Paranormal Activity

17 November 2009

Things That Go Bump in the Market: “Paranormal Activity” and the Perils of Anticipointment

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Marketing Demonologist…

"And the most horrifying part was that I only got paid $500 to star in a movie that's made over $100 million!"

“And the most horrifying part was that I only got paid $500 to star in a movie that’s made over $100 million!”

It was brilliant. Not the film, but the marketing campaign that elevated a $15,000 amateur horror flick into a $100 million box office smash. The problem? Serious anticipointment…

Last night I finally saw Paranormal Activity. The numerous stories about the film’s success and its clever promotional tactics made it mandatory viewing for someone who blogs about marketing and media. I wanted to see it the day it opened in L.A. but was trapped in my own personal nightmare: grading midterms. (I love teaching, but grading? The horror, the horror…)

So I finally hit the movie complex at the eerily quiet Century City mall. Want to know what’s really scary? This economy. An upscale mall on a Monday night is a true ghost town.

And that was part of the viewing experience problem: the theater was also nearly empty. I counted eight entire living humans, including myself, in this screening. Normally, I prefer to watch movies with very few others, since other audience members tend to distract me — particularly those who think a movie theater is, like, totally the bestest place to chat with their BFF’s. But Paranormal Activity is a movie that screams for a crowd: just like a live sporting event, the communal reaction is part of the entertainment. And last night, the seven other people in the audience barely uttered more than a couple of gasps. This meant that I had to focus entirely on the film for my thrills — a tall order for most movies, too tall for one that’s been overhyped.

“Anticipointment” is one of my favorite neologisms of the past decade. I first read it in Wired magazine back when Wired was printed on paper thick as tortillas and graphically designed by spidermonkeys on LSD. Anticipointment is that feeling you get after experiencing something hyped to a hyperventilating degree; the result almost always falls short of your expectations. Kind of like most Academy Award Best Pictures and politicians.

Paranormal Activity was no exception. Sure, it delivered a few chills and a lot of jump scares. Anything that involves unexplained noises, unwelcome night visitors, and unexpected BOOMS! usually does. But it was also highly repetitious: the movie literally consists of a night-by-night chronicle of strange footsteps and moving doors.

On a more fundamental level, basing a horror movie on found footage (a “discovered” amateur video) has now been officially done to death. Blair Witch Project made it buzzworthy; Cloverfield gave it the big-budget Hollywood treatment; Paranormal Activity has hopefully buried it. (But I don’t trust Hollywood to leave the dead alone.)

Abnormal Activity

The biggest challenge facing many horror filmmakers is NOT how to create believable ghosts or monsters: it’s how to create believable humans.

Paranormal Activity two leads, the young couple, might as well be zombies for all the ingenuity — and basic instinct — they apply to their predicament. There’s a demon in our house? Let’s just keep yelling, “What was that?!” and “Who’s there?!” In a moment of panic? Don’t forget to grab the camcorder! Confronted by supernatural evil? No problem — just research it on the Internet. Who needs an exorcist? Google will save us!

Seriously parannoying.

Not once did this couple try anything to combat their unwelcome visitor — no priests, no prayers, no cans of Raid. More beguiling, they didn’t even try to leave the house! There’s some vague warning that “you cannot run from this, it will follow you”… but wouldn’t most people say, oh what the hell, let’s give fleeing a shot? You know, let’s go to a Denny’s, find an open church, or check into a major hotel where we’re surrounded by hundreds of other people and can order some room service… “Hello, front desk? Could you send some raw garlic and a carafe of holy water to room 666?”

Instead, despite having a malevolent entity visit their bedroom every single night — once even trying to drag the woman away — this couple repaired to the same bed and fell asleep at the same time without fail. I suffer more insomnia just thinking about what’s happened to my USC Trojans football team. This couple should be doing ads for sleeping pills: “Got demons? Try Nytol…”

Now, if we were to replace the demon with a venomous snake or large black spider, would the couple be as equally insouciant?

Consequently, not once did the film get my heart racing or make me break a sweat — like a great football game will. (Last year’s Super Bowl nearly sent me into cardiac arrest.) Sure, Paranormal Activity had its moments, and I confess peering suspiciously into the shadows when I took out the garbage after midnight, but I didn’t lose a bit of sleep. The imagery from the otherwise silly film The Ring haunted me more, and nothing creeps me out like the best David Lynch flick. (If Lynch ever decides to direct a pure horror film… watch out.)

