Pulling Focus – Found Footage Films and Marketing

Apollo 18’s website contained an ARG with official government-looking files bearing a striking similarity to the real-life reported fake moon landing evidence, and with the NASA space shuttle program closing earlier in the year, the campaign attempted to tap into a subject that everyone was, on some level, aware of. Or if I want to sound like a pretentious dick, it was marketed based on an ingrained part of the cultural zeitgeist. Everyone knows about the conspiracies; it’s part of our real life, and the marketing department just focused their content on this very real subject, attempting to seamlessly fit it into the space between the real and the fictional. And that’s what makes these films so special—they’re ours, they could only exist now, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a modern way of approaching cinema, with the marketing playing as big a role in the experience as the film itself. It also shows how, for some fans, the immersion into the reality of the world can be as rewarding as immersion into the film on its own. The days of hoaxes appear to be long gone, but that’s not what the found footage film has become; they don’t need to claim to be real, they just have to sit on the fence between reality and fantasy well enough that people want to be part of them. When handled well, these films, in conjunction with their marketing campaigns, can become artifacts that one can watch, examine, discuss, and be lost in. This can also all be produced on a modest budget; in fact, the films rely on it. Some big-name costly actor would break the viewer’s belief in the fictional world, so high-profile casting becomes detrimental to the success of the film; it’s sold as amateur footage, so it looks like amateur footage—that’s the point. So really anyone with zero cash and a video camera could make one and the internet could give it both exposure and a home.

The first episode of Marble Hornets was shown on YouTube two years ago; it follows the typical format of piecing together lost tapes and evidence,similar to Blair Witch, and features one of the first, and most successful, creatures of urban legend created solely by the internet, Slenderman. The ARG was popularized on the web, spreading through Twitter postings and notably on Reddit. Marble Hornets began with over 1 million views on its opening episode (which has fallen to just over 70,000 on its 51st). Still, considering the production is functioning without a large budget or studio backing, it’s safe to say it’s been pretty successful. I think a major part of its success came from its lack of finances, which forced the website and promotion to look lo-fi, and which in turn added authenticity to the work, making it easier for fans to become immersed within its fictional world. The Marble Hornets website and subreddit allow this community of fans to discuss theories and generate their own content, while still playing along with the game. So maybe the internet is a more appropriate home for the found footage film; cinematic releases rely on the medium hugely for marketing anyway, so perhaps the natural evolution is that the entire experience is exclusively held online. Obviously this romanticized plan forgets that people like to make money and there’s a lot more to be made in the cinema than solely on the net. It’s possible, however, as streaming and general internet activity grows, this could become a viable option, but in the here and now, cinema is still king.

But is the genre dying? Critically, perhaps; it’s definitely not producing consistently good films, but with The Last Exorcism taking $67 million worldwide on a budget of $1.8 million, and Paranormal Activity 3 becoming the highest grossing film ever to be released in the fall with a $52.6 million dollar opening, there’s obviously still a public demand. The Paranormal Activity franchise is the genre’s leading star, and personally, along with most of the other found footage attempts, I think they’re pretty poor films, but that’s doesn’t seem a fair way to view the genre as a whole, or its potential. It sounds like a convenient contradiction to say that these films shouldn’t be judged by what is only shown on screen, that the marketing campaigns and AVG content should also be accounted for, but personally I think this is the only way to view these films accurately. Really it’s not the genre that has a short lifespan, it’s the films themselves. Found footage films will not ever have the longevity of films in other genres, because the viral campaign, the build-up, and the lore that trickles through before its release is what makes it special, but also so finite. These films function on the audience being in the moment. The entire experience isn’t suited to being archived, as the campaigns need immediacy; they’re created to make the audience feel part of the build-up. People might not understand why The Blair Witch Project was important or even good in 20 years, but that’s why it worked so well in the first place. It’s about immersion, about being trapped in the middle of a nightmare and trying to figure out how you got there and how to escape. It’s a genre that could only exist with the internet in tow, that still has the potential to shock, surprise and intrigue the audience; bizarrely, the biggest stumbling block seems to be the quality of the films themselves.

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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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