How 'Paranormal Activity 3' Killed It At The Box Office

Industry experts say franchise succeeds by giving moviegoers what they want.

The "Saw" franchise is no more. The "Scream" series didn't exactly take off when it was relaunched earlier this year. Recent reboots of "A Nightmare on Elm Street," "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "Halloween" and other classics haven't sustained consistent and lucrative runs at the box office. After its record-setting opening weekend, "Paranormal Activity" now stands as the undisputed horror-franchise champion.

The stats for "Paranormal Activity 3" are staggering. The sequel's $54 million haul is not only the biggest fall opening ever, but the largest ever for a pure horror movie, according to Box Office Mojo. It averaged an impressive $16,266 per screen, a 29 percent rise over "PA3," reports Gitesh Pandya of Box Office Guru, bringing the franchise's worldwide gross to $450 million "while the combined production costs have amounted to a puny $8 million."

All this box-office growth comes against the backdrop of a Hollywood reality. "Typically, when films reach the threequel stage, momentum wanes," said Jeff Bock, box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. "What Paramount has done so expertly with this series is stay true to the original grassroots feel of the first. They didn't try to reinvent the wheel with each successive installment. They didn't recast, reboot and retool their original formula. The creators of 'PA' and the studio know exactly what they have with 'PA,' and they are dishing out exactly what fans are craving: cheap thrills."

That "Paranormal" has even reached this point is a feat in and of itself. "The Blair Witch Project," the found-footage horror flick to which "Paranormal" is always compared, turned from a Sundance sleeper to a $250 million blockbuster in 1999. But a year later, the sequel bombed at the multiplex, grossing just 19 percent of the original. "PA2," by contrast, opened with $41.5 million a year after the first film caught on with the public, breaking the R-rated midnight record then held by "Watchmen" ($4.6 million).

This time around, filmmakers continued to heed the lesson of "Blair Witch": They didn't mess with success. "Paramount could have taken the third film and added CGI creatures or something. They didn't. Fans respond to that," said Phil Contrino, editor of Boxoffice.com, adding that "Paranormal" diverges from many other horror franchises in one key way: "Less truly can be more when it comes to this genre. I think a lot of moviegoers are turned off by excessive gore. These films have a very strong understanding of one simple truth about horror: If you allow your audience to use their imagination, it'll be scarier than anything you can put onscreen. That's why the 'Paranormal Activity' franchise feels like a breath of fresh air."

There's a lesson here for other franchises — not just horror ones — a lesson "The Hangover" kept in mind for its $581 million-grossing sequel earlier this year. "Give the audience what they want," Bock said. "They liked it the first time, so don't tweak it too much. Advance the story, but don't reinvent the wheel. Sometimes less is more, and audiences are very peculiar when it comes to big changes in film series that they like. Whether you agree with it or not, the general public wants the same thing, just a little different."

Now we await the inevitable announcement of "Paranormal Activity 4," wondering if the series can continue to stay true to its storytelling roots while also inventing fresh scares and unexpected ways of capturing the found-footage action. That's a fine line to keep on walking Halloween after Halloween. "The brilliance of this franchise isn't just that it's made on the cheap, but that they slowly and methodically answer questions that explore and expand the mythology of the series," Bock said. "The fact of the matter is, 'PA' will succeed wildly until a new brand of horror show is deemed worthy. The haunting will never end until something else goes bump in the dark and captures audiences' imagination."

Check out everything we've got on "Paranormal Activity 3."

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