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With Paranormal Activity, Paramount Sets New Marketing Model

With Paranormal Activity, Paramount Sets New Marketing Model

Thompson on Hollywood

From the start, Paramount online marketing executive Amy Powell knew that she could sell micro-budget horror thriller Paranormal Activity on the Internet.

Friday, October 16, Paramount will open the haunted-house flick on 1000 760 screens; last weekend it grossed $7.1 million on 160 screens. The studio allowed Powell to perform her web-marketing experiment, daring her to deliver butts in seats before they’d release the film in theaters. She delivered by promoting the film primarily online, asking moviegoers to demand via that the movie play in their local town. The towns with the most votes would win a booking. The studio agreed that if Paranormal Activity scored one million votes, they would release the movie nationwide. Paramount is delivering on that promise: “The first-ever film release decided by you.”

The strategic decision behind Paranormal Activity‘s success was to avoid trickle-down marketing, where a studio hard-sells audiences on what to watch, in favor of a grassroots movement propelling its own decisions about what to see. President Obama’s online bid for the White House, where he let the people own his campaign, was Powell’s initial inspiration.

Paranormal Activity could promote a new marketing approach where less costly, long-term brand-and-buzz building from the ground up replaces mass-market saturated ad blasts at moviegoers. Tired of information overload, movie fans are seeking authenticity, as movies with no stars, from District 9 to Zombieland, keep scoring at the box office. Word-of-mouth has always been the most potent way to sell a movie. Now the Internet spreads it with the speed of a click. Paranormal Activity demonstrates that power.

Of course it only works with a movie that plays!

Over a year ago, Powell showed the movie on the Paramount lot to her young online team, who live and breathe the internet. They were terrified.

The movie fell into the background as various studio management changes eventually put former DreamWorks exec Adam Goodman in charge of production. He had picked up the $15,000 HD docu-thriller for a potential remake, but the way it played with audiences made him change his mind. At the studio’s weekly meeting, Powell asked if she could give the movie to the Austin, Texas genre film festival, Fantastic Fest. Sure, why not?

Then Powell asked if she could broaden it to a national launch with midnight screenings in eight key markets, backed in each case by a movie site webmaster. She wanted these showings to be fan-driven, not Paramount presenting the film, and she would only promote the movie online. When aint-it-cool-news’ Harry Knowles visited the lot, she taped an introduction from him. At Fantastic Fest, AICN and Knowles promoted the film’s debut there on September 24. Bloodydisgusting hosted L.A., AICN’s Capone did Chicago, Comingsoon was New York, and San Francisco was The studio gave the movie to the fan sites, put it in their hands, so they could champion it. The studio even posted their logos on the movie website.

Audiences lined up around the block. At the Sunshine in New York, 900 people waited outside. At the Arclight, three hours before midnight, the line snaked through the parking lot. Paramount exec Rob Moore quickly grabbed two more screens at the multiplex to accommodate demand. Computers in the theater lobbies encouraged movie fans to “tweet your scream” and join Paranormal Activity on Facebook (70,619 fans and counting).

Back at the studio, the brass figured the initial enthusiasm for the film was strictly from movie geeks. But Powell thought they could reach more. She asked, “What if we put it back in the hands of the people and give it to them? Ask them to demand the movie?” If any town could get 5000 people asking for the film, they could have it. The race was on, led by New York and Chicago, then Cincinatti and Charlotte. Then college towns started popping up. So the studio booked midnight runs in thirteen college towns. Then, the following weekend, 33 markets, based on demand. When Boston wasn’t ranking, they figured out that the town was splitting zip codes. Once they combined them, Boston jumped to number nine.

Powell’s team monitored Facebook. The growth was exponential. Suddenly the demands were up to 300,000. The studio told her if they got to a million, she could have a national opening. They pushed it with the fans, and they responded. When they reached 1 million, they added “You did it!” to the site. While this weekend’s screens were booked in advance and it takes time to add runs, Paramount insists that the people who demanded the movie will get the movie.

Now director Oren Peli, who also consulted the Blair Witch filmmakers on their marketing, is raising a backer for a $5 million movie, Area 51.

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Miles Maker

Small movie–BIG impressions. Carefully coordinated money, power and influence jimmied a window of opportunity for PA to leap through–kudos to everyone who made it all happen! But at the end of the day it’s all relative–the money, power and influence one has to propel their ‘little movie that could.’

