The movie is about a young couple haunted by a supernatural presence in their home and it is presented in a documentary style, using footage from the camera set up by the couple to capture what is haunting them.
Made for the tiny sum of $11,000 (yes, eleven thousand) in 2006 by director Oren Peli, it first screened at the Screamfest festival in 2007 and the Slamdance film festival in January, 2008 (the more high profile Sundance festival turned it down).
Despite garning some interest, no distributor picked it up until a copy of the film ended up at DreamWorks, where it was seen by production executive Ashley Brooks.
It went down so well with production chief Adam Goodman, studio head Stacey Snider and a certain Steven Spielberg, to the point where they greenlit a larger budget remake, with the original production to be included on the DVD as an extra.
However, the low budget nature of the original film was part of its allure and after screening it for international buyers in Santa Monica, the reaction was such that international rights were sold to 52 different countries.
With all this buzz Adam Goodman (who had since taken over as Paramount’s main exec) decided to release the original film in limited release during October.
It was during this period that the marketing department felt that they could use internet buzz to their advantage.
Presumably this was because they either felt it wasn’t Oscar-friendly enough, or because their pipeline of films needed some big name action in the first quarter of next year.
In any event, it meant that “Paranormal Activity” had the full attention of Paramount’s marketing folk and especially that of online marketing executive Amy Powell who, along with her team, adopted an innovative online grass roots campaign.
Inverting the way which mainstream films are usually released in thousands of theatres with a heavy TV and outdoor marketing campaign, Powell and her team opted for a very different strategy.
Playing on the idea that the film was ‘really scary’ and something of a cult in the making they asked film fans to demand a screening in their area via sites like eventful.com
The towns who got the most votes would ‘win’ a booking of the film. Furthermore the studio said that if Paranormal Activity got over a million votes, they would release it nationwide.
What’s particularly ingenious about this unconventional approach is how it built an army of dedicated fans and paying customers very cheaply.
Instead of being a big, bad studio making crap like G.I. Joe, Paramount had effectively taken the side of the average movie fan, helping them see this unbelievably scary horror film.
Like any marketing it was essentially smoke and mirrors, perhaps the Hollywood equivalent of Barack Obama’s efforts in utilising the open platform of the web in order to get elected against overwhelming odds.
Journalism students and media pundits might like to debate the following quote from the movie website Rope of Silicon:
I have obviously been shilling for Paramount’s Paranormal Activity more than I have for a movie in quite some time, but when you have a great time in the theater with a film you believe should only be experienced in the theater with a rowdy and on the edge of their seat audience you want others to get in on the fun.
I can’t quite see the New York Times of The Guardian openly admit they were ‘shilling’ for a movie but maybe it’s a sign of how the media landscape is changing in that outlets openly admit they’ve been co-opted into the selling of a film. But maybe that’s a debate for another day.
Although the studio felt that the initial buzz was limited to film geeks and fansites, they managed to break out from that particular ghetto, persuading people to use Twitter (“tweet your scream!“) and Facebook (112,653 fans so far) to get a million votes for the national release.
Demand it they certainly did. When they finally cracked the million (after just four days) the studio posted a message to the site saying “You did it!”. YOu could interpret this as also saying “gee, thanks for doing our marketing work for us – for free!”. User generated marketing anyone?
But of course, the official line was the more uplifting:
“The first-ever film release decided by you.”
Which in modern Hollywood terms wasn’t actually that far off the mark.
As Powell said recently:
“We have been able to galvanize the community online to actually drive the release strategy and the film has been released as a result of the fans support”
On October 9th it got a limited release in several U.S. cities and had a nationwide opening from last Friday (October 16th).
Notice how the trailer incorporates the marketing campaign:
This weekend the film went head to head with Saw VI (the hugely profitable horror franchise which has dominated the Halloween box office since 2004) and despite playing on a considerably lower number of screens (around a 1000 less in fact) it still managed to beat it – a truly remarkable feat for a film in its 5th week of release.
Saw VI will probably finish the weekend with a $15m gross compared to Paranormal Activity’s $21m. So far the latter has an overall gross (or cume to use industry speak) of $62m.
Again, incredible numbers for a micro-budget project that got promoted to the big league.
But it doesn’t just stop there, as the studio can now surf the buzz of being the number 1 movie and it will expand next week (Halloween weekend, appropriately enough) and some even think that it has a shot at grossing over $100M.
When you think that the film was made independently for $11,000, bought by Paramount for an estimated $300,000 and had around $10M spent on prints and advertising, the numbers add up to one of the most profitable films in recent Hollywood history.
The only comparison I can think of is The Blair Witch Project back in 1999. However, the fact that it took ten years for another low budget film to crash the mainstream suggests that they are rare beasts.
Or does it? Perhaps studios might be a little more keen to try out low budget films and more grass roots marketing via the web.
Of course you have to have the right kind of film, but if a few more releases like Paranormal Activity pop up over the next few years it may not be such a surprise.
Certainly rival studio execs and marketing departments will be looking at how this film became a hit and whether or not the marketing of it represents a future trend.
Paranormal Activity is released in the UK on November 25th