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The haunted history of 'Paranormal Activity'

The once-stalled indie film that finally spooked Steven Spielberg into signing on for a DreamWorks-backed release has taken a 'Blair Witch' approach to marketing.

September 20, 2009|John Horn

Steven Spielberg was certain his copy of "Paranormal Activity" was haunted.

It was early 2008, and the director's DreamWorks studio was trying to decide whether it wanted to be a part of the micro-budgeted supernatural thriller. As the story goes, Spielberg had taken a "Paranormal Activity" DVD to his Pacific Palisades estate, and not long after he watched it, the door to his empty bedroom inexplicably locked from the inside, forcing him to summon a locksmith.

While Spielberg didn't want the "Paranormal Activity" disc anywhere near his home -- he brought the movie back to DreamWorks in a garbage bag, colleagues say -- he very much shared his studio's enthusiasm for director Oren Peli's haunting story about the demonic invasion of a couple's suburban tract house.

"Paranormal Activity" was hardly a typical studio production. Peli, an Israeli-born video game designer who had no formal film training, shot the $15,000 movie in a week in 2006 with a no-name cast, a crew of several San Diego friends and a hand-held video camera.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 20, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
'Paranormal Activity': An article in today's Calendar about the film "Paranormal Activity" misspelled the last name of DreamWorks production executive Ashley Brucks as Brooks.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 27, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
'Paranormal Activity': An article last Sunday about the film "Paranormal Activity" misspelled the last name of DreamWorks production executive Ashley Brucks as Brooks.

But as Spielberg and the DreamWorks team believed, the movie held a special appeal -- it was original and scary. The challenge was to fit this round peg into a DreamWorks square hole -- a process that would ultimately take more than a year and a half, the delay exacerbated by the slow collapse of Paramount's acquisition of DreamWorks. For a time, it looked as if Spielberg was right: "Paranormal Activity" appeared cursed -- to sit on a shelf.

But now, supported by one of the more unusual marketing and distribution strategies conjured up for a studio release, Paramount is finally opening the film in 13 college towns on Friday, with a wider national rollout planned for mid-October. Scary movies are a dime a dozen these days -- at least 75 horror movies have been released theatrically in the last three years -- and "Paranormal Activity" doesn't have the franchise awareness or recognizable actors that help separate a handful of genre films from the teeming herd.

Yet as preview and film festival audiences can attest, "Paranormal Activity" exhibits something many fright flicks don't -- goose-bump inducing, gore-free scares. Now it's up to the film (and Paramount) to translate Internet buzz into a "Blair Witch Project"-style phenomenon.

"The movie could be stratospheric, or it could just become a cult favorite," says Stuart Ford, the chief executive of international sales agent IM Global, which sold "Paranormal Activity" to more than 50 foreign distributors. "It just depends on whether the studio can catch a wave."


An abnormal route

"Paranormal Activity" has beaten the odds before.

Hardly any micro-budget movie ever escapes its creator's basement, and to travel all the way to the slate of a studio that releases "Star Trek" and "Transformers" -- that's beyond exceptional.

"Once every five years, a guy makes a movie for a nickel that can cross over to a broad audience," says "Paranormal Activity" producer Jason Blum, who, as a senior executive at Miramax Films, had a producing credit on "The Reader" and acquired the supernatural thriller "The Others." "And there are about 3,000 of these movies made every year, so this film is about one in 15,000."

In late 2007, Blum's producing partner Steven Schneider came across "Paranormal Activity," which follows a young couple who videotape themselves (including their nocturnal activities) to figure out who -- or what -- is tormenting them at night. An assistant at the Creative Artists Agency had seen Peli's movie in 2007's Screamfest Film Festival, and CAA, which signed Peli, sent out DVDs to anyone who would take one, looking for a theatrical distributor for the film and future jobs for Peli as a director.

No one stepped up to distribute the movie, but Schneider and Blum thought Peli's first feature was so compelling that it deserved better.

Peli had grown up fearing phantoms -- he couldn't even stomach "Ghostbusters" -- and channeled that fear into a relatively simple story about a young couple (Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston play the man and woman, also named Micah and Katie) who hear some very strange bumps in the night. Determined to discover the source of the disturbance, Micah starts videotaping everything, taunting the demon to show itself -- which it ultimately does (in a manner of speaking). The acting is intentionally unpolished, as is the herky-jerky camera work.

Blum worked with Peli to trim "Paranormal Activity" and tried to place it with the Sundance Film Festival. Sundance passed, but the nearby Slamdance Festival accepted the film. Still, no one stepped up to release it.

Ashley Brooks, a production executive at DreamWorks, was one of the only studio types who believed in "Paranormal Activity," and continually pestered her boss, production chief Adam Goodman, to watch the movie. Goodman finally did, and on his and studio chief Stacey Snider's recommendation, so did Spielberg.

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