The hope I take away from this BIG little experiment is in the potential to sell my little film to BIG people. However BIG people don’t finance little films–but they can most certainly ‘discover’ them and engage the money, power and influence to make a BIG impression.

Miles Maker
Transmedia Storyteller, Movie Tech Blogger and Social Business Strategist
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Brian Newman

The first film release decided by you?? first big one, but to not give credit to Four Eyed Monsters, Age of Stupid or any of the others who have done this before and well, though not as massively, is bad reporting. come on. I love this campaign, and kudos to them, but give some credit where it is deserved for those who went first.


michael harpster

gives me an idea. why not more? lots more? take the budget of a major production, divvy it up into lots of tiny budgets. give that to lots of movie makers, get lots of candidates for the next paranormal activity.

why not? hollywood has the money. they throw away millions, tens of millions, more, with every big budget flop. pull one of those and make a dozen (dozens?) of PA’s. charge a couple bucks to see it online via the studio’s site. have midnight shows in college towns. see what sticks.

why not? PA cost $10k +/-? how many of those could you make with a million dollars? not that each movie would succeed like PA, but if you make lots you might get one that does. what to do with the others? start a micro industry built on a new model — small movie made with small budget offered to public for a dollar or two online. the ones that get some traction you move into theaters.

how’s that for a blueprint

Michael Harpster

What I like to see is a change in the exibition context. Midnights have been used since about 1970 The ancient ones will remember PINK FLAMINGOS, EL TOPO etc: This method spreads out the connection points to hip audiences which may be thin but still sufficient if apporached properly. The audience is not subject to the NYC/LA media mafia and the high ad costs that accompany the cultural gatekeepers.

Obviously it’s a “trick” but there is no value in any film-it’s all in the audience. The expereince is theirs-not the films.

Just as obviously, this can only work once in a while-some remember BLAIR 2.

This is truley an indie film-something that connects with a sizable audience and makes them react on a very small production budget.

More like this please.

Joe Valdez

Sharply reported and timely filed, Anne.

I see this as indicative of where the entertainment industry is headed. The point isn’t whether a filmmaker can personally afford a ZOMBIELAND level ad campaign and burying your head in the sand if you can’t. If you’re a filmmaker, you have no choice but use blogging and Facebook and Twitter to promote your work. Nobody else is going to do it for you anymore.



as long as we’re ‘taking the bait’. re: your post of 11:58. are you suggesting, when you say IB is the only movie you’ve seen this year that you’re enthusiastic about, that an all analog movie making process somehow yields results which are identifiable and substantively different than those (results) which are produced when making movies digitally? do you mean to suggest that you can identify when a movie is made without digital processes? that such a movie looks different than one which was made using digital processes?

further, are you not aware that it is a digital medium by which you have posted your comments. also, is there some shading of meaning or tone in the content you are reading that would be different if the words were written on paper and handed to you rather than typed on a machine a thousand miles away, digitized into unrecognizable code, then transmitted through wires and via satellites, then decoded back into english on your computer? (thank you to our host and her fine blog for making all this possible)

about the nomenclature used to identify digitally made movies — would you rather they be called ‘digi-movies’. aren’t movies called such because they have captured movement? movement, movies. very close. movement and action captured on a digital medium is of the same nature as that which is captured on film. that is, a person walking looks the same whether captured on a digi-cam or a motion picture film camera.

as for not calling them ‘films’ because they were shot digitally… the vast majority of movies are still exhibited by shining light through the film, or print. that is, we’re still watching the showing of a film.

also, finally, it seems that you go so far as to suggest that blair witch is a movie because it is well-crafted (and does not have cgi) and transformers is not a movie because it has a lot of cgi. that, to be certain, is an exquisite distinction. (are you aware that blair witch was shot, in part, on hi8 video cam? isn’t there some conflict or contradiction in your determinations considering part of blair witch was shot on a digital [or perhaps magnetic] medium? not to put too fine a point on it but parts of blair witch were not shot on film, or celluloid)

to summarize, you have posited that a ‘movie’ must be a) shot on film and edited without the use of digital methods and that a movie which is made using digital methods should not be called a ‘film’ in order to avoid giving offense to film buffs, and b) you can tell the difference between movies which were made using all analog methods and those that utilized some digital editing, and c) a film is not a movie if it has lots of cgi — or — a movie with lots of cgi cannot be considered well-crafted

by the way, i have to say your assessment of avatar as being nothing more than ‘an “artfully crafted experiment in video verisimilitude”’, as opposed to being a movie, is one of the richest conclusions i have encountered for some time.

