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Paranormal Activity is User Generated Content!

Paranormal Activity is User Generated Content!

Thompson on Hollywood

In this fourth installment from frequent guest blogger Chris Dorr, he tries to make sense of what Paramount’s innovative viral campaign for Paranormal Activity really means going forward:

One  “truth” that you hear quoted over and over is that there is no way to make money from user generated content.  Paramount, to its delight, is currently finding out that this “truth” is actually a lie.   

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY will deliver to Paramount the largest return on investment (aka ROI) of any movie it has ever distributed.  It could even deliver more cash to Paramount’s bottom line than TRANSFORMERS 2, its largest grossing movie of 2009. 

All of this from a piece of user generated content that runs 86 minutes and cost its creator $11,000 to make.   

But now you say, “It is not user generated content, it’s a movie!” And I respond by pointing out that if someone gets an idea, has a little money, writes a script, finds a cast and crew that works for free, shoots digitally, and creates something that lasts 1 minute, 20 minutes, 86 minutes or 5 hours— it is user generated content.

We are living in an age where the tsunami of user generated content is just beginning and the distinctions between these pieces of content and professional content will matter less and less. What matters most of all is something Paramount discovered during the release of this piece of UGC. Does someone really want to see it?
If you approach your audience in a relevant way they will pay for this UGC and the number of people who will pay can get very large. And in this case the relevant way to get the audience for PARANORMAL ACTIVITY was through a marketing strategy called crowd sourcing.

Crowd sourcing means the “delegation of a task to a large diffuse group usually without monetary compensation”. It has been used, for example, to create Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia and Linux, the operating system that is used on over 40% of the world’s servers.

In this case Paramount delegated much of their marketing to an ever growing group of people who embraced the movie through early screenings and then demanded that the movie open in their city by signing up with Eventful. Through some early influencers the filmmakers/Paramount reached out to a potential audience and entered into a conversation with them. During this conversation they convinced this potential audience that the experience of the movie was significant enough to demand it. The crowd “for free” helped the movie reach them to they could then “pay” to see it. The crowd took ownership in the movie’s release.

Many will claim that this is just standard word of mouth, which the movie business has employed for years. Actually I think it is something different and more significant. Here you have audiences take actions that are way beyond the standard, “ I will mention it to my friends”. Now they are taking actions more like what paid street teams do when they pass out leaflets, plaster walls with signs, or give out goodies. And they do it for FREE.

Now you will respond by saying that Paramount spent a lot of money on TV ads to promote this movie. Yes, they did, but only after the crowd sourcing strategy began to create real results.

Can this be repeated? Most will insist that this is a phenomenon that occurs only once every ten years (remember BLAIR WITCH!) and only with genre movies of a certain type (remember BLAIR WITCH again!). Those who insist on this line of reasoning don’t see how the world is changing around them.

So remember the following.
1. The pool of UGC, of more PARANORMAL ACTIVITIES, is going to get much larger, as the digital tools to make them get better, cheaper and more widespread.
2. The ability to have a discussion with a potential audience and to crowd source marketing is going to accelerate, as the digital tools to reach an audience get better, cheaper, and more widespread.
3. The combination of UGC creation and crowd source marketing will cover every genre of entertainment that human beings of all ages enjoy.

Twitter @chrisdorr

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Chris Dorr

Alan–Thanks for your comment. Hopefully more films can use similar methods to build their audience.

Chris Dorr

jimmyd–The Beastie Boys example is a good one, thanks for bringing it up.

Chris Dorr

jl–I think you misread my post. I did not say the film was produced using a crowd sourcing approach, I said it was marketed using a crowd sourcing approach. That is a clear difference you failed to pick up. Perhaps you should read again. Also Wikipedia and Linux are in fact crowd sourcing platforms. You are misinterpreting what crowd sourcing really is. Curation and editing take place in a crowd sourcing medium all the time. Crowd sourcing does not mean the crowd “decides”, it mean the crowd can participate and contribute their labor for free. Also I think it is important to acknowledge the continuity between “independent film” and ‘UGC”, in many cases, as in this one, they are one and the same.


