About a year after the genre-bending “Blair Witch Project” turned from a Sundance sleeper to a $250 million blockbuster, a sequel arrived in multiplexes. It didn’t stay long, grossing just 19 percent of the original horror hit.
For years afterward, “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2″ was held up as an example of what not to do with a breakout movie franchise. Paramount learned that lesson well. This weekend, “Paranormal Activity 2″ — a follow-up to last year’s pop-culture phenomenon — opened to $41.5 million in ticket sales . How did they do it? By not changing much at all.
“What worked for ‘Paranormal Activity 2′ was that its content and marketing didn’t stray too far from what made the first one such a popular hit,” Gitesh Pandya of Box Office Guru said. ” ‘Blair Witch 2′ tried too hard to be more of a regular narrative film, and its release was like a regular horror movie saturating all screens. The ‘Paranormal’ follow-up still had the look and feel of the first while adding to the mayhem.”
Whereas the second “Blair Witch” ditched its found-footage angle in favor of a more straightforward horror tale, “PA 2″ stuck with what fans originally loved: a suburban couple filming the presence of a demon. When it came to marketing the sequel to a skeptical public numbed by shoddy follow-ups to beloved originals, Paramount employed a similar marketing strategy as it did in 2009: an online campaign for audiences to demand midnight screenings.
“Continuity is important when you’re building a franchise,” said Phil Contrino, editor of BoxOffice.com. “There needs to be a cohesive vision.”
The result of that vision was tons of fan anticipation. “PA 2″ broke the R-rated midnight record set by “Watchmen” ($4.6 million), pulling in $6.3 million during those late-night showings. By the morning, the movie was playing on 4,500 screens, and, according to Paramount, 54 percent of viewers were female. “I think this definitely turned into an unconventional date movie,” Contrino said.
Yet, while the $41.5 million haul is impressive, cautionary notes abound. Brandon Gray of Box Office Mojo noted that, while “PA 2″ soared out of the gate, it might not end up eclipsing the original’s haul. “With its Friday gross accounting for 48 percent of its weekend gross, ‘Paranormal Activity 2′ had one of the most Friday-loaded opening weekends ever,” he wrote. “Nearly all other horror movies with similar Friday shares failed to double their opening-weekend grosses in their final tallies, suggesting that ‘Paranormal Activity 2′ will have a quick flame-out and make less than its predecessor.”
Regardless of its finishing gross, a third “Paranormal Activity” seems all but assured. And like the lesson provided by “Blair Witch 2,” horror series that have spawned three or more installments, such as “Poltergeist” and “Hellraiser,” offer cautionary tales about how quickly fans can turn away from cherished material.
“A third film will definitely do well, but after that, it’s tricky,” Contrino said. “They have to make sure the sequels don’t unintentionally lapse into self-parody. To make it past three films, the series will also have to evolve in some way in order to stay fresh, and that’s not an easy thing to do.”
Check out everything we’ve got on “Paranormal Activity 2.”
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