Interview: Why Are Found Footage Movies So Popular?

Published 2 years ago by

Chronicle Found Footage Movie Interview: Why Are Found Footage Movies So Popular?

In case you haven’t noticed, the found footage genre is hot right now. Whether it’s on the big screen (where the found footage superhero flick Chronicle was recently number one at the box office) or on TV (where ABC and NBC had a bidding war for the new drama The River), it seems like everyone wants to jump on the shaky cam bandwagon.

But why? Is it because found footage is cheaper to produce and has the potential to make tons of money (a la Paranormal Activity)? Or are found footage movies simply a better fit for a new generation of adults that is always plugged-in, always online, and always sharing their lives over social media?

To get to the bottom of the found footage boom, Screen Rant turned to screenwriter John Swetnam. Swetnam recently sold two found footage projects – Evidence and Category 6 - and has several other screenplays in the works. Here are descriptions of his two sold screenplays.

Evidence: “Police arrive at an abandoned gas station following a brutal massacre. The only evidence at the crime scene is the victims’ personal electronic devices, including a camcorder, flip Cam, and two cell phones. With nothing else to go on, a detective must analyze the bits of ‘found footage’ to piece together the identity of the killer.”
Category 6: “A first-person POV through video cameras and cell phones to tell the story of high school students who try to survive the worst tornado in U.S. history.”
Read on for Swetnam’s thoughts on the popularity of the found footage genre, how writers approach developing a found footage script, and whether found footage is just a fad or something that will stand the test of time.

Screen Rant: Why are found footage movies so popular in Hollywood right now? Is it mostly related to their smaller budgets and stronger potential for a high return on investment? 

John Swetnam: If you’re talking about the business of Hollywood, then yes, I think studios and financiers would be stupid not to want a part of the FF business. It’s about risk/reward and with FF right now, there’s just a lot of upside. If I was using my own money, would I make one $10 million indie-dramedy or ten $1 million dollar FF horror films? I like money. I want more of it. So I go with option number two, and that’s the way studios think… and to be honest, can you blame them?

But the cool thing is that people really like these movies when they’re done right. They line up for midnight screenings. They tell their friends and plan viewing parties. They become a part of the process, like a volunteer street team. So you get the best of both worlds as far as I’m concerned. And that’s always been my dream: to make cool movies that people enjoy, while also making a lot of money. I know some people will think I’m a jerk for saying that, but it’s my truth and that’s just how I am. I love it when these movies make big box office. Fans love it. Studios love it. What’s not to love?

Blair Witch Project Found Footage Interview: Why Are Found Footage Movies So Popular?

The Blair Witch Project was one of the first successful found footage movies.

The found footage genre really got its start with The Blair Witch Project. Since then, other movies like the Paranormal Activity franchise have been hugely successful. Is there a reason that the found footage genre lends itself particularly well to horror movies?

Initially, I think FF just makes sense for horror because it puts you in the shoes of the story. You get to experience those scares in a more visceral and direct way. I used to love those choose your own adventure books, and FF has that sort of feeling at its core. It’s like 3D in that it’s another way to get the audience closer to your story; to immerse them in the world you’ve created. It’s not a magic trick and it will never make up for lousy characters, a bad idea, or bad storytelling, but I think it should be embraced as another tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal. And horror was the first and most obvious way to use and exploit this new visual vocabulary, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as I’m concerned.

The new action/drama film Chronicle is getting good reviews in part for the creative way that it’s using the found footage concept. Outside of horror films, what are some of the ways that writers and directors can be creative in the found footage genre?

I think FF is just in its beginning stages. With the advancement of technology and the Internet, this kind of storytelling is now a part of our culture and writers are experimenting with exciting ways to use it. For a lot of writers, it’s like this new toy that we’re getting to play with. It’s the Wild West and people are experimenting with cool new takes and ideas and I think there are gonna be some great movies that come out of it. I loved Chronicle and thought the FF was used brilliantly, really pushing the technique. It’s not Blair Witch anymore where people actually think this is real. They don’t. But they will suspend their disbelief and become part of the story like never before, so I think the potential is limitless.