Here’s The Genius Bit

Got an average horror flick on your hands? Time for some business as unusual. And let me just say that, with some execrable exceptions, no one does marketing better than Hollywood.

Paramount sat on this film for two years trying to figure out what to do with it. Given two years, they came up with a campaign that could raise the dead.

Rather then spend millions advertising a small film in jaded major-media markets, Paramount seeded Paranormal Activity with midnight-only screenings in a dozen college towns, while ignoring the traditional opening markets of Los Angeles and New York.

Paranormal Activity opening cities

Paranormal Activity coming to create insomnia in college kids near you.

Why target such small markets?

Screenings that start at midnight and end in the darkest hours, combined with the relative stillness of small college towns and massive wooded campuses, enhanced the after effect. Imagine walking home after watching a supernatural horror movie…

More importantly, the college audience was perfect:

  • They’re old enough to see an R-rated movie, but most are still too young to go to bars. What else is there to do?
  • They have an appetite for horror and cult films.
  • They enjoy group activities at night.
  • They’re not long separated from the years when they were afraid of the dark — some might still be.
  • For the first time, most are not living in the comfort of their family home.
  • They’re too young to have seen The Exorcist (a truly great demon film).
  • Above all, they’re extremely web savvy and social. Let the word-of-mouth begin!

Small college towns are also cheap: a concentrated target audience, low-cost media, and little competition. And when you have a bad movie, these small towns also have a bonus feature: no major critics.

If Paranormal Activity had failed at this low-cost test, then it could have quietly gone straight to DVD and late night Cinemax. But it succeeded. The buzz turned into a roar. Paramount then tapped — a site normally used to promote rock concerts — to have young people “demand” the film open in their cities. You can imagine the noise in L.A. and New York. This ploy alone created fodder for the media.

The result: Paranormal Activity beat out another horror movie, Saw VI, to hit No. 1 at the box office, scored over $100 million in ticket sales and counting — and created some heavy doses of anticipointment in us latecomers.

Serial Thrilling: The Horror of Sequels

Of course, this much money entices Hollywood to make sequels. The challenge in any movie genre is making a sequel that lives up to the first. In the case of Blair Witch Project, the found footage device entices the audience to imagine it’s real. Sequels make it difficult for even the most impassioned fan to enter that mindset again — witness the disaster that was Blair Witch 2.

I also suspect other horror movies will try seeding the college market and tapping Those tactics might work again, but they won’t generate the media coverage granted to the first marketer who does something.

And, yes, of course, there’s talk of a Paranormal Activity sequel. Hopefully, it’s subtitled “Leaving the Bedroom Already.” I’m also hoping that, next time, all that creativity devoted to marketing will be used to make a truly killer film.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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14 years ago

You hit it on the head Freddy. This movie had its moments, but was hyped way too much. I, like you, am much more impressed with the marketing than the actual movie itself.

Saba K. Washington
Saba K. Washington
14 years ago

Well Freddy, I must say that this is another well written post. My response to this one is, “Marketing does drive sales” –

genine tillotson
genine tillotson
14 years ago

Hey, I had the same reaction watching Julie and Julia in a near empty theater. Yet another vehicle for the totally over-exposed Meryl Streep and the utterly uninteresting Julie Powell as played by Amy Adams (possibly the most forgettable actress of all time).
Do I date myself if I recall going to see Pink Flamingoes at a university theater at Princeton, way back when John Waters was truly not mainstream. Same marketing idea, very big cult following, still bizarrely hilarious. The nice thing was that Pink Flamingoes (with its beyond X content) was never transitioned to mass-distribution. I think of these sorts of movies like Zap Comics, precious because they cannot ever be mainstream 100 million dollar monsters.
Freddy, I say make a comedy-horror film. then no one will care if they ever leave the bedroom, their house, or LA.
But do check out the indie film, Long Distance with a weird, somewhat inconsistent script but well-acted and compelling, although you will say, “huh?” at the end. I only mention it ’cause I know the guys who wrote it, and it takes place within a confined space, rather like Sorry Wrong Number. Whew, I need to get a life today…

Roger Hsieh
Roger Hsieh
14 years ago

Great post Freddy. Always educational and entertaining.