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