Monday, October 12, 2009

Paranormal Marketing Activity

When does a marketing campaign cost more than its movie? Well let's just put it this way - you can barely buy the poster for Paranormal Activity for what it cost to make the film. That is, a studio marketing department can't. Paramount almost certainly paid BLT & Associates more than the $15,000 or so it reportedly cost to make the film, to come up with the current poster - and the poster is just the room going cold before the paranormal events race in to chill your blood.

A little back story is in order. On July 30th, 1999, everything about making and marketing movies bumped and stumbled into a scary patch of woods and suddenly shaky camera mock-documentaries were popular and profitable, insanely so, because of The Blair Witch Project. Made for $60,000, Blair Witch went on to make a touch under a quarter of a billion worldwide. For those keeping score, the take was 4,008 times its original production budget.

Enter Paranormal Activity and its writer/director Oren Peli, a video game designer with no previous experience in film. In one week in 2006 he shot a movie. In 2008, that movie grabbed screen time at the Slamdance Film Festival in Utah. From there the history starts blurring into urban legend status. Steven Spielberg is reported to have screened the film in his home where he becomes convinced his bathroom is haunted. Dreamworks buys the movie and shelves it with the intent of remaking it studio style with big stars and big budgets. Paramount then gets hold of a true brainstorm and steps in with the decision to release the film as is. They decide to back the release with clever marketing and a lean budget, emphasizing an inexpensive viral internet campaign, then stoke the hype with ultra-limited (read - aren't you lucky to be here) midnight screenings. The master stroke - a "Demand It!" campaign that may become more legendary than the movie itself.

The marketing idea was simplicity itself. The online campaign promised agitated scare freaks that with 1 million registered "demands", the studio would cave in and go wide release! Wow, they would do all that just because we demanded it? Cool!

And Demand It! audiences did. That's at least the hype - and the success of that hype is only starting to crank up the money counters over at Paramount. The advertising is going heavy on audience reaction; apparently there are people who actually believe those crowds screaming in theater lines would still behave that way even if there wasn't a cameraman filming them for a promo. Advertising using the movie's actual footage doesn't conjure up nearly as much excitement without cutting to people jumping and cringing in their theater seats. For all of the ordinariness of what's actually on the screen, it becomes clear that this is a film made in the marketing.

So far, so good, for all involved. Weekend box-office results watched Paranormal Activity jump into the top ten at number 4! Without much competition, it only needed a weekend take of $2.4 million to achieve that result, but on a budget of under twenty grand and a 15 day take of nearly $4 million in very limited release, expect the real paranormal activity to be this film moving up the charts rather than down.

And as for the truly chilled to the bone, frightened beyond belief, scared souls sneaking out of the back of the theater? Those would be movie and marketing executives from every other studio in Hollywood. But be careful you enthusiastic ticket buyers who love to scream on camera for a chance to be in a Paranormal Activity promo clip... you reap what you sow - so while you're helping to stack Paramount's profits, you're also asking for every studio on the planet to make dirt cheap video quality movies and charge you full price to see them.

How long before you see this on a poster? - "From the same team that marketed Paranormal Activity comes...". Now that's damned scary. We warned you here first.

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