I love being scared by flying bedsheets...
'Paranormal Activity' is the latest film to turn a modest budget into box-office gold, writes Susan Daly
Saturday November 14 2009
The rule of thumb for any successful horror movie dictates that what you don't see can often be much scarier than what you do.
This is just as well for the latest horror phenomenon to hit cinemas. Paranormal Activity, due to be released here at the end of the month, was put together on a measly budget of $15,000 (€10,100). That won't buy you a whole lot of fake blood.
Nonetheless, the gore-free frightfest has shot straight to the top of the US box office with earnings so far of almost $100m (€67m). It's quite the feat for a movie devised by an unknown video game designer called Oren Peli, shot in his San Diego house over seven days and edited on his home computer. It had a crew of three and a cast of two, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, who were paid $500 each for their work.
The plot of the film is also deceptively simple. Katie and Micah, who keep their own names in the film, are a young couple who fear their house is haunted. They set up a camera at the foot of their bed that records increasingly disturbing events as they take place in the middle of the night. Strange shapes unfold under their duvet cover, a door swings a few inches wider of its own accord, unexplained dusty footprints appear on the floor. While there are no decapitations, no grisly dismemberings, the tension builds to a (reportedly) terrifying climax.
The first preview of Paranormal Activity was given to a group of around 250 teens and industry people in LA late last year. That night has now gone down in screening folklore. Audience members hugged themselves in terror; others fled their seats in panic. Some stayed rooted where they were, screaming incessantly.
Stuart Ford, the sales agent who organised the night, said the film was sold to 52 different countries within 48 hours of the screening. It is being described as the new Blair Witch Project, a reference to the 1999 horror thriller that was made on an initial production budget of around $25,000 (€17,000) but went on to pull in $248m (€166m) worldwide through a clever marketing ploy (initial audiences were led to believe that the footage was real, and that the film-makers had since gone missing) and word of mouth.
Blair Witch was also genuinely frightening. Paranormal Activity director Peli cites it as a major influence on his film. "As in the case of Blair Witch and (the no-budget shark-attack movie) Open Water, I wanted there to be only a bit of blood," he says, "That's just the way I like scary movies: you don't have to go over the top."
The myth surrounding Paranormal Activity is just as important in creating a buzz as the content of the film itself. While a viral marketing ploy like the missing filmmakers hoax that worked for Blair back in 1999 would be exposed in days on the internet now, it is still being sold as an experience as much as a feature film. Trailers have included preview audiences' terrified reactions as well as footage from the actual movie.
Producer Jason Blum (The Reader) likes to tell how he was sent the film on DVD and started laughing because he got so scared watching it alone in his living room. "I had run the acquisitions department for Miramax in 1999," he said. "And I didn't buy Blair Witch. I wasn't going to let it happen again."
It was passed on to Steven Spielberg, who has sparked another anecdote that is being circulated widely. Spielberg, apparently, was so disturbed by the film -- and the fact that a room in his house locked itself from the inside in the immediate aftermath of his watching it -- that he returned the disc in a black plastic sack.
Let's put aside for the moment hints of 'supernatural' forces at work on the film's shock success. A screening of Paranormal Activity at the LA horror film festival Screamfest was instrumental in building up a buzz. Indie film festivals have been important in getting low- budget films into the hands of big-budget distributors and studios for some years now.
The annual Sundance festival in Utah, for example, was initially organised by Robert Redford as a low-hype outlet for independent films. Over time it has become a definite box to be ticked by major Hollywood players on the lookout for small-time films with mass audience appeal. In this way independent films like Irish director John Carney's hit Once, Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite, Juno, Garden State, Open Water and Waitress -- all made with a relatively low cost-base (relative by Hollywood standards anyway) -- have found themselves caught up in a bidding war between distributors in the days after a festival screening.
Once upon a time, there was a phenomenon known as 'sleeper' films. These were movies that didn't open to a large box office but as word of mouth grew -- sometimes helped by a more spaced-out marketing campaign -- so did their audiences. A Fish Called Wanda for example, took 10 weeks to reach number one at the US box office in 1988. There's Something About Mary, one of the smash hits of the 1990s, didn't top the ratings chart until it had been in cinemas for eight weeks.
Dirty Dancing, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Shawshank Redemption, Psycho: all these were movies that seemingly came out of nowhere and beat more highly marketed films at the box office or, later, in home rentals and purchases.
