The Old-School Journey of Paranormal Activity

How did a low budget film shot in 2007 turn out to finally be getting a high profile wide release in 2009? Ron charts the Paranormal Activity phenomenon...

There have been lots of independent movies that have gone on to be successful. Kevin Smith maxed out his credit cards and sold his comic books to make Clerks. The Blair Witch Project was filmed in a state park. However, there has never been a picture quite like Paranormal Activity, which has had a long and troublesome journey from filming to the multiplex.

The actual filming of Paranormal Activity was the easy part. Filming took place over seven days at the director Oren Peli’s house, shooting day and night, editing on the fly, and adding effects as shooting progressed. The dialogue was mostly improvised between actors Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, who Peli found after testing a few hundred actors in the LA area. What happened after filming is where the difficulty starts.

Paranormal Activity first screened at Screamfest Horror Festival in 2007, then hit Slamdance, and then, for two years, went nowhere. The rights were picked up by DreamWorks after the DVD fell into the hands of Steven Spielberg, who was reportedly so frightened by the film he refused to allow it to stay in his house. In fact, he was so scared by the film, he refused to touch it barehanded, claiming it was haunted!

Unfortunately for Peli and company, distributor Paramount and DreamWorks were on the outs, so despite the movie’s fans in high places, it got shelved. No one was really quite sure what to do with it. Peli was slated to do a remake of his own film with a bigger budget, but with the two studios at loggerheads, the movie sat, gathering dust. As part of the process of securing the rights to the original idea and film, DreamWorks was obligated to do a one-shot screening. Despite the big success (and a release date scheduled in 2008), the movie got stalled in red tape.

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Fed up, Peli and producer Jason Blum organized a screening for international buyers in an auditorium full of teenagers in Santa Monica as a test. The rights got sold in 52 countries, and the screening went so well (people got so scared they fled the theater), Paranormal Activity got added to the fall release slate. The movie everyone wanted a big-budget remake of would be getting released basically untouched from the version that was filmed two whole years ago.

The one benefit of this whole song and dance routine is that the more the movie gets delayed, the more people want to see it. As you saw from the box office this weekend, the few theaters it screened in were packed. People are filling up every showing of this movie, and the buzz is phenomenal. And the most interesting part of how the buzz has developed is how Paramount has handled the release. It’s some weird combination of ultra new and the old-school.

In the olden times, back before national theater chains, movies would travel on circuits. This was especially common with low budget horror movies, exploitation pictures, and that sort of thing. You still see this sometimes (for example, Moon came out in a slow city-by-city release). Movies generally start out in bigger markets or regions (e.g., the Northeast, Boston, New York), stay there until the money starts drying up, then the print will move on down to smaller markets or other regions (the Midwest, Chicago, Detroit).

Along the way, distributors would use word of mouth from other cities, be it real or invented, to sell the movie. “New York critics loved it!” or “Banned in Baltimore!” draws a lot of attention in Peoria and Albuquerque. This allowed the same movies to travel across the country for years under different titles, raking in money and leaving before anyone remembered it was the same William Beaudine VD-scare film that had been playing since 1945.

This is also how Paranormal Activity has built up a cult following. On September 25, Paramount released Paranormal Activity in 13 different cities. As part of the marketing campaign, Oren Peli urged the use of Internet promotional website Eventful for people to request the movie in their city. Using this, Paramount rolled the film out in the most receptive markets. People in Austin would rave about the movie on the Internet, so Chicago would request it. Then Indianapolis. As more people saw the movie, more people wanted to see the movie based on what they were reading and hearing.

The demand grew so great that, after a million requests, Paramount fulfilled a promise and has moved Paranormal Activity into a national release slot starting this Friday. After two years of waiting, the little $15,000 movie that could is getting its just desserts. In spite of all the odds against it, one of the longest and strangest journeys from idea to screen has finally finished, and Paranormal Activity is getting its nationwide release.

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Our review of Paranormal Activity is here.