“Peo­ple were scream­ing and re­act­ing re­ally hys­ter­i­cally. It was as­ton­ish­ing”

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

as we have men­tioned, Blair Witch was a long time ago. What stu­dio wants to buy a home movie th­ese days?

“We showed it to all the stu­dios in town and they all passed. We screened it at the Slam­dance fes­ti­val and they passed again. Only DreamWorks re­sponded well. They loved the movie, but didn’t know how to mar­ket it. The ini­tial no­tion was that DreamWorks were just go­ing to re­make the film. But we felt that if we could get them into a pub­lic screen­ing we could change their mind.”

Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity is, in­deed, a film to be seen with an ex­cited crowd. Punc­tu­ated with the sort of sur­prises that cause neigh­bour­ing knees to be clutched and pop­corn buck­ets to be up­ended, it is ca­pa­ble of in­spir­ing gen­uine col­lec­tive dread in sus­cep­ti­ble audiences.

“We fi­nally got the peo­ple from DreamWorks into the the­atre and they were amazed. Peo­ple were scream­ing and re­act­ing re­ally hys­ter­i­cally. It was as­ton­ish­ing. They de­cided then and there that, rather than re­mak­ing it, they would ac­tu­ally release the film in the­atres. They just had to get ap­proval from one more per­son: Steven Spiel­berg.”

As it hap­pened, Spiel­berg liked the film very much, but sug­gested that Peli swap a slightly fussy end­ing for the cur­rent enig­matic de­noue­ment.

The ver­sion of Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity that re­sulted was very ef­fec­tive, but cyn­ics might ar­gue that the most im­pres­sive strokes of ge­nius came from the mar­ket­ing men. In for­mer times, films tended to open slowly in a small num­ber of venues and only later – trad­ing on good word of mouth – grad­u­ally ex­panded be­yond the big cities. Now, fol­low­ing the rise of the post-Jaws block­buster, it has be­came com­mon to fling thou­sands of prints si­mul­ta­ne­ously through­out the world.

Para­mount, DreamWorks’ cor­po­rate over­lords, re­turned to the old prac­tice of a small

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ini­tial release and then clev­erly stoked a “grass-roots” cam­paign de­mand­ing that the film be ex­panded. Even­tu­ally, a web­site was set up that al­lowed pun­ters to reg­is­ter their de­sire for Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity to be granted a na­tional roll-out. When the num­ber of re­quests reached one mil­lion, the com­pany would, it said, re­luc­tantly com­ply with this, ahem, spon­ta­neous cru­sade. A mere one mil­lion? Did Dr Evil come up with th­ese fig­ures? The fig­ure was, of course, sur­passed in dou­ble-quick time.

“Yes, the over­all plan was to release it in a small way and build some in­ter­est,” Peli says. “Mar­ket­ing the film was a prob­lem. DreamWorks knew you couldn’t just blast a film made on home video with no stars onto 5,000 screens. But we knew what great buzz it had got at fes­ti­vals. So we en­cour­aged peo­ple to go see it and then blog about it or Twit­ter or just men­tion it to your friends. A lot of peo­ple say it was just a mar­ket­ing trick. But, look, it would only have worked if peo­ple were keen.”

Well, the scheme has worked and, by one trade pa­per’s cal­cu­la­tion, Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity is now – when you rate ac­cord­ing to the ra­tio of tak­ings to pro­duc­tion bud­get – the most prof­itable film ever at the world box­of­fice. Yet this suc­cess does not guar­an­tee Oren a ca­reer at Hol­ly­wood’s top ta­ble. The mak­ers of The Blair Witch Project have been stranded in de­vel­op­ment hell for the past decade. The folk be­hind Open Wa­ter have yet to fol­low up their film.

Oren Peli, how­ever, talks like a man with a plan. When I ask him about Area 51, his suc­ces­sor to Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity, he calmly pleads the fifth. “I pre­fer to say noth­ing about any up­com­ing projects be­cause I see no po­ten­tial ad­van­tage in do­ing so,” he says.

No po­ten­tial ad­van­tage? Is he re­ally as or­gan­ised and goal-ori­ented as he seems? “With any project I have been in­volved with I al­ways put the most pres­sure on my­self. I will try and guar­an­tee ev­ery film is a hit.”

He’s a slightly scary in­di­vid­ual, this Mr Peli. I sus­pect he may be around for a while.

Scream scenes: all pic­tures from Oren Peli’s Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity. The di­rec­tor is shown above in his edit­ing suite

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