But of course, when there’s a gold rush, a lot of people end up going broke and getting syphilis. So yes, a lot of the stuff I’m seeing is pure crap. But that’s how it always is. It always comes back to the story/concept and characters. I mean, any kid in the country can make a FF movie and that’s a good thing. But just because the technology allows anyone to make a movie doesn’t mean that the percentage of good movies will go up. Cause at the end of the day, whether or not it’s FF, if it sucks, it sucks. A handheld camera can’t hide suck.

Paranormal Activity Found Footage Movie Interview: Why Are Found Footage Movies So Popular?

The Paranormal Activity franchise has earned hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.

When scripting a found footage movie, how difficult is it to stick to the rules of the genre? Does it get hard to piece together a believable story from cell phone video, security camera footage, etc.?

This is sort of what I was referring to before, in that the genre is relatively new so the rules can be bent in ways that we don’t even know yet. I’ve written and sold two movies in this genre, and I’m developing three more, and with each one, I’m finding new ways to push and break “rules.” It’s fun. But again, the FF part of the story is just frosting on the cake. You’ve still gotta bake something that tastes good.

One criticism of found footage movies is that they’re more about the gimmick than strong character development and a good story – all sizzle and no steak, so to speak. Given the constraints of the genre, how do you ensure interesting characters and a compelling narrative?

Anyone who writes a FF film is not a “found-footage writer.” They are a “screenwriter.” And as a screenwriter, you can’t hide a bad story or bad characters. To me, FF is just a way to help elevate and/or support a story that should be good either way. As a writer, it’s your job to create interesting characters and to form a compelling narrative, and whether or not it’s FF, which only has the constraints that you allow it to have, that should be your number one goal: write a good story.

Project X Found Footage Movie Interview: Why Are Found Footage Movies So Popular?

Project X, produced by Hangover director Todd Phillips, will test whether found footage works for comedies.

The found footage scripts you’ve sold – Evidence and Category 6 – are both unique takes on the genre. Were they originally conceived as found footage movies, or did that come later?

Yes, both of these were conceived as found footage. With Evidence I challenged myself to come up with a new take on the genre; to push the rules and boundaries a bit. So it’s basically two movies in one. You have these cops in the “movie-movie” watching a “found-footage movie” in order to solve a crime. It was fun to play with the genre and give it a new twist.

And with Category 6, I wanted to play with the “rules” even more and we created this epic natural disaster movie that will be filmed in a way that’s never been done before. And my new script is taking it even farther into a whole new style and story. So for me, as a storyteller, this stuff is fun and exciting. And to be honest, I have no idea if any of it’s gonna connect with the audience, or if I’m just some idiot who’s writing a bunch of crap, but at least for now, I’m gonna continue to play with my new toy and smile the whole time, thankful that I even got the opportunity.

How much longer do you think the found footage genre will stay popular? Will audiences eventually get tired of it?

This is such a hard question and to be honest I have no idea. It could be a fad and at some point we run out of cool stories to tell in this vein and it all fizzles out in five years. But even if it does, I’m sure there will be a resurgence twenty years after that. Or maybe it becomes a new visual style of filmmaking and it lasts forever. I have no clue. But I do know that I’m hoping it lasts for a long time because I have some stories that I’d love to tell that would be so much better by using found footage. I guess only time, and box office, will tell.

What do you think of found footage movies? Do you love them or hate them? Share your thoughts in the comments.

TAGS: chronicle, evidence, Paranormal Activity, the river

22 Comments

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  1. If it is done right than I do not mind found footage movies. However, I think the movie market is moving really fast to that saturation point and a fan backlash may develop.

