If the urban legend is to be believed, on a dark night in early 2008, a petrified Steven Spielberg locked his bedroom door from the inside after his first viewing. When the world’s most renowned director gets spooked, it is clear why Paranormal Activity was destined to be a success.
Despite its 2007 completion, it took just under two years for Paranormal Activity to find significant investment in major distributors DreamWorks and Paramount, who now oversee production duties. But after strategic releases in select student-orientated theatres in the US, and a now infamous viral marketing campaign based on social networking, it became a sleeper hit. Like a demon in the night, Paranormal Activity leapt up on us all.
With a budget of just $15,000, the original Paranormal Activity went on to gross a staggering $197m worldwide, making it one of the most profitable films ever made (based on return on investment). The second, made on a larger budget of $2.75m (still insignificant by today’s standards) grossed in excess of $80m. Paranormal Activity 3, the most recent in the series, is released this Halloween. It marks a meteoric rise that has constituted three films in four years; three different directors (from unknown computer game designer Oren Peli to Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost of the acclaimed 2010 film Catfish); and characters from three different sections of the same family. The series is no longer a low-budget sleeper, but a reliable studio franchise.
However, it remains an interesting franchise. It is not one that relies on merchandise, figurines or multimedia paraphernalia. Rather, it is one that is an example of studios adopting a cheap aesthetic to make an ironically large profit. It will not win any awards for technical innovation. There is no doubt it is indebted to its closest relative, 1999’s ‘found footage’ film The Blair Witch Project. Nor will it be recognised for evolution in style, with the entire trilogy operating through a similar formula. It will be noted for its simplicity and subtlety, for making the most of camera angles and shadows – an effective technique which explains why audiences come back for more.
Above anything else, the Paranormal Activity franchise is an endearing success story of how a measly budgeted, simple idea can rise straight to the top in an era saturated with flamboyant special effects, and that, is something to be celebrated.