars and
a budget and FX. People were hoping that the original film would still
see the light of day in some shape or form, if only as a DVD release,
but it was obvious that a larger budget remake, which would eschew
Peli’s cinema verite approach, would suck the life out of the film.

The
film lay dormant for a while, and then Vantage bit the dust. The film
seemed to have been caught in a black hole, disappearing someplace
behind Paramount’s gates on Melrose. The remake was shitcanned, but the
original film remained in limbo. One of the problems was probably the
ending; the version that’s in theaters now doesn’t have the original
ending*, and apparently a number of variations on the ending were tried
out, none of which quite worked. The ending that the film now has came
from Steven Spielberg, who was a big fan of the movie. Whether or not
you think the ending works (and I don’t), it has an effective ‘jump
scare’ quality that sends audiences out of the theaters nicely shaken.



This summer I began hearing rumblings that Paramount was going to release Paranormal Activity,
but it was vague. No one seemed to have a real release date down, and
it wasn’t even clear where the movie would open. But I think Paramount
knew what it was doing, and it was setting up a really innovative,
exciting marketing campaign that would make use of social networking
like no other campaign before it.



The studio rolled the film out at a number of midnight screenings
across the country on September 25th; one of the places where the film
premiered was Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, where hundreds of
die-hard genre fans lined up for a chance at being the first to be
scared by the movie. Paramount had made what I thought was a risky
move, using a quote from Dread Central on their advertising calling Paranormal Activity one
of the scariest movies ever made; such big proclamations can blow up in
the studio’s face in this day and age as jaded audiences come out of
theaters not getting what the hype promised them. But it turned out
that the hype was, for many audience members, reality, and strong
positive buzz came from these screenings.



What came next was the truly brilliant part. A street team, led
directly by Paramount reps, started pushing on Twitter, Facebook and
other social networking sites to convince people to ‘demand’ that the
movie come to their home town using the Eventful service. One million
‘demands’ would guarantee the movie a wider release. Paramount wisely
didn’t hide the ‘demand’ push behind sock puppet accounts; modern
internet users are too savvy to fall for that and would simply turn on
the campaign if it was revealed that the leaders were phony.



The ‘demand’ push itself was a touch phony, though, but in a great way.
Buoyed by the buzz from the midnight screenings, Paramount already
planned on opening the movie wider on October 16th, but the one million
‘demand’ strategy was a way of making it look like the people
themselves wanted this to happen (this sort of fake grassroots movement
is common in politics, where it’s called astroturfing). I can’t say for
sure that Paramount was gaming the Eventful numbers, but I would be
surprised if there was ever a chance of Paranormal Activity not getting a million demands.



And there’s nothing wrong with that. While I’m not as head over heels
for the movie as some of my colleagues (I think it’s a home video film,
especially because at home the scares will be much scarier), I think Paranormal Activity is
an exceptionally well made, very old-fashioned haunted house movie that
proves pacing and atmosphere and tension can trump effects and cheap
jump scares any day. The ‘demand’ strategy is wonderful because it
creates the feeling of a solid fan-based buzz, which is important in
the modern Twitter landscape where young audiences trust their peers
for movie recommendations far more than old farts like me. And the
strategy allowed actual fans of the movie to get involved and feel like
they were doing something to share an experience they enjoyed with more
people. And on top of that, it puts Paranormal Activity squarely in the underdog position, which is always attractive to people.



What Paramount may not have expected is the level of success the film
would find in its initial limited release. The movie has made around 5
million dollars this weekend, pushing it into the top 5 while playing
on only 159 screens. Shock Til You Drop, who was sitting on the film’s
October 16th expansion for the last week (they had the info long before
the movie reached 1 million ‘demands,’ essentially proving that the
expansion was a foregone conclusion), has learned that Paramount plans
to go even wider on October 23rd, going into another 1000 theaters. In
fact, Shock speculates that the response this weekend has been so
strong that Paramount may not want to wait until the 23rd to add that
extra thousand theaters, and may try to make the October 16th expansion
enormous.



If Paramount does wait for the final push on the 23rd, though, they have positioned themselves directly against Saw VI.
The question that arises is can a movie that is essentially one month
into its release, which has already been a hot topic on the web for
weeks, stand up against the current most powerful horror franchise? I
think that Saw is on its last legs, and that Warner Bros, were they smart, could have already slain it with Trick ‘r Treat.
Considering the exceptional level of franchise fatigue that the series
is suffering and considering the fact that Paramount’s astroturfing
seems to have bloomed into legitimate grassroots support and
enthusiasm, I’d say that Jigsaw has something to be very afraid of this
Halloween.



Expect to see more horror films taking similar routes to theaters. It’s
inevitable that, after years of huge wad-blowing opening weekend
releases, a movie would come along and remind Hollywood why platforming
was par for the course once upon a time. When you have a movie that’s
no good you need to trick everyone into seeing it on Friday, but when a
movie is strong you can allow the word of mouth to simmer and build. By
creating a release strategy that anticipates the good word of mouth you
can build a movie into a juggernaut.



Paramount has truly figured out the way to harness social media and
make it a strong marketing tool. I don’t know that other films will
follow the Paranormal Activity book play for play, but I
think that we might see the return of midnight releases and slow roll
outs for genre pictures. Another Fantastic Fest film that I think could
really benefit from this sort of campaign is The Human Centipede (First Sequence); a truly dangerous film of a sort we haven’t seen in theaters in years, The Human Centipede could
play midnight shows in select cities for the really brave before going
wider or, more likely, going to DVD. Whoever picks up the baton from Paranormal Activity will
have to understand that one of the key components is the use of limited
midnight screenings to make the film an event. The problem, of course,
is that an event isn’t enough on its own – you have to have a movie
that actually works, that actually makes people want to Twitter that
they’ve just been scared.



William Castle was the greatest movie showman of the 20th century. He
made movies that weren’t all that great but that had gimmicks beyond
compare – buzzing seats for his film The Tingler, life
insurance policies moviegoers could buy to protect them against death
by fright, skeletons and ghouls that would swing down from wires onto
an unsuspecting audience. Castle understood that you had to get the
people buzzing and excited. He didn’t have movies half as good as Paranormal Activity,
but I think he would have appreciated the way that Paramount whipped up
the illusion of a strong public demand so much that it seems to have
turned into a legitimate public demand. That’s the best kind of gimmick
– one that ends up not being a gimmick after all.



*spoilers: in the original ending everything happens more or less the
same up until Micah heads downstairs and we hear the tussle and the
screaming. Then Katie comes back upstairs and sits on the bed… for
three days. It’s like one of her sleepstanding spells, but way more
extreme. Eventually her friend comes over, we hear her discover Micah’s
body, and she calls the police. The cops arrive, and are confronted by
a knife-wielding Katie, and shoot her dead.