  2. Troll hunter!

  3. My thoughts on FF films are pretty much the same as 3D. If done correctly it can be a great way to tell a story. If not it can derail a movie from the start.
    But let’s not kid ourselves, the second these films stop making money that’s it, shows over. Some writer can shop the greatest script ever written and he’ll get the door slammed in their face, while hearing some exec say “Sorry kid that we don’t make that type of film anymore.”

  4. I love those script ideas. I hope I’ll see them on the big screen soon

  5. I’m not a fan of ‘found footage’ movies (generally).
    One main reason: it’s VERY unrealistic (if I were being chased down by a serial killer, or a giant monster was attacking my city, I would focus on ye’ know… TRYING. TO. SURVIVE. — I wouldn’t bother filming it for no real reason).
    And a lot of the time, the cameras are way too stable (in Chronicle for example: there was a scene or two where heavy action was going down, but the guy ~somehow~ managed to keep his camera steady and keep everything in the shot.)
    No doubt it has it’s advantages, but for me, it’s just seems like another fad.
    End Rant

    • can’t be worse than 3D :
      - more expensive
      - try to make look everything else ridiculous
      - wreck conventionnal movie through post conversion 3D
      - gave another occasion to george lucas to release star wars.

      • It’s not as bad as 3D (nothing is ;)), but it’s still a fad in my book.

    • Yea and you know why they keep the camera still in FF movies? Because clover field got alot of people sick!

  6. The reason why people love found footage movies is because it connects the audience and has a great atmopshere in the movie.

    For expamle like Cloverfield, first the audience knows the characters and starting caring as things get worse.

    I wouldn’t be amazed if more found footage movies come along, the worst one was Apollo 18, very disappoining.

  7. I agree with the writer in that, if it’s done right, they can be unquestionably awesome. Done wrong, they suck cheese whiz. A godd movie is a good movie, no matter what the format.

  8. I don’t watch found footage, it sucks and I hate it

  9. I don’t like FF movies, its a gimmick and it got old quick, I’m hoping its gonna burn out soon.3-D too for that matter, headache inducing, flash in the pan fad. Next thing they’re gonna have a 3-D FF movie

    • um…funny thing you say that…because ther eis going to be a 3D Found Footage film. It’s going to be called Found Footage 3-D and it’s coming out January 30, 2015. Can’t wait to see it! I love almost every Found Footage film. It’s my favorite genre besides comedy and animation.

  10. i dont hate found footage movies i actually like them. i have not found a found footage movie i didnt like, although i have not seen Apollo 18, i heard it was crap. i do HATE 3D movies i think their crap!

    • I actually thought APOLLO 18 was fantastic and very, very impressive. Not sure why it gets panned so often. What the director accomplished was nothing short of amazing and, more importantly, effective.

  11. The writer they interviewed hit in on the head with the first comment about how cheap they are relative to how much money they can make. Once they figure out how to convert it to 3-D, they will….

  12. I dont think converting to 3D is a good idea, I enjoy the found footage genre because its real, and could possibly happen. I think adding 3D would just make it fake… But FF is here to stay, thats for sure

  13. I love FF movies and this one “Severed Footage” looks like it will be right up there with the best. I love it because it deals with real current events that are in the news. Seems very believable. I can’t wait for it to get released.

    http://www.severedfootage.com

  14. SNOW ON THA BLUFF

  15. LOL at the author of this claiming that the found footage genre was created by the Blair Witch Project. Cannibal Holocaust did found footage 20 years earlier and 20 times better than TBWP.

  16. Great article. I still cannot believe it took Hollywood 7-8 years to follow the trend that The Blair Witch Project initiated. I mean, all the main found footage horror (Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, REC) were released in 2007-2008, but before that? almost nothing. Now unfortunately Hollywood understood too much that they could make money easily, at the expense of a story…and at the expense of horror fans (http://www.horroronscreen.com/?p=6679)

    • The Blair witch project started nothing, Cannibal Holocaust did. The Blair witch ripped that movie off, with clever internet marketing.

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