Good work Chris.
This film is thought-provoking on so many levels.
When I saw it as soon as the film was done I saw dozens of teenagers immediately whip out their cell phones and dial up their friends. Most of the crowd continued to loiter around the entrance of the theatre discussing the film. It’s the most palpable and visible example word-of-mouth ‘buzz’ I’ve ever seen in a regular (non-festival) screening.


The Beastie Boys “Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!” is a much better example of user generated content. Its not UGC in the purest sense, but it involved the creation of film using everyday fans.

Chris Dorr

Brian–I think the point here is this. It does not matter what you like or what I like. Whether you call them sheep or your best friend is irrelevant. The truth is that people are going to Paranormal Activity and they are enjoying it. The fact that it is UGC or only cost $11,000 does not contribute to or detract from their enjoyment. For them it is just one fun night at the “movies”.

Chris Dorr

Alan Green–Great comments. It will be fascinating to see how this will emerge. You are right also about what will set the stage. When you can sit at your laptop and send a digital file of your “movie” to a theater that can then project it on a large screen at high quality to an audience that you have gathered to that theater, life as we know it in the movie business will be very different. That time is getting closer at rapidly increasing rate.


Oh god, this guy is hot air … Is he seriously comparing Paranormal Activity — a for-profit venture — with Linux and Wikipedia? Does he actually understand the history of either of those entities and how they have evolved over time? Apparently not. “distinctions between these pieces of content and professional content will matter less and less” Both Linux and Wikipedia have an organized structure for reviewing, curating, and editing changes. These are not “crowd-sourcing” platforms … and neither is this film. It’s not like the film was made in a socialistic fashion with everyone deciding to re-cut, re-shoot, or change actors.

And he says the folks on Paranormal were working for “free”? Yeah, right. He really thinks the cast, crew and others weren’t working for back-end points or some other equity option?

A “no-cost” film does not equate UGC.


All this tells me is how compliant today’s audience is, so easily willing to be led. “Oh, this is SUPPOSED to be scary, we’re SUPPOSED to demand to see it. EVERYONE’s doing it, so let’s do it, too.” What a bunch of sheep.

But, at least “user generated content” is a more applicable term than “artful experiments in video verisimilitude,” as someone put it in another thread devoted to this film. Either way, I refuse to call these things “movies.” When I go to a theater, I want to see cinematography and lighting and color and set design and costumes and movie stars and action and orchestral scores…the works. Y’know, like INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.

Alan Green


agree, it’s a new world. young people don’t realize how different things are. back in the day, if you wanted to make a movie, you needed reels of film, and a film movie camera (say 16 mm to save money)

that’s so ‘filmmaker’. who has the money for ten minutes of unexposed film. what type to you get. fast, slow? how many reels do you need? how much is it per minute? how do you load film into a camera? where do you locate a 16mm camera? then, comes processing. what’s an interneg? how much does a positive cost? how do you (literally, with scissors) cut and splice film?

the guys that did that (in the 60’s and 70’s) were considered driven, artists. with gobs of energy, willing to gamble.

now all you need is a digi-cam, the right cables to connect it to a computer, some free software, an internet connection, and the balls to do it.

i think this approach, or some variant, will be the new industry. the new ‘hollywood’ is a digi-cam and pc located anywhere in the country. within a few years most movies will be shot on zero budget for no compensation and distributed online. the ones that succeed online could be printed and shipped to theaters where even a modest run will yield profit. or, if your picture gets traction, you could charge a couple bucks for it. the site gets their cut, the producers get theirs, etc

the next two major obstacles are: internet speed, and digital exhibition at movie theaters. when we get decent download speeds and theaters can show a movie without utilizing a physical print, the stage will be set

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