Found Footage

Posted 1/29/12 by Danny

As I was commuting to work this morning I saw this poster for an upcoming television show:

And for a second I thought “hmm, from the director of Paranormal Activity…interesting” and then I thought “Wait, why is that a selling point?”  How much of Paranormal Activity’s success is due to the direction?  Well, it turns out Oren wrote the Paranormal Activity films also.  After reading that I thought “Ah, I see…Wait, why is that a selling point?”

I’m no film expert, but I did make a lot of homemade horror movies with my friends when I was a kid, (so yeah, total film expert) and honestly, most of the Paranormal Activity franchise looks a lot like those.  It wasn’t masterful direction that made the PA movies watchable, it was simply cheap thrills – unless you consider a stationary camera in a bedroom for 80% of the movie clever cinematography.


to even CONCEIVE of this shot requires brilliance we haven’t seen since I expertly tied my shoes this morning

In addition to looking like the big time directorial debut of someone who’s only previous experience was setting up a tripod for his homemade sex tapes, The Paranormal Activity films aren’t crafted with any kind of precision, they’re just a setup and delivery system for startles.  They also ask you to believe that a person caught in a horrifying, life threatening situation would not only decide to tie one of their hands up with a handheld camera, but also pan slowly with a camera across the room rather than use their much more quick and effective, gifted by evolution eyeballs.  There is no three dimensionality here, no rich story to tell, nothing below the surface.  I have to wonder if there even was a screenplay for these, or just a loose framing of the sequence of events and the “direction” to just riff on how “creeped out you were” by the noises you heard last night.  Oren is probably a pretentious blowhard who loves to tell women in bars about how he’s a respected “filmmaker” and that he makes popular “movies” and that they should go back to his place and have “sex”.


I picture something like this

But let’s look at this type of film, originating as far as I can tell with “The Blair Witch Project”, which has expanded from the horror genre to include monster movies like “Cloverfield” (Yes, it IS it’s own genre, independent of horror movies), and now to “Chronicle” a sort of Superpowered drama.

I really enjoyed “The Blair Witch Project”, due largely to the fact that I was 15 when it came out.  I also had a friend who actually believed it was real footage.  Watching her devastated face as she emerged from the theater and staggered to a bench while repeating “I can’t believe that happened” was pretty much the best comic relief I could ever ask for.

I found “Cloverfield” a valuable learning experience, because it taught me that populating your movie with the most unlikeable yuppie tools you can find makes rooting for their survival a challenge.  I, and half the theater, was cheering as each one bit the dust.  But let’s call a spade a spade:  No one goes to see a Godzilla film to side with the fleeing civilians, and that’s what made “Cloverfield” (and most monster movies) lackluster for me – the empathy I’m supposed to feel that makes me frightened by proxy just wasn’t there.  I was glad that alien thing fell into the ocean just off shore of Coney Island and started killing privileged people…because it not being noticed descending from space into one of the largest population centers on the planet is a completely believable premise.


“Anybody else hear the sound barrier being broken just then?”

If you’re anything like me, this increasingly popular “found footage” genre induces the motion sickness equivalent of reading in a car that’s driving on a boat in the middle of a storm.  And if you’re really like me you’ll have retrograde amnesia to this fact as soon as you leave the theater and happily line up for the next one coming out of the sausage grinder.  That’s right, “Chronicle”, I’m game.

And if you don’t think it’s being done so already, don’t worry, “found footage” will be overused.  As with any novel technique, (The Matrix style slo-mo spin, for example) the trajectory will be as follows:

1.  Innovation: Blair Witch Project
2.  Still Fresh and Exciting: Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield
3.  Hackney, Stale, Redundant: Paranormal Activity 2 & 3, The Devil Inside
…and finally,
4.  Resurgence as Parody: Coming to a Theater Near You (probably 2013)

There’s a big reason it’s more and more popular to reach for this device.  Financially, the Paranormal Activity model is very attractive to any production studio.  These films are remarkably cheap to produce, and I’m gonna go ahead and say they do pretty well when it comes to return on investment.   Let’s look at the numbers for the original Paranormal Activity:

Budget to produce: $15,000
Worldwide Gross: $196,681,656

It made over 5 times it’s budget in the opening weekend, and without a heavy marketing campaign.  Anytime you can almost multiply the budget by itself and project worldwide earnings, you’re in pretty good shape.  Profitability will always win.

But does this stellar success transfer to non Paranormal Activity ventures like this new TV show?  Have the executives started to believe their own partially self congratulating hype that this guy is a visionary?  I’m not saying that writing only 3 films between 2007 and 2011 that all happen to have “Paranormal Activity” in the title (and are peppered with sparser dialog than roadtrips with my family) makes you a one trick pony, I’m just saying that I’m skeptical that Oren is actually…creative.  Also, he totally seems like a one trick pony.

I think it’s important we draw a distinction between respectable film-making and capitalizing on a sensationalized spectacle of a movie concept.  I’ll check out “The River” because I’m a sucker for anything claiming to be scary, but let’s not get carried away and equate box office dollars with artistic vision.  We have opted to be startled rather than scared, and shown our approval for shaky camerawork and ad libbed dialog with overwhelming box office numbers.  It’s no wonder Oren has started thinking he’s actually “created” something worthwhile, and others are drinking the kool-aid with him.

Now the beast is unleashed on television, so stock up on dramamine, America…unless you enjoy your home having that fresh vomit smell.


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