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WORD OF MOUTH

'Saw VI' faces 'Paranormal Activity'

It's supernatural versus super-gore this weekend, and though the 'Saw' franchise is still going strong, the low-budget 'Paranormal' continues to exceed expectations.

October 22, 2009|John Horn

Moviegoers can expect a real horror show in theaters this weekend, but the fierce duel isn't between some ax-wielding assassin and a resourceful teen. Instead, it's a showdown between the scary-movie powerhouses "Saw VI" and "Paranormal Activity."

Prognosticators say the clash for box-office supremacy could be remarkably close, with several giving a slight advantage to the micro-budget, essentially homemade "Paranormal Activity," which continues to defy all expectations, even within Paramount.

But others note that the Lionsgate-Twisted Pictures "Saw" franchise is among the most enduring of genre series: The last four "Saw" movies all opened to more than $30 million in their premiere weekends, even as they faced tremendous competition from similarly themed movies.

All the same, the advantage goes to -- and the likely weekend winner is -- "Paranormal Activity."

The face-off also presents a fascinating ghosts-versus-gore test for two divergent species of genre films. "Paranormal Activity" is a supernatural thriller in the mold of "The Blair Witch Project," with the scariest moments occurring mostly off-screen and in the audience's imagination -- there's no "Paranormal Activity" blood splatter or anything more ominous than strange footprints in baby powder.

"Saw" and some of its more graphic brethren, on the other hand, fall into the extreme violence camp, a strand of shock-you-silly filmmaking labeled "torture porn." If "Paranormal Activity" is tai chi, "Saw" is cage fighting. Which isn't to say that the latter doesn't have a loyal following -- the "Saw" characters and torture traps are featured at Universal Studios Hollywood's Halloween Horror Nights theme park attraction, and the franchise has even spawned a British roller coaster.

The performance for the "Saw" films is "unprecedented," says Jason Constantine, Lionsgate's president of acquisitions and co-productions. The movies tend to cost about $10 million to produce, a fraction of the typical studio release.

"We've had six movies in six consecutive years," he says, "and you'd be hard-pressed to look at another franchise where the filmmaking team has remained intact and refuses to go on auto-pilot. In most horror franchises, the second or third film becomes some form of a carbon copy. We try to come up with a unique plot and new characters every time."

All the same, there are indications that the appeal of "Saw" and its lead baddie Jigsaw is starting to peak.

"I think 'Paranormal Activity' will do better than 'Saw' overseas," says Stuart Ford, whose IM Global handled "Paranormal Activity's" foreign sales (it starts opening internationally Oct. 30). "The whole torture porn thing doesn't really travel that well to the rest of the world."

After the first "Saw" in 2004 (which opened to $18.3 million and grossed $55.2 million total), 2005's "Saw II" delivered the best returns in the franchise history, a total domestic gross of $87 million. But the subsequent films all grossed less -- $80.2 million for 2006's "Saw III," $63.3 million for 2007's "Saw IV" and $56.7 million for last year's "Saw V."

At the same time, the international and DVD returns for "Saw" movies, though still strong, are not what they once were, reflecting a broader trend of diminishing DVD sales. In hopes of breathing some new life into the franchise, the makers of "Saw VII" are planning to make next year's film in 3-D, an in-your-face formula that proved largely successful with this year's Lionsgate release "My Bloody Valentine."

If the trend line for "Saw" is heading slightly south, the path for "Paranormal Activity" is moving in the opposite direction.

The $15,000 thriller about a suburban couple's domestic haunting already has grossed more than $36 million, even though it's still playing in limited national release. Last weekend, in just 763 locations, writer-director Oren Peli's movie grossed an astonishing $19.6 million. This weekend, Paramount will more than double the film's footprint, moving it into nearly 2,000 locations.

Paramount still has committed less than $10 million to the film's print and advertising campaigns, concerned that television commercials and radio spots might undermine the movie's carefully choreographed marketing effort, which has let the audience feel like it has discovered "Paranormal Activity" on its own.

It's a risky strategy, because "Paranormal Activity" may be at the point where it might need a more aggressive push to accelerate its current momentum and reach an even wider audience -- to strike, in other words, while the ghost is hot.

But Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore isn't buying the argument. "There's a lot of hard work that's gone into releasing the movie, and it requires a lot of support to publicize and promote the theaters that we have opened," Moore says. He says Paramount has already broadened the film's release faster than planned because moviegoer demand hasn't been satiated.

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