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Cheapo ‘Paranormal Activity’ Horror Flick Gets Crowdsourcing Right

I should have known this wouldn’t be your usual horror movie when I overheard the guy in line behind me say he’d already seen it.

I turned around. “Is it really that scary?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” he smiled.

“Scarier than ‘Blair Witch?'”

“Oh yeah.” Another smile, accompanied by a look that said, if you only knew …

This was his third straight midnight show of “Paranormal Activity” at the Neptune Theater near the University of Washington in Seattle. It was last weekend, and the film’s distributor, Paramount — a major studio which could easily have flooded theaters nationwide with prints of this lowest-of-low-budget horror movies — opted instead to roll it out first in 13 college towns, hoping to strike “Blair Witch Project” dark gold.

Paramount has those hopes because of Web buzz built via positive film festival notices for “Paranormal.” And while the movie is essentially a old-school ghost story, its early success is a new media triumph of Internet marketing, social networking and (of all things) home video recorder cinematography.

“Paranormal Activity” is further proof that the younger generation of media consumers — the kids standing in line with me late on a chilly Seattle weekend — can’t be scared off by DIY production values. If they’ll cue up YouTube “screamer” videos, why not line up to watch what amounts to user-generated frights on a big screen?

Delivering the Ghostly Goods

The crowd was indeed made up of the young demographic sought after by film studios for horror genre productions. I have no doubt that during their young lives, this audience had already had its fill of torture porn and gory remakes of ’70s drive-in horror classics viewed in multiplexes, on cable and online via BitTorrent. And lest we forget: We had camcorder-captured, newscast-ready horrors delivered by Al Qaeda on Sept. 11 and in two wars since then.

The late Saturday night dates and the groups of three or four waiting in line outside the Neptune were just hoping to enjoy a US$9.50 thrill ride from which they could safely walk away. Judging from the ripples of unease, the outright screams and subsequent nervous laughter, I’d say they got more than their money’s worth.

“Paranormal Activity” pegs higher on the creep factor scale than “Blair Witch,” building the suspense slow and steady before delivering some genuine shocks in the last half-hour and a home run of an ending — all with minimum special effects and maximum entertainment value. After one particular adrenaline jolt, I flashed back to 1975 and the Century City theater in Los Angeles and my first viewing of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws;” everybody screams, and then there’s audience chatter and giggles for two minutes while everybody discusses why they screamed.

The film is shot from the point of view of a tricked-out home video camera recently purchased by Micah (Micah Sloat). His girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherstone, audience surrogate extraordinaire) suffers his new toy because there are some strange things going on inside their suburban home, and day trader Micah thinks he can get to the bottom of it all if he captures the incidents on camera. All of this, of course, does nothing more than make the resident poltergeist angry.

The “found footage” theme is revisited, just like “Blair Witch,” “Cloverfield,” “Quarantine,” “Diary of the Dead” and, to some extent, this summer’s blockbuster “District 9.” But it’s more effective here thanks to the sure handling of the material by writer/director Oren Peli. Unlike “Blair Witch,” there’s very little nausea-inducing shakycam footage; Micah sets the camera on a tripod to shoot the couple while they sleep, and its at these times when the film is at its spookiest.

Shot in seven days in 2006 for $15,000 by the Israeli-born Peli, it’s fitting that “Paranormal Activity” is hitting theaters exactly 10 years after “Blair Witch” used the Internet to rewrite the rules for movie marketing. But whereas “Blair Witch” used its Web site and a black-and-white, claustrophobic video style to create the myth that three student filmmakers really did run into something otherworldly in the Maryland woods — and were never heard from again — “Paranormal Activity’s” Web site isn’t really trying to fool you into thinking that Katie and Micah’s story actually happened.

What does do is allow horror movie fans to keep the buzz going and play a part in the studio distribution strategy by clicking on a “Demand It!” link to bring the movie to their hometowns. That sends the user to, a San Diego-based Web service that lets people find entertainment options where they live. According to a Paramount news release, Eventful tabulated more than 200,000 votes via the movie’s Web site, so this weekend 20 more cities are showing “Paranormal Activity,” including big theaters in major markets like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Detroit. All are midnight showings, just like the ones that sold out in nearly all the 13 original markets last weekend.

There is also a “Tweet your scream” link, allowing fans to see Twitter messages about the movie and add their own. Indeed, last weekend on Twitter, “Paranormal Activity” had its own hashtag full of tweets from horror fans going viral with their interest.

Scary Success in Web Marketing, Social Media

Paramount tried to find me a marketing representative to talk about the movie’s digital strategy, but couldn’t deliver anybody before my deadline. (Maybe they were too scared to speak?) Eventful’s media relations person never returned my emails or phone calls. (Media relations rule No. 1: When you have a potential hit on your hands, or have a Web company associated with one, talk about it to reporters until your gums bleed like Linda Blair’s in “The Exorcist.”)

Gordon Paddison, a former movie studio executive who now runs digital marketing consultancy Stradella Road, did talk to reporters this week. His firm counsels entertainment outlets on ways to maximize new media, and he has just released the findings of a new survey of 4,000 moviegoers and their online habits. Key takeaways: 93 percent of those surveyed are now using the Web to find movie information (which explains the disappearing movie listings in local newspapers) and 75 percent of teenagers and young adults trust their friends’ opinions via social networks and text messages more than movie critics (which explains disappearing movie critics).

Paddison sometimes works with Paramount on campaigns, so his answers to my questions about “Paranormal’s” Web strategy were cautious. However, the overall impression is that he gives it two thumbs up, particularly in engaging the audience to have a direct impact on where the movie plays next. All movies these days have Web sites and Facebook fan pages; that’s not really groundbreaking. “It’s really the way social media is properly threaded through all of your communications,” Paddison told me. “If you’re going to be running something through print, if you have a call to action — (Twitter) hashtag, something — something that drives people through the cycle of communications, that’s key. It’s so they can take action from one medium to drive deeper engagement in another medium.” In that respect, Paddison says Paramount is being very savvy with “Paranormal Activity,” not to mention economical by saving on marketing and distribution expenses.

At this point, money issues are becoming less frightening for Paramount; the movie has no doubt made back its initial costs and then some. (How many frames of special effects footage would $15,000 buy in “Transformers 2?”) I was impressed that all that buzz had prompted me and others to shell out $10 a ticket for what was essentially a user-generated video. However, that’s part of the appeal, says Kimberlee Gillis-Bridges, senior lecturer in English and film studies at the University of Washington.

“One of the things I like to think about is how those aesthetics of something that is more lowbrow do creep up into things that are more highbrow,” Gillis-Bridges told me. “You get these hints in higher-brow venues that this kind of aesthetic is becoming more acceptable. The aesthetics of YouTube and ‘Paranormal Activity’ are hooked up to any underlying claims of realism. When you think back to when cameras got smaller, and news crews could go out deeper into protests or wars, that’s history. We kind of connect it with realism.”

“Paranormal Activity” is all about fear, and my biggest one is that the movie will suffer a backlash as more people “demand it” and it goes into wider release. An audience drenched with gory “Saw” and “Hostel” horrors, after all, may not appreciate a movie with no big stars, no blood and a reliance on your imagination to fill in the murky corners of Katie and Micah’s haunted town house. But when movie studios see how “Paranormal” leverages the Internet and its social networking appeal, and they’re still floundering around with their new-media strategies, then they should definitely be afraid — be very afraid.

TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.

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