Ghost in the Hollywood machine: ‘Paranormal Activity’ beat the odds (and gave Spielberg the willies)

Sept. 20, 2009 | 10:24 p.m.

You may remember John Horn’s name from our Comic-Con International coverage, he led our team of reporters in San Diego while I took a year off from the expo so I could sit on a beach in Hawaii with my wife and kids. Mahalo, John! Horn is one of the savviest journalists covering Hollywood, and today he’s got a cover story in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar on the against-all-odds path of “Paranormal Activity,” an unsettling movie that even managed to spook the producer of “Poltergeist.”

Paranormal Activity

Steven Spielberg was certain his copy of “Paranormal Activity” was haunted.

It was early 2008, and the director’s DreamWorks studio was trying to decide whether it wanted to be a part of the micro-budgeted supernatural thriller. As the story goes, Spielberg had taken a “Paranormal Activity” DVD to his Pacific Palisades estate, and not long after he watched it, the door to his empty bedroom inexplicably locked from the inside, forcing him to summon a locksmith.

While Spielberg didn’t want the “Paranormal Activity” disc anywhere near his home — he brought the movie back to DreamWorks in a garbage bag, colleagues say — he very much shared his studio’s enthusiasm for director Oren Peli’s haunting story about the demonic invasion of a couple’s suburban tract house.

“Paranormal Activity” was hardly a typical studio production. Peli, an Israeli-born video game designer who had no formal film training, shot the $15,000 movie in a week in 2006 with a no-name cast, a crew of several San Diego friends and a hand-held video camera.

But as Spielberg and the DreamWorks team believed, the movie held a special appeal — it was original and scary. The challenge was to fit this round peg into a DreamWorks square hole — a process that would ultimately take more than a year and a half, the delay exacerbated by the slow collapse of Paramount’s acquisition of DreamWorks. For a time, it looked as if Spielberg was right: “Paranormal Activity” appeared cursed — to sit on a shelf.

But now, supported by one of the more unusual marketing and distribution strategies conjured up for a studio release, Paramount is finally opening the film in 13 college towns on Friday, with a wider national rollout planned for mid-October. Scary movies are a dime a dozen these days — at least 75 horror movies have been released theatrically in the last three years — and “Paranormal Activity” doesn’t have the franchise awareness or recognizable actors that help separate a handful of genre films from the teeming herd.

Yet as preview and film festival audiences can attest, “Paranormal Activity” exhibits something many fright flicks don’t — goose-bump inducing, gore-free scares. Now it’s up to the film (and Paramount) to translate Internet buzz into a “Blair Witch Project“-style phenomenon.

“The movie could be stratospheric, or it could just become a cult favorite,” says Stuart Ford, the chief executive of international sales agent IM Global, which sold “Paranormal Activity” to more than 50 foreign distributors. “It just depends on whether the studio can catch a wave.”

“Paranormal Activity” has beaten the odds before.

Hardly any micro-budget movie ever escapes its creator’s basement, and to travel all the way to the slate of a studio that releases “Star Trek” and “Transformers” — that’s beyond exceptional.

“Once every five years, a guy makes a movie for a nickel that can cross over to a broad audience,” says “Paranormal Activity” producer Jason Blum, who, as a senior executive at Miramax Films, had a producing credit on “The Reader” and acquired the supernatural thriller “The Others.” “And there are about 3,000 of these movies made every year, so this film is about one in 15,000…”

THERE’S MORE, READ THE REST.

– John Horn

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UPDATED: An earlier version of this post implied that Spielberg was the director of “Poltergeist,” a spooky film that Spielberg produced and Tobe Hooper directed. I hope the angry spirits don’t come after me. 

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