Ten years ago a nano budget indie film with amateurish production values, an unknown cast and no special effects emerged like a bolt from the blue to become an international box office behemoth, gobbling up almost US$250,000,000 worldwide. That film was The Blair Witch Project, the kind of one in a million success story Hollywood has never been able to replicate.

Never, that is, until now.

On its way to Australia is a new American feature built on a similar premise with a similarly miniscule budget. Its phenomenal success, achieved largely through innovative PR strategies, offers the industry some important lessons — particularly about the value of effective online marketing campaigns.

Paranormal Activity is a no frills camcorder-filmed thriller about a young couple who attempt to capture on video a malevolent ghost who haunts them at night. Like Blair Witch the footage we watch is allegedly shot by the participants themselves. In terms of on-screen action this amounts to lots of nothing much, the characters talking, worrying, fretting and freaking out (in roughly that order) as the film’s atmosphere gradually gathers intensity. The ghost walks up and down stairs, turns lights on and off, slams doors, mysterious breezes etc. In other words nothing remarkable transpires, especially for young audiences conditioned to have seen everything (many times) before.

Much more interesting is the story of how the film achieved success. Paranormal Activity cost around US$11,000 to make, and, at the time of writing, has earned more than US$60,000,000 at the American domestic box office alone.

Originally knocked back by the Sundance Film Festival, the film was later discovered by DreamWorks and initially slated for a big budget remake. The remake idea was scrapped and Paramount Pictures took over distribution, releasing Paranormal Activity in a small number of exhibitors across the country. Then came the first marketing masterstroke: the distributor announced that the film would roll out in cinemas nationally only if a million people voted for it on their website.

Lo and behold, the votes came in, reels were printed and viral marketing techniques spread like wildfire across social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter. Word of mouth grew, big time.

The first I heard about Paranormal Activity was via a post on Twitter. Before I had seen the film I had already engaged with it — and inadvertently helped to promote it — on two social networking websites. Two weeks ago one of my Twitter film colleagues ‘re-tweeted’ a link advertising free screenings across the country. I followed the link to Facebook, where I was essentially bribed to ‘become a fan’ of Paranormal Activity in order to collect my tickets. I followed the instructions, a willing accomplice to the film’s marketing strategies (the more people become a fan of something on Facebook, the more it is exposed to others).

If that wasn’t enough on the social networking front, at the free screening everybody in attendance was given a slip of cardboard encouraging them to “tweet your scream” to go in the running to win Paranormal Activity prize packs.

The fact that an invitation to a media screening for Paranormal Activity arrived in my inbox almost a full week after I had already confirmed (along with all the other freeloaders) to attend a preview screening via Facebook says something about the importance Paramount Pictures are placing on online marketing and pre-release word of mouth.

While Paramount’s viral-heavy marketing tactics have been remarkably effective in generating interest in Paranormal Activities, they point to an aggravating future for users of social networking sites, who will be increasingly forced to interact with proliferating amounts of non-traditional movie advertising.

Film marketing is (and has been for a long time) moving away from conventional advertising blocks such as website banners, hard copy posters and newspaper graphics. Expect to see viral marketing elements pop up in increasingly ‘personal’ online spaces such as picture albums, Myspace pages and Facebook’s ‘status update’ field. Pay attention, publicists, because here are a few ideas for what may be in store in the not-too-distant future.

Facebook users could be lured to write small promos in exchange for perks such as tickets and prize packs. These could be written as status updates; something perhaps along the lines of “I can’t wait to see Paranormal Activity!” Twitter users could be offered prize packs if they tweet about the film a certain number of times. Myspace users could be encouraged to change their background image or embed a particular song into their profile page.

Plenty of internet users will be happy to prostitute their online identity in return for freebies, which in turn helps films build an online presence. I’m a film reviewer and even I became a fan (so to speak) of Paranormal Activity — without even having seen it — simply to get my mitts on early tickets. The ongoing challenge for publicists is to find new ways to get audiences to do their work for them.

The Paranormal Activities trailer has been smartly designed to further emphasise the idea of fostering audience support and to underscore the essential role viewers have in determining every film’s success. It includes what appears to be authentic footage (filmed using infra red cameras) of an audience watching the movie during an early preview screening, their faces a mixture of excitement, horror and disgust.

These people could be actors or stooges, but I doubt it. I the audience in which I was a part of were surreptitiously filmed, I imagine they would have given the cameras a very similar result. The trailer concludes with the text “Paranormal Activity not playing in your area? Demand it!”

So, you may be wondering, is the film actually any good? The short answer is no, not really, but it’s definitely a compelling experience. Most critics have liked it a lot more than me and to its credit Paranormal Activity masters its ultimate objective: it is a genuinely creepy movie. More than anything it is a potent reminder that in terms of real scares at the cinema, atmosphere is everything and less is just about always more.

Far more compelling than the film itself, however, is what it represents for an industry constantly looking for new ways to engage audiences. It is commonly accepted wisdom in Hollywood that a strong opening weekend can be bought if enough dosh is poured into pre-release marketing, but a result like the one encountered by Paranormal Activity can’t be achieved simply by splashing cash around – it takes innovation and clever strategising.

Like The Blair Witch Project, there is a chance Paranormal Activity will soon be regarded simply as another mega fluke, a one in a million stars-were-aligned success story that led skinflint filmmakers to their fifteen minutes of fame.

There is also a good chance that this dirt cheap but phenomenally successful film will have a lasting impact on the manner in which major features are marketed and distributed.

Visit Crikey’s latest blog, Cinetology, for cinematic antics, reviews and more.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey