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?

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.

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, 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.