Pulling Focus – Found Footage Films and Marketing

The marketing campaign created a myth. It sold two false notions to the public: firstly, that the film was so scary the producers might have had cold feet about releasing it in the first place, and also, after its release, that everybody had already seen it before you. Everyone on Twitter was talking about it—look at the audience in that trailer; they’re having a great time, who’d want to miss out on that? But this type of marketing bubble will inevitably burst. People will go to see the film and realize they watched a bedroom and two idiots for an hour and a half and after that there’s really no way to regenerate that amount of expectation again. So how did they attempt to create interest in the sequels? Shitloads of lore.

If Lost taught me anything, it’s that people love lore. Even when characterization, narrative consistency and engaging plot points have fallen by the wayside, people need to know more. Lost had The Lost Experience, an alternate reality game (ARG) that ran in conjunction with the show, where people could solve puzzles and clues online and gain small snippets of information. Ivan Askwith states in his paper Deconstructing the Lost Experience, that this was “intended to reward the curiosity of invested fans by allowing more complete immersion in the show’s plot, without revealing essential plot details that would put non-players at a significant disadvantage.” Essentially, lore facilitates immersion; even when the show was crumbling around them, these “invested fans” still just wanted to know what the deal with the smoke monster was. There’s no genre I can think of that’s better suited to allow immersion to the audience than the found footage film; the entire aesthetic is catered to this exact concept. They’re commonly shot from the POV of a character and feature unknown actors so a semblance of reality can remain. These films suck in the audience and put them straight into the middle of the conflict. Because of this, marketing campaigns are geared perfectly to allow the audience to become further imbedded in the story and the believability of the world, commonly using ARGs and a wealth of backstory to make the viewer seem even more involved in the reality of the fiction. Do you really think that the creators of Paranormal Activity franchise had some kind of multi-film overriding arc planned from that start that was so complicated that they needed prequels to fill in the blanks? I’d put my money on no. The films are smash and grab, they appear at Halloween, take shitloads of money, then leave. But now they’ve set up their own canon and history. Here’s the trailer for Paranormal Activity 3:

So there’s no audience now, just scenes from the film with the words “DISCOVER THE SECRET OF THE ACTIVITY” shown throughout. The new strategy is in full effect: the first film pushed the audience angle, but with that proverbial well all dried up, the producers are now trying to immerse you into the world further, in hope that the mystery will be enough to entice audiences. Shock tactics got you there, but it’s the lore that’ll keep you.

It could be argued that these marketing techniques and tricks are not unique to found footage films, but they do appear prevalent in most of the films released within this genre. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock states in his book Nothing That Is: Millennial Cinema and the Blair Witch Controversies that audiences “see the film not as film but as one more artifact, along with the materials gathered together at the web site, which we might view in order to better understand a kind of repressed or hidden reality” Weinstock’s point, seems to me, applicable to a vast majority of modern found footage films which rely heavily on the internet to better flesh out their created worlds. The films straddle the reality of our life and the reality of the film constantly; the marketing and the films themselves push an ultra-realistic depiction of unreal and unfathomable supernatural and terrifying evil, and the internet is the perfect medium to expand upon it. We’re detached enough from the web that we can become anonymous. It’s a platform where escapist fantasy and the reality of our everyday lives collide; we can spend hours reading obscure and unnecessary articles, pretend to be anyone and say anything we like on forums and then check our email and be bombarded with our friends’ stupid baby pictures on Facebook. Found footage viral marketing, when done well, directly targets the dichotomy between the fantasy and the reality of our lives on the internet, meshing together their own worlds with our everyday world to shine a light on the “hidden reality” that sits between the fact and fiction. Cloverfield’s massive viral campaign created a Myspace profile for every major character; The Last Exorcism took this one stage further by directly targeting users on Chatroulette.


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Sean was born and continues to live in Edinburgh, Scotland. He spends his spare time watching terrible films and then complaining about them to anyone present, regardless of their interest.

You can reach Sean via email, he doesn't have time for Twitter.

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