in closing, i have the sad duty to inform you that it is only a matter of time before all movies are shot, edited, and exhibited digitally. i’m sorry to have to inform you of this. ‘films’ will soon be replaced completely, and totally, by ‘movies’.


dear steven speilberg

please return my brain. keep my money but i need the brain back. you’re smart enough.


…i was wondering what happened to my brain


To “rise to the bait” that Jeremy dangles, I’d like to ask whether “artfully crafted experiments in video verisimilitude” should actually be considered “movies.” If we have to choose between those and all the not-so-artfully crafted exercises in CGI effects that flood the theaters–between BLAIR WITCH and TRANSFORMERS 2–where does that leave us movie-lovers? Y’know, the ones who like it when a director puts a 35mm motion picture camera on a tripod or a dolly and stages actors, sets, costumes, lighting, props, etc. in front of the lens to create pleasing, engaging actions and images that are captured–on CELLULOID!–and then edited with splicers and moviolas (NOT computers) and then projected–on FILM!–in movie theaters. INGLORIOUS BASTERDS did just that, and wonderfully well, yet it seems like such a rare specimen these days. And it’s the only Hollywood film I’ve seen all year that I’m genuinely enthusiastic about.

I’m not saying there isn’t room in the culture for “experiments in video verisimilitude,” I just wish they’d call them something else besides “films” or “movies.” And I’m not so sure James Cameron’s AVATAR isn’t anything more than just an “artfully crafted experiment in video verisimilitude” also.

Steven Speilberg

With a massive amount of studio money and a gimmicky film idea, you can always trick the masses into seeing a movie. Suckers!! I got your money!! Wait until I come out with the sequel: Paranormal Transformers. I got your brain and your money!!

Anne Thompson

As of a week or so ago the LAT was reporting $2 million in marketing, but now that they’re in a “normal” wide release, it’ll be more, and yes they did adopt some MTV ads once they were committed. I guess what I’m trying to say is 1) if you understand how the internet works and 2) you understand how to reach your potential audience, you can do this. Whether it’s on a big studio scale, where $2 million is a lot less than $20 million, or on an indie scale, when $2 million is a lot more than $20,000. Assuming you have a movie people actually like. “Tweet your scream” was brilliant.

Jeremy Walker

I’ll rise to the bait Brian dangles a couple of posts up and take issue with his first three sentences. Can’t tell if he’s seen PARANORMAL ACTIVITY or if it’s even his kind of film in the first place but here goes.

Why moviegoers enjoy feeling anxious or scared is a mystery of brain chemistry and probably has an evolutionary component. Regardless, all of the inevitable comparisons between PARANORMAL and BLAIR are valid, and how those films were similarly and differently marketed with a decade between them seems right this second to be a hot topic.

But speaking in terms of artfully crafted experiments in video verisimilitude, Paranormal bears more resemblance in its visceral effectiveness to my favorite film — indie or not — of the last year, HUMPDAY.

Both films are fueled by the emotional hazards of introducing a video camera into the bedroom; raise questions and doubts about the true nature of the soul of your soul mate; and are fueled by extraordinarily naturalistic performances by actors who are by no means superstars (though isn’t it interesting that HUMPDAY and BLAIR both star the wonderfully sympathetic Joshua Leonard)?.

Brian’s post also carries a whiff of xenophobia: does the distributor and marketing strategy behind PARANORMAL somehow preclude it from being embraced by the independent community? I certainly hope not.

I like Brian’s notion about amusement parks; I heard an ad on the radio touting some kind of SAW-themed ride at Universal just in time for Halloween. I think I’ll take a pass on that.



How many Interactive studio heads have their own publicist to promote themselves as much as the films?

