Is 'Paranormal Activity' the new 'Blair Witch'?

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How does a film go from DIY experiment to box-office smash? Tom Huddleston talks to Oren Peli, director of micro-budget horror sensation ‘Paranormal Activity’

Ten years ago, one film seemed poised to change the way horror movies were made, sold and seen. With its harrowing off-screen scares and air of mounting hysteria, ‘The Blair Witch Project’ utilised still-emerging online technology to create a new kind of word of mouth, with remarkably lucrative results. A new dawn was predicted: the death of traditional marketing, even studio movie-making – if ordinary folks could cook up a blockbuster in their backyard, where did that leave the professionals?
But the revolution never happened, and it’s taken a decade for another homemade hit to make it on to the global stage. ‘Paranormal Activity’ was shot in a single week in 2006 and for a budget of roughly $10,000. Last week it was announced that that film had made more than $100 million in just six weeks.

When Israel-born first-time writer-director Oren Peli hit on the concept of a young couple terrorised by a demonic spirit in their San Diego home, he knowingly incorporated many of the ideas coined by ‘Blair Witch’: the grainy ‘found footage’, the sense of lives falling apart and the slow ratcheting of tension.

‘My inspiration came from movies that were about building atmosphere, not really showing too much,’ says Peli. ‘I’ve never had a paranormal experience, but I’ve had weird stuff happening at home, noises at night, the house creaking. If you’re not ready for it, that can be really unsettling, to hear a noise coming from inside the house. It was the idea of things going on while you’re sleeping, things that aren’t supposed to be happening.’

Peli admits that his lack of experience meant he was unsure whether the film would work. ‘I’d had no film training, this was the first thing I ever shot. I had to use gut intuition. The first screening was for my neighbour and his teenage son. His son had trouble sleeping the next night, so that was the first clue that there might be something there!’ Initial prospects for the film looked dim. ‘I sent it to a bunch of festivals and all but one rejected it. But after it played at ScreamFest and won some awards, that’s when things started moving.’

The film was picked up by Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks company, back when its films were being distributed by Paramount. ‘They told me Spielberg had started watching the movie and stopped halfway through,’ laughs Peli. ‘I thought: Oh, crap, he hated it. But it turned out he stopped the movie because he was too scared.’

Icon, the film’s UK distributor, scooped it up following an infamous screening for international distributors at the American Film Market in Santa Monica. ‘All hell broke loose,’ laughs Stuart Ford, head of IM Global, the film’s first corporate backer. ‘We booked a big theatre and invited teenagers from the San Fernando Valley so that the distributors could really experience the audience reaction. The screening was stratospherically successful. We sold out 52 worldwide territories in 48 hours – there was a frenzied bidding war.’

But in America, things weren’t looking so rosy. The film slipped into limbo, and a bigger-budget remake was suggested. ‘Paramount screened the film for a bunch of writers, to get ideas,’ Ford recalls. ‘They started leaving halfway through, saying they were too scared! It was Spielberg who said: “Why would we remake this, just to have a more expensive version of the same movie?” ’ Peli admits that he would happily have directed the remake, ‘but I was still more excited about the possibility of releasing the original. And after the test screening reactions, nobody talked about a remake.’

Ironically, it was the international reaction that finally spurred Paramount into action. The film’s success began as a genuine word-of-mouth phenomenon: festival screenings lit the touchpaper, and the flames were stoked by reviews on the major geek websites. The studio scheduled a series of midnight shows in major US college towns, with spectacular results: an online petition demanding a full-scale release garnered more than a million signatures. On its eventual  release in America last month, the film rocketed to the top of the box-office, and has now surpassed ‘Blair Witch’ in terms of cost-to-profit earnings.

But without this kind of hysterical hype, can the film work as well in the UK? ‘Maybe US audiences are less cynical,’ admits Zak Brilliant, Icon’s vice-president of distribution. ‘At screenings in the US, the audiences were screaming, freaking out, all those things American audiences do that British audiences can’t. But it’s a terrifying film.’ Peli is already on to his next project,  ‘Area 51’. The shock of having his homemade project hit the top of the US box office is still apparent, but he denies feeling pressure to prove himself. ‘I feel pressure on whatever I do, but I’ll always feel pressure. If I’m lucky enough to make 20 movies in my life, I’ll feel the same pressure on the twentieth.’

'Paranormal Activity’ opens Nov 25.

Author: Tom Huddleston



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