Six years ago a no-budget, found-footage frightener by a novice writer/director stormed the worldwide box office and rewrote the conventions of the genre. With the 3D release of the sixth film in the franchise, THE GHOST DIMENSION, we take stock of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY phenomenon with series masterminds Oren Peli and Jason Blum.
Viral Marketing A Game-Changer
It started in 2009 with a brilliant viral marketing plan: Online video footage of a forthcoming movie depicting the now-familiar cinematic motif – the seemingly innocuous blue-tinged scene of a suburban bedroom at night taken from an indoor security camera, the inhabitants (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) woken from slumber by something unspeakable.
Clips of the movie cut to shots of audience members leaping in fear and covering their faces in preview screenings, and the website invariably contained a link inviting the viewer to demand that the movie play in their town or city. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY hit cinemas nationwide later that year, and the estimated $15,000 film by first timer Oren Peli, shot on video over a week in 2006, went on to make its money back thirteen thousand times over – $195 million worldwide.
The much-higher budgets for three more entries in the franchise were still minuscule by studio standards (parts 3 and 4 and spin-off PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES each cost and average of $5 million), so even the lowest grossing of the series (PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4, at approximately $140 million worldwide) eclipsed the most outrageous profit aspirations of most executives and producers in Hollywood. Today, that blue-tinged security camera footage and blood-red title treatment is as recognizable as the JURASSIC PARK Logo or rebel alliance military insignia from the STAR WARS films.
After a bit of a detour that saw the series go in a different direction with 2014’s THE MARKED ONES – an experiment that introduced new characters and a different story that only dealt with Katie and her family’s history of fraternizing with demons peripherally – the newest installment is here just in time for Halloween.
As usual, distributor Paramount Pictures has kept an air-tight lid on the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION plot details prior to the film’s release, but we know this much: A new and equally unlucky family comes across a box full VHS tapes left in the house by the previous owner. After a weird experience while watching one, they search further, uncovering an ’80s-era video camera that can apparently put them in touch with the demonic presence at the center of the PARANORMAL mythology.
To find out more about one of the most successful ghost stories of the millennium, we spoke to franchise overlord Oren Peli – the creator/director of the first film who has been a producer on each film since PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 – and PA franchise producer Jason Blum of horror factory Blumhouse Productions, the name behind some of the creatively and financially best-performing horror films of the last decade.
The Videocam Generation
Peli says he was most inspired to make PARANORMAL ACTIVITY by 1999’s THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. ‘I didn’t know until I watched it that anyone could just buy a video camera, run around and make a movie,’ says the 45-year-old Israel-born filmmaker. ‘It was an immediately successful film and that kind of blew my mind. When I started doing my research for PARANORMAL ACTIVITY I decided to do it exactly the same way BLAIR WITCH would have been – totally authentic, letting the actors improvise, basically calling it a blueprint. It worked.’
Though Peli won’t take credit for inventing found footage (the genre went stratospheric soon after in everything from giant monsters – CLOVERFIELD – to teen comedies – PROJECT X), he admits PARANORMAL ACTIVITY re-energized it. ‘It allowed a lot of young filmmakers that didn’t have access to resources to make their own films, which I’m very happy about. Some work better than others, but it was something PARANORMAL ACTIVITY helped change in the market.’
But just what was it that prompted such change? We’d seen haunted house stories just like we’d seen found footage before. What magic dust did Peli sprinkle on the first film that made audiences connect to it so strongly? We’d seen the tropes and the format before, but maybe the secret was that we’d never seen them like this.
Even as late as 2012’s PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4, the series was giving horror fans something they weren’t getting anywhere else. “I knew the gore [of most horror films] made me cringe, but it doesn’t scare me,’ Peli says. ‘The things that really scare me are the slow-build, older horror movies like ROSEMARY’S BABY, the original THE HAUNTING, even BLAIR WITCH, or THE SIXTH SENSE, that relied on tension and atmosphere to get the scare. It was the kind of movie I wanted to make even if was totally contrary to what was in the marketplace.”
