‘Paranormal Activity,’ a study in careful execution

Oct. 08, 2009 | 4:17 p.m.

John Horn, who covers film for the Los Angeles Times, has been mapping the curious path of “Paranormal Activity,” the dirt-cheap horror film that may shape up as one of the unexpected success stories of 2009. Here’s his analysis of the movie’s marketing — and the secret message conveyed by long lines at movie theaters.

Paranormal Activity

The positive buzz about this micro-budget spectral thriller started building at a Park City, Utah, film festival, word of mouth spread quickly via the Internet, early nationwide college-town screenings sparked even more interest, and a slowly expanding theatrical release fed the flames.

It’s the model that made “The Blair Witch Project” a cultural phenomenon and box-office blockbuster exactly a decade ago, and it’s a carefully crafted plan that Paramount Pictures is following nearly to the letter with Paranormal Activity.”

While there are minor differences between the releases — “Blair Witch” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, “Paranormal Activity” played at the smaller Slamdance Film Festival — the similarities are striking. What’s also noticeable is how well both films performed in the initial weeks of their theatrical premieres.

Opening in July 1999, “Blair Witch” initially showed in 27 theaters, with a staggering per-screen average of $56,000. Playing in only midnight shows last weekend (or about a fifth of the normal showings in a typical weekend) in 33 theaters, “Paranormal Activity” sold about $16,000 of tickets in each venue (well more than a fifth of the “Blair Witch” grosses) with hardly any paid advertising to drive traffic.

While it’s far too early — there’s only $851,000 in sales so far — to predict how well “Paranormal Activity” will ultimately perform, Paramount executives and any number of exhibitors are starting to believe the little $15,000 scare story about a nocturnal visitor is poised for greatness. For weeks, theater owners have been calling the studio asking to play the film.

Paranormal Activity poster

“That’s a call we never get,” says Rob Moore, Paramount’s vice chairman.

“Paranormal Activity” this weekend expands to 46 markets and more than 170 theaters playing the film throughout the day and evening. Although the film still hasn’t been reviewed by many leading news organizations, the early notices have been about as stellar as audience recommendations spread through Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo and genre fanboy sites. Now Paramount is using a website largely designed to bring rock bands to out-of-the way towns to drum up interest in booking the film.

“Blair Witch,” which grossed $248.6 million in worldwide box office, was the film that transformed the Internet into a movie-marketing machine. In an era when many people still used dial-up connections, Artisan Entertainment launched a low-tech “Blair Witch” website to create what felt like an authentic groundswell of audience interest, while also perpetuating the myth that the film represented found footage from some real-life event.

“It felt natural and viral,” says John Hegeman, who was Artisan’s marketing head at the time and now holds a similar position at New Regency. “It was the only place you could go to find out things about the film. And because the Internet was new to so many consumers, there was a mystical element.”

High-speed Web connections are ubiquitous these days, so Paramount looked for a new way to create a similar sense of mystery and generate pent-up demand for “Paranormal Activity.” It found the perfect place — in movie theaters, and the lines snaking into them.

By intentionally booking the film into just a few theaters and then limiting the showings to midnight, Paramount turned “Paranormal Activity” into a sometimes-impossible ticket to get. Hundreds of would-be moviegoers were turned away across the nation, and the lines into theaters (some “Paranormal Activity” audience members would start queuing up five hours before showtimes) became walking advertisements for the movie.

“In this era of the 10,000-print release, the idea that there’s a movie out there that you can’t get into — that created even more interest,” says Moore. “It’s that sense of discovery — that you know something somebody else doesn’t. There’s a sense that you are part of the discovery…”

THERE’S MORE, READ THE REST

– John Horn

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Photos: “Paranormal Activity” credit: Paramount Pictures; “Blair Witch” credit: Artisan Entertainment.

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