Ginger Liu

How many indie films have Paramount behind them? Indie filmmakers are usually on their own -they don’t have all this. District 9 billboards were everywhere before the film opened and had big studio support. How does that help broke indie filmmakers? Zombieland’s online promotion has been massive and not cheap -banners and clips are all over the internet. How many indie filmmakers can pay for that? These aren’t indie films at all and it is quite stupid to make the public believe that these films made it without any big studio marketing behind them. I want to see the real indie film make it big without the money for all this online marketing -real word-of mouth -real buzz. Look on Facebook. There are Zombieland adds everywhere. Do you know how expensive they are? Who can afford that? This is false to say that these are indie films with no marketing money.


District 9 benefited by having a trailer that showed very little (though not in a coy way) and oddly enough, by having mixed though mostly positive word of mouth from people who’d already seen it. This was beyond any viral marketing the studio did (none of which was seen outside of big cities, BTW). What got people curious about District 9 was the vehemence of the reactions — positive or negative — from people who’d already seen it. These strongly expressed reactions made people want to go see it for themselves, and the medium of delivery for those reviews were via Twitter, via Internet message board, and also old fashioned F2F (face to face).

Jeremy Walker

Thanks Anne for that smart and from my POV artfully written and laser-beam accurate report on Amy Powell’s extraordinary work on PARANORMAL ACTIVITY.

While I really appreciate that link to the Fast Company article on the Blair Witch connection (an article that, incidentally, I did not know was running and didn’t actually read till now), and while it’s super-fun to see my name hyper-linked at it’s end, I felt I should clarify a couple things publicly.

It’s true, as that article mentioned, that I am having a blast working with the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY filmmakers, but I had nothing whatsoever to do with Powell’s genius Demand It baby. Now, neither your article nor the Fast Company story is inaccurate, but when linked together on this weird Internet thing they create, I think, implications that are not in the spirit of the truth.

I do remember the Haxan Five recording the audience with which they showed me The Blair Witch Project, but I do not remember ever looking at the footage. I don’t doubt that it could have happened, but I think I would have quickly rejected the notion of using it to somehow promote Blair pre-Sundance in any case. The very idea would have given me a headache.

Despite the dots that Blair producer Gregg Hale’s kind shout-out could be taken to connect, I also want to make it clear that I had nothing to do with the great trailer Paramount came up with: all audience reaction shots cut against snippets of Oren Peli’s sublimation of domestic insecurity (see today’s New York Times “Home” section).

The scariest thing “Paranormal Activity” has demonstrated: the fragility of stereotypes surrounding what a “Big Studio” can and cannot do with a small movie.



This isn’t a movie. It’s a gimmick. That’s all it is. And it’s getting all this coverage because the hucksters found a way to sucker millions of gullible people into going to see it and convincing them it was “scary.” This has absolutely nothing to do with the future of indie movies or “viral” marketing or whatever. Try doing this with a drama about Iraq War vets.

William Castle (THE TINGLER, 13 GHOSTS), who was always more of a showman than a moviemaker, would be proud. He’d also be resentful that he had to spend money on actual good actors and sets and a few special effects when he could have turned out something for no money that would have fooled just as many people. At least his movies had storylines, enjoyable stars like Vincent Price, and a modicum of entertainment value for viewers like me who don’t go to the movies for haunted house rides. (There are amusement parks for that, you know.)

Mr. Bull

Am I the only one that noticed the large amount of paid television ads promoting the “grass roots” campaign? I first became aware of the film during a television ad on fox asking me to vote to see the movie.

So the new strategy is to heavily promote your grassroots “word of mouth” marketing campaign with an expensive traditional campaign?


There are a lot of false twitter accounts hyping this movie which makes this seem like “studio hype” vs. true “grassroots.” If the movie plays and makes money, then at the end of the day none of that matters. It would be interesting to know what the true marketing costs are.


It’s an incredible story.

I wonder if this would work for ANY genre?


This is a rare event … get enough support that can leverage its might surrounding the film and it doesn’t matter if it’s a $15K or $150K film …

When was the last time a high-profile theater allowed a film to put ‘Computers in the theater lobbies [to encourage] movie fans to “tweet your scream” and join Paranormal Activity on Facebook’ ?

It’d be interesting to find out how big the publicity really is behind this “grassroots” movement … there are a lot of doors being opened that a typical indie fiilmmaker would have no chance.

Alan Green

uh, yeah. duh. get the public involved. make it theirs. let them in on the project. they’ll come and see your movie

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