The streets of Hollywood (at least those that surround the ArcLight's Cinerama Dome on Sunset & Vine) were flooded with exhilarated fans of the Paranormal Activity franchise this past Tuesday night. Paramount Pictures welcomed over 2,ooo PA devotees to a special screening event that included DJs, food trucks, the first two films on DVD as a give-away - and a visit from series creator Oren Peli and star Katie Featherston.
Believers in cities all over the world (from Tel Aviv to Melbourne, São Paulo, Brazil and London) were invited to participate in advanced screenings of Paranormal Activity 3 -- which opened wide at 10pm tonight (read our review). The fan-driven marketing strategy that the studio is employing is particularly appropriate for this franchise.
Firstly, a sizable portion of the fun to be had with the film is gained via the communal experience of the theater. The commercials depicting audience reactions make a lot of sense - because going to see a Paranormal Activity film is akin to journeying through an elaborate haunted house (particularly at this stage in the franchise's development). The experience becomes participatory. The (highly) vocal response that moviegoers have to the tension and "boo!" moments tend to feed the overall ride that a Paranormal Activity film is inviting moviegoers to take.
Secondly, it was (largely) the word-of-mouth/viral fan response that made Paranormal Activity the global phenomena that it is today.
Oren Peli (the man behind the original Paranormal Activity) has a story that is now the stuff of independent filmmaker legend. The former programer made the film in his own condo for $15,000, sold it to Paramount/Dreamworks for $350, 000, and then watched it explode and go on to gross more than $193 million worldwide. What's more, the franchise beat the odds and found a way to create a successful sequel to a "found footage" horror phenomena. Paranormal Activity 2 was produced for roughly $5 million and went on to earn $177.5 million total.
The success of the original Paranormal Activity inspired Paramount to launch a micro-budget arm (a division dedicated to movies budgeted at less than $100,000). The trailer for The Devil Inside (one of the films produced under this division) screened at the front of PA3 on Tuesday night and we can tell you that the horror fans present liked what they saw (Of course, how The Devil Inside will actually perform at the box office in 2012 is still up in the air).
In the midst of the chaos and excitement of Tuesday night's screening we had the opportunity to speak with Oren Peli about the success and future of the Paranormal Activity franchise.
Paranormal Activity 3 is structured as a prequel that explores the childhood events that made Katie, and her sister Kristi, susceptible to possession in their adult lives. The film introduces some new conceits that may surprise some fans. When we asked Peli what model he used in designing the franchise, and how he manages the balancing act of maintaining the elements that made the original a success and introducing new ideas, he replied:
"Well I wouldn't say that I decided to create a franchise. I just did the first one, and I did it as a stand alone movie, and I never even thought that there were going to be more movies. After the first "Paranormal" became successful and the fans decided to stick with us for another one, and the second one became successful, we said, 'lets do a third one.' But we tried to walk a fine line. We wanted to stay true to the formula which makes the movies scary, but we also want to provide the fresh ideas, fresh scares and sort of expand the mythology and the universe of the franchise with every movie."
SR: When the first Paranormal Activity was released it was a bit of a David and Goliath battle between your film and the Saw franchise. Paranormal was the ultimate victor and has since become a Goliath in its own right. What's it like to have the tables turn in that way?
"You may be right in the way you're seeing it, but we always just feel like we're making a little movie. And we do make the movies for a very small budget, with a very small crew. So it's always a battle, we never really think that we're the big guys -- we're the small guys -- we're just happy to have a movie that the fans will embrace and say, 'it's really scary.' So we just think about one film at a time."
The franchise has developed its own unique method for the creation of a Paranormal Activity film. Essentially, the cast and crew go in with a sketch of the story they are going to tell, they shoot hours and hours of improvisational footage, and in the editing process, the best scare wins. For the third installation, producers hired Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (the directors of the controversial documentary Catfish) to helm the film. Peli felt that the pair demonstrated an understanding of the two most important aspects of a successful Paranormal Activity film.
"They had a really great sense of how to create scares and that's one of the things that's very crucial for this franchise. And also based on "Catfish" we could tell that they've always been filming themselves and they have a really grounded sense of how to make things feel natural and how to embrace realism. So we though that these were the two most important things -- realism and scares. We met them, we really liked them, we thought they were great and that they really got the idea of what we are doing, and we just had an instinctual feeling that they would know what needs to be done. And so far we've been over the moon happy with them."
SR: Will you ever return to the events of Paranormal Activity 2?
SR: What's it been like to work with Rob Zombie on The Lords of Salem? (The film is based on one of Zombie's songs in which the residents of Salem, Massachusetts are visited by a 300-year-old coven of witches.)
"It's Amazing. It's such a treat to be able to work with someone who is such a visionary filmmaker. I don't want to go into too many details, but I'll say its been an amazing experience so far."
SR: What can we expect to see from the television series you're producing -- The River? (The show follows the crew of a state-of-the-art research vessel on a quest to find a missing TV explorer in the Amazon.)
"Hopefully a lot of scares and something that's never been done in TV yet."
SR: You know the fan enthusiasm here is palpable. I had several people high five me on the way to speak with you just because they couldn't contain their excitement. What have your interactions with the fans of this franchise been like? Have you had any unusual fan experiences?
SR: Are you a believer in paranormal phenomena?
"I would consider myself a skeptic. I'm sort of like a very rational person. So I would demand to see some proof, some evidence before I believed anything."
(We all know what that brand of investigative skepticism got Mika in the first Paranormal Activity.)
SR: So what scares you?
"I think a lot of what's in the movie are things that scare me. The idea of loss of control in your sleep. To have no idea what's going on around you, and the fear of the unknown. The fear that there is something happening in my house that's invisible. In my house where I'm supposed to be safe. And you don't know what it is, you don't know what realm it came from, you don't know what it wants from you -- or how to protect yourself against it. That's very scary for me...(And) maybe failure."
Judging by the meteoric success that the producer has already experienced, and the audience response at the screening this Tuesday, the only thing Peli has to fear is fear itself...and demon ghosts who stalk and posses their intended victims.
Paranormal Activity 3 opens in theaters tomorrow, October 21st.
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