We’d had a few years of SAW, HOSTEL and the rest of the torture-porn genre by then, and Peli thinks horror fans might simply have been ready for something else: ‘People might have been desensitized by the gore, so they were receptive to something that takes its time to build the story and scare us.”
“I think the first movie that Oren did was really unique,” praises Blum. “There are a lot of original things that aren’t good, but if you have something that really works and is different than anything anyone’s ever seen before… it’s worth a trip to a theater to check out what everyone was talking about.”
And there’s one more brilliant conceit the first movie freaked us all out over, given skin-crawling life in the sequences of Katie getting out of bed to stand for hours simply to stare at her partner, something dark and evil already inside her. “I touched upon a nerve about what happens at night when you’re asleep in your own home,” observes Peli.
“After PSYCHO came out, people were saying, ‘I’m never going to shower.’ After BLAIR WITCH, people were saying, ‘I’m never going camping in the woods.’ If you got scared by PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, you can’t say you’re never going to go to sleep in your own house again. That’s the one place you’re suppose to be safe.”
Keeping A Horror Franchise Fresh
Like many film series, PARANORMAL’s astounding early success painted its quality name into a dangerous corner that’s seen lesser franchises come undone (speaking of BLAIR WITCH and its irascible sequel BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2). The element of surprise was gone, and the haters who claimed to be sick of found footage already had their claws out. The PARANORMAL ACTIVITY name would be enough to get crowds into theaters, but how would the movies themselves deliver?
Peli is conscious of the fine line between being true to what fans like about something and offering something new and different, calling every new sequel a “struggle.” He asks, “How can we address the story, but at the same time not betray the core values of the franchise? Every once in awhile we’ll try different things like THE MARKED ONES that had a very different feel and style than the previous ones.
But THE GHOST DIMENSION is going to have a lot of the staples of the franchise.” One big change, however, teased in the trailer for the film, is that for the first time we’re going to see the being from beyond in a much more physical form. ‘Hopefully the fans will respond positively to us offering something fresh and new,’ Peli says.
Peli’s use of the phrase “address the story” is a good place to raise another surprising revelation from behind the scenes. Where some franchises are content to essentially remake the same story that came before (it can be argued that even classics like TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY did as much), PARANORMAL ACTIVITY is more like a TV series, continuing the story of Katie’s family history of demon-dabbling, even though each film ends at a natural point of conclusion.
You can imagine Peli, Blum and subsequent writer/directors Tod Williams (director of part 2), Michael Perry, Tom Pabst (writers of part 2) Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost, Christopher Landon (directors/writer of parts 3 and 4), Chad Feehan (co-writer of part 4) and GHOST DIMENSION director Gregory Plotkin (editor of parts 2-4) in a Marvel Studios-style story room, plotting out each character, story beat and connection between films.
But Blum says the whole story was written very much on the fly. ‘We talked about mythology movie to movie,’ he says, ‘but because they came out so quickly, one after the other, we never really had time to think about it. We tried not to contradict anything in the previous movies but this last one is the first time where we really took a couple years and thought about how to tie everything up in a clever and unique way.’
Peli appreciates any suggestion that the whole franchise looks like it was sketched out in advance, though he’s quick to divert credit for the sequels to his subsequent writers: ‘When I was making the first one I would have been happy if it had just got a small release and did okay and not died humiliatingly. Then, as studios do when they have a hit, they wanted to keep making them. I was very skeptical until the idea Michael Perry came up with, of a prequel that tells the story of Katie’s sister. I thought, ‘That’s actually kind of smart. It could work.”
The End Of Paranormal Activity?
So it’s even more surprising to hear – now that the creative brain trust did finally sit down and graph the connective tissue between the other movies – that it all may be over. The release of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION will signal what Blum calls “a rest from the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY universe.” ‘This is the last PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movie, at least in this mythology,’ he says. ‘No matter how well it does, there are no plans for a next PARANORMAL ACTIVITY.’