Now the buzz created by social media outlets like Twitter, MySpace and Facebook means that consumers can have their influence felt even sooner (or be influenced earlier). The infamous first public screening of Paranormal Activity, for example, happened over a year ago in Santa Monica. Paramount cleverly created a sort of consumer-led distribution by asking horror fans to vote at a special online 'demand' site if they wanted the movie to be shown in a theatre near them.
By the time the film opened in the States last month, the clamour to see it was deafening.
Anomalies at the box office are not always easily explained by clever marketing. Ang Lee, director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, told me in an interview to promote his latest movie, the well-promoted Taking Woodstock, that he was "baffled" that it had made a loss at the box office. "It is very disappointing. I don't know what happened," he said. Heaven's Gate? Waterworld? Snakes On A Plane? More proof, if needed, that big budgets don't always yield big returns.
There are, of course, those noble failures: the flops that later revealed themselves to be enduring gems. Duck Soup in 1933 was such a disaster for the Marx Brothers that it led to them being dropped by Paramount -- it is now acknowledged to be their comic masterpiece. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) has always been a limited-release film but midnight screenings of it have made it a cult cash cow, yielding almost $140m (€94m) over the past 30 years. Blade Runner, Bringing Up Baby, Night of the Hunter, Citizen Kane -- it took years for them to be given their due.
As for Paranormal Activity, the underlying reason why it has made it big is because it deserved to. Oren Peli tells how he spent three months alone getting the light just right to ratchet up the tension in the scene where a bedroom door inches open onto a dark hallway beyond. The movie spent almost three years bouncing from office to office in Hollywood but its eventual success reveals a truism: class will out.
THE LITTLE FILMS THAT COULD…
El Mariachi (1992): The first film of Robert Rodriguez (Desperado) was shot with an amateur cast on a budget of $7,000 (e4,700) – the director raised half of it participating in clinical drug trials in Texas. When Columbia got their hands on it
they marketed it to a non-Hispanic audience and it made $2m (e1.3m) in the US.
Once (2007): This e160k Irish love story from John Carney was the talk of Sundance and before we knew it, Once had made $20m (e13.3m) worldwide, Dublin earned a reputation as an unlikely capital of romance and Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova won an Oscar for their love song.
Napoleon Dynamite (2004): Another Sundance success story, this ode to geekhood made its $400,000 (e267,300) budget back in spades – in fact, it covered its costs exactly 100 times over.
The Room (2003): Notorious for all the wrong reasons, The Room – scripted, directed and starring a man called Tommy Wiseau – has been described as the “Citizen Kane of bad movies”. This dubious accolade has translated into huge success at cult late-night screenings, although Wiseau now claims it was his intention that the film be a “black comedy”. Its earnings to date are not recorded, but it is safe to say Wiseau has bested its original theatre run returns of $2,000 (e1,330).
Titanic (1997): Okay, so it’s not exactly low budget, but Titanic was largely expected to suffer huge losses when director James Cameron’s monumental vision for the film pushed its release date back by six months and the budget sky-high to $200m (e133m). The last laugh was ‘King of the World’ Cameron’s: Titanic has grossed over $1.8bn (e1.2bn) worldwide.
THE BIG FILMS THAT DIDN’T…
The Postman (1997): A post-apocalyptic theme was probably not the best one to run with for a Kevin Costner just fresh from the apocalyptic disaster that was Waterworld. The latter film has received some critical praise in hindsight, but The Postman is still considered a vainglorious mess. It cost $80m (e53.4m) to make but only brought in $18m (e12m) in receipts.
Town and Country (2001): Warren Beatty struck an unattractive note as a philanderer in a midlife crisis. The complicated production took 3 years to reach cinemas and when it did, audiences stayed away in droves (at a $78m (e52m) loss even before marketing costs are taken into a count).
Battlefield Earth (2000): The LA Times called John Travolta’s homage to Scientology leader L Ron Hubbard “a quite miserable experience”. Misery loves company - $90m (e60m) of it in fact. It only made about a quarter of that outlay back.
Cleopatra (1963): An unusual flop this, it won four Oscars even though it was both a commercial and critical failure. Originally meant to cost $2m (e1.3m) to make, this Liz Taylor star vehicle eventually cost $44m (e30m). It did make a profit of $17m (e11.3m) – eventually – but almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox on the way there.
Gigli (2003): With its two A-list stars, Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, in a relationship at the time, Gigli should have been a must-see. Its reputation at previews proceeded it however, and it was withdrawn quickly from cinemas due to abysmal performance. Bennifer didn’t last much longer either. It cost $54m (e36m) to make – it lost $48m (e32m).