Word of Mouth: Scaring up business for ‘Paranormal Activity 2'
Throughout the making of Paramount Pictures’ “Paranormal Activity 2,” an unsettling specter floated over the production.
The apparition had nothing to do with the earlier haunted house blockbuster a micro-budget thriller that exploded into a pop-culture sensation and grossed more than $107 million in domestic theaters a year ago, becoming one of the most profitable releases in show business history. Instead, the sequel/prequel was haunted by memories of Hollywood’s last effort to clone a similar scary story: Artisan Entertainment’s “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” which took in less than 20% of the preceding film’s revenues and was so decisively despised by critics and audiences that it tainted 1999’s original “Blair Witch Project” by association.
FOR THE RECORD:
“Paranormal Activity 2": An article about “Paranormal Activity 2" in the Oct. 21 Calendar section said the film was written by Michael R. Perry. The full credits on the film are screenplay by Michael R. Perry and Christopher Landon and Tom Pabst, story by Michael R. Perry. —
“We were worried more than anything else that the new movie wouldn’t work,” says Oren Peli, the former video game designer who wrote, directed and edited the first “Paranormal Activity” and served as a producer on the update, which premieres Thursday at midnight but was shown in 20 selected cities late Wednesday night. “And I’m sure there are a lot of people who will want to make sure that it’s not ‘Blair Witch 2.’”
“Paranormal Activity 2" plays very much like the original blockbuster, sharing its look and internal logic. Screenwriters Michael R. Perry (TV’s “Persons Unknown,” " Stephen King’s Dead Zone”), Christopher Landon and Tom Pabst and director Kip Williams (“The Door in the Floor”) set the new film in the days just preceding, and then the hours overlapping with, the ghostly invasion of Katie and Micah’s nearby dwelling in “Paranormal Activity.”
The follow-up unfolds in the Carlsbad residence of Kristie and Daniel Rey, Katie’s sister and brother-in-law. The couple has just welcomed newborn son Hunter, but he’s far from the only new arrival in the house. As security cameras document, their German shepherd, phantom-savvy teenage daughter and incantation-chanting nanny are no match for whatever is causing pans to fly off a kitchen rack, doors to open and slam without warning, and one person to exit a room rather swiftly.
That mysterious burned photograph found in the attic in the original film? Kristie and Daniel might have something to do with it.
“Paranormal Activity 2" was made for a comparative fortune, some $3 million versus the first film’s initial $15,000 budget, largely because Paramount is obliged to use union labor in all phases of production. But to preserve the first film’s discovered-footage feel, the movie was cast with unknowns (the studio is not even releasing the actors’ names yet) and shot in the same shaky, home-movie style that was central to the original thriller.
Peli, who is finishing work on the sci-fi thriller “Area 51,” at first resisted making a follow-up, but Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore, production head Adam Goodman and Ashley Brucks, vice president for creative affairs, all believed there was a way to catch lightning in a bottle twice.
Any number of possible sequel ideas were rejected because they disregarded the first film’s DNA. “A lot of the pitches didn’t relate to the first movie — it was just a different kind of scary story, two other people in a house,” says producer Jason Blum, who supervised the movie’s development and production with partner Steven Schneider and Peli.
“We tried to keep it in the same language,” Blum says. “There was a desire on our part and the part of Adam and Ashley to not spend a lot of money on casting recognizable people and remain true to the spirit of the original film.”
But the two films also are intractably different, which ultimately shapes how the new movie is being marketed.
Given its homemade history, “Paranormal Activity” was about as organic as apples at a farmers’ market. The film was discovered by audiences as much as Paramount sold it to them — the release was jump-started by screenings at select college campuses, and “Paranormal Activity’s” long lines were as influential in promoting the film as any paid advertisement.
The new movie is a soup-to-nuts studio construction, not an independent film that Paramount acquired, and audiences no longer can unearth the movie on their own. The initial thriller premiered in 12 theaters in September 2009 as part of a gradually building platform release; “Paranormal Activity 2" will open wide on about 3,000 screens.
Paramount focused much of the “Paranormal Activity” sales effort around the experience of watching the film — television spots included glimpses of audiences jumping at its scares. The studio used some of that footage in its “Paranormal Activity 2" campaign launch but quickly shifted the promotion toward what the new movie might be — or might not be — about. One trailer included scenes that aren’t in the finished film.
The film’s online trailer was repeatedly updated with new plot clues, and a viral marketing team sneaked flash drives with 14 clips from the film into the pockets of fanboys attending the horror-themed festival Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, in late September. On Tuesday, a new TV spot was released showing that Katie appears in the new movie, and on Wednesday she was featured in a separate ad cryptically saying that Micah, who didn’t fare too well in the first movie, famously killed off in the first movie’s conclusion, “wasn’t up for hanging out today.”
There are more television commercials for “Paranormal Activity 2" than for the original movie, but Paramount says it won’t spend much more than $10 million on paid advertising, about half of what is devoted to most film openings.
As the new movie’s opening draws closer, Peli says he’s starting to relax. “A lot of people are skeptical, but once people see that it works, they will start to spread the word. We won’t know until this weekend, but it feels like we pulled it off.”