But press him on the point and Blum isn’t 100 percent, saying that if someone, years in the future, comes up with a reboot or a different way in to the mythology, he won’t say they’d never have anything to do with it again – especially in a world where the experimental spin-off of THE MARKED ONES exists: “If a whole other mythology came down the pike in a few years, it wouldn’t be impossible.”
Peli agrees that THE GHOST DIMENSION is the last PARANORMAL ACTIVITY story he plans to be involved with. But then again, he reminds us it’s not really up to him whether or not we see the name again. ‘Maybe, many years down the road, they’ll say they want a re-make or more of them. I have no idea,’ he says.
Of course, Blumhouse and Peli being all done with it is good news in one way. How many beloved film franchises have been forever sullied when rights holders made cynical cash-grabs that resulted in terrible films like JAWS: THE REVENGE, SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES, ALIEN: RESURRECTION and SAW (pretty much most of them)? By contrast, Blumhouse is a gratifyingly story-first company, and Blum joins Peli in his belief that PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and the story of the demon that Katie and Micah first unleashed has come to a close naturally.
‘I’m very happy about the decision,’ Blum says. ‘It wasn’t something I had to talk the studio into, either. We both agreed. I’m very proud to say we’re not doing anymore before the movie comes out. Usually a producer or executive will say, ‘All right, we’re done,’ if the movie comes out and doesn’t do any business. We’re laying down the sword saying, ‘We’re done now.'”
Peli is likewise all too aware of the danger of a franchise overstaying its welcome. ‘We want to bring it full circle and wrap it up nicely – not get to the point that we’re making the 10th sequel and people get really sick of them,’ he says. ‘We’re going to hopefully end on a high note, say, ‘It was a great ride,’ and that’ll be it.”
Blumhouse: The Horror Hit Factory
Built on the horror genre (but by no means restricted to it – see their other projects WHIPLASH, THE BABYMAKERS and this month’s JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS), Blumhouse Productions is the kind of company all of Hollywood wishes it could be. When the 15-year-old company routinely spends only a couple of million dollars per film and then sees incredible returns on hits such as INSIDIOUS ($97 million worldwide) THE PURGE ($89 million worldwide) and SINISTER ($77 million worldwide), its bank account isn’t the only thing turning green.
You could almost hear the sigh of relief in early 2015 when 46-year-old Blumhouse founder Jason Blum told a conference audience that scary movies would remain the company’s creative bread and butter. When Famous Monsters asked whether that was a financial decision or just because he’s a fan, he didn’t hesitate: ‘It’s definitely where my heart lies, but it also makes sense financially.”
What’s more, the instrument by which he assesses material isn’t informed by the focus groups, licensing deals or marketing executives that tend to steer the rest of the industry. ‘I go with my gut,’ Blum says. ‘I try not to think what other people are going to like. Are we as a company excited about this? If we are, we do it.’
But even that doesn’t adequately capture Blumhouse’s mysterious X factor. It’s not the only name in the business making horror movies – even good ones. But Blum says the secret to his success is that everyone who works at Blumhouse loves scary movies. It ensures the company doesn’t approach horror movies for what he calls “cynical reasons.” While the contemporary entertainment industry isn’t quite run by the cigar-chomping moguls of yesteryear, Blum is a new breed of executive fanboy who can talk the talk.
The famously tight reign Blumhouse puts over production costs also means that when lightning really strikes – like it did with PARANORMAL ACTIVITY – the coffers are full enough to absorb any projects that underperform (although with budgets so low, even the ones that do poorly hardly break the bank).
And there’s something else the low costs give Blumhouse that’s even rarer in the business climate of today’s movie industry. ‘We stay at the low level because the story gets less scrutiny,’ he says. ‘It’s hard to go to a financier and say, ‘Spend all this money and we’re going to do something very unique.’ When you don’t ask for as much money you get more creative freedom. That’s the mantra, and it’s a big operating principle of the company – take less and try new.’