Pulling Focus – Found Footage Films and Marketing
Found footage horror films are a genuinely modern phenomenon. We can attempt to trace roots to Cannibal Holocaust in 1980, tie origins to the aesthetic and stylistic techniques in the even older cinéma vérité genre, or, if we really want to go back, we can look at Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Both novels were written in the epistolary format, i.e. with their fictional narratives created through letters, diary entries, and newspaper cuttings. Just like modern found footage films, they sold fiction as fact and the audience lapped it up. But these examples are only close approximations to what the found footage genre actually is; really, it’s something that’s unique to the internet generation. But with the reviews of Paranormal Activity 3 I read, I seem to be constantly told that the genre has already run its course, there’s no new ideas, it’s dying. But what are the characteristics of the genre? That they’re cheap handheld horror mockumentaries? Or is there more to it than that? The Blair Witch Project really kicked off what we think of as the genre. It wasn’t the first film to attempt the style, but it was the first to create a successful holistic experience, where the film’s web marketing, posters, trailers and the movie formed one distinct object. But before we get onto that, I’ll start with my first experience of the found footage genre.
Ghostwatch was shown on BBC 1 on the 31st of October 1992. It was promoted as a live investigation featuring real British broadcasters and presenters, of a house in England haunted by “Pipes”—a cross-dressing, paedophilic ghost that spent his nights scaring children and tapping on the family’s water heater. Due to the number of complaints from the public, a bashing in the tabloid media, and allegedly causing one man to commit suicide due to a psychological reaction to the program, the BBC was forced to ban any airings of Ghostwatch for a decade. I was ten when Ghostwatch aired and it was terrifying. If you haven’t seen it, the concept of a transvestite child-catcher might sound a bit stupid, but it was complete nightmare fuel. You can keep your Michael Myers—Pipes will forever be the worst thing in the world to me. Ghostwatch worked; it sold me and thousands of other viewers fiction as fact. It told us a bizarre and terrifying paranormal tale with a straight face and a large group of the population believed it. According to IMDb, the directors of The Blair Witch Project also got a chance to see Ghostwatch, and when they made their movie they had one trick up their sleeve that was unavailable in 1992: the internet.
It’s easy to forget that The Blair Witch Project wasn’t released as only a simply well made horror film; it was also a pretty successful hoax. A pirated copy was leaked on the internet prior to its release. The copy, a workprint, had key scenes missing that created a disjointed narrative that made it appear even more real, so when people torrented it they thought they had stumbled upon real footage. Prior to the release of the actual movie, the entire marketing campaign maintained this spirit. The principle actors were listed as “missing, presumed dead” on IMDb, missing posters were put up in festivals, even the official soundtrack was sold as a mixtape found in one of the character’s abandoned car. The campaign was everywhere: people were in chat rooms discussing its authenticity, a “real” documentary of the mystery The Curse of the Blair Witch was shown on TV, the website contained “official” details of the disappearances, and all the while everybody involved in the movie stayed tightlipped.
Even now, when a vast majority of the audience is too knowledgeable and cynical of viral marketing to ever believe the content is real, found footage films are still reliant on social media and internet campaigns as a way of promoting their film to the public. Before the release of Paranormal Activity, the film’s website claimed that if over 1 million viewers clicked the “demand it” button at the top of the screen, the film would be shown theatrically across the country. So the average Joe had a say—“Who cares what the studio execs want, the people will decide the fate of this film!”—but really this was the execs’ plan all along. As Douglas Rushkoff, one of the first people to ever write about viral marketing, explains:
“This isn’t some piece of propaganda that’s so dangerous that movie theaters are refusing to show it, or even so potentially unpopular that theaters don’t want to show it. This is a movie distributor looking for some way to create publicity about itself. . . . They’re pretending there is some distribution obstacle that people’s popular demand is going to overcome.”
As you can probably guess, the 1 million target was smashed and we got a controversial movie too dangerous for cinema…well, not really. Instead, we were treated to watching Micah’s smug face as he condescendingly talks about his camera and his Ouija board for the duration; even in the sequel, when I’ve already seen him die, his smug face reappears. I’ve not seen Paranormal Activity 3 yet and even with it being set in 1988, I’m waiting on Micah appearing out of some kind of portal and beginning to smugly explain quantum string theory.
The thing is, the Paranormal Activity films are neither controversial nor unsafe products. They’re generic horror films that the public goes to see during Halloween. But just as Blair Witch played the hoax angle, Paranormal Activity played one too, by directly pandering to the audience. It all started with the “demand it” button, and added to this was a huge Twitter campaign that spread and trended massively. Even the trailer spent more time watching the audience than actually showing the film.