The "Paranormal Activity" series has earned nearly $600 million dollars at the box office, which still puts it far behind the likes of the "Lord of the Rings," "Transformers" and "Fast and the Furious" franchises in terms of financial might. Still, there's a crucial difference between "Paranormal" and other financial high-fliers, and that difference is this: You and I could have financed the original "Paranormal Activity."
Yes indeedy, the first film cost around $15,000 dollars to make. A couple of cameras, a key grip or two, and you've got yourself a couple hundred million dollars in profits. "Paranormal Activity 2" and "Paranormal Activity 3" cost an additional $8 million to make, and combined they earned over $380 million worldwide for Paramount Pictures. This is an extremely big deal, because although we couldn't have financed anything after the original "Paranormal Activity" (unless you're rich), we could have gotten the ball rolling in 2009. And here, on the eve of "Paranormal Activity 4" being released, you and I would be in Bimini, sipping our tropical drinks. Case in point, this weekend saw the release of "Sinister," a movie that boasts a $3 million production budget… and already has $18 million in box office receipts. That "buy low, sell high" method is starting to gain some serious traction, eh?
"Well, yeah," I hear the Internet saying, "But Paramount and Summit probably spent a small fortune in marketing!" This is true, and it can't be overlooked, for if you and I made "ParaLaremy Activity" for $15,000 and then didn't market it at all, it would make the same sound as a tree in the forest, provided that tree had been cut down about a year prior. In other words, no sound at all. Without the significant marketing channels the major studios travel in, making a film on the cheap still leaves you out of pocket on whatever the film costs, right? Well no, not exactly, not anymore.
Three factors are changing in favor of the $15,000 film. The first is the ability to even make a film at that price, which has become somewhat taken for granted. Rapid growth in the DSLR market has led to everyone being able to make a reasonably solid short for basically nothing. Find a friend, shoot a film and see what happens. 99.9 percent of the time, that answer will still be nothing, but the ratio is ripe for change based upon our next two factors.
This week, David Fincher turned to Kickstarter to raise $400,000 dollars. Charlie Kaufman raised a similar amount in September. Between the two of them, you will note a healthy five Academy Award Nominations, with one victory for the "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" screenplay. Both of them decided they'd be better off starting their project with public funds, and even a slight affinity for math indicates $400,000 is more than $15,000. Naturally, though neither of us is Charlie or David, you have to feel emboldened by the rapid growth of Kickstarter.
Last on the game-changing list is the oft-mentioned growth of social media. Keep in mind neither Fincher or Kaufman had any marketing dollars to advertise their Kickstarter projects. They simply created and then let Twitter do the rest of the work. When crowdsourcing meets social networking meets lower technical costs, you're going to see a tectonic shift in how movies get made, and so too what becomes popular after the film is completed. That's where we are now, even if we're merely looking over the edge of a new world.
Turning back to "Sinister," it would also be hard not to notice the name C. Robert Cargill under the screenplay credits, a fella who came up on the Internet (here and here), proving the barriers to entry are slowly breaking down as well. More opportunity, less personal cost, cheaper marketing angles and easier ways to raise money? That's basically the formula for rapid growth, no matter the current gatekeepers.
So, this weekend, when you see "Paranormal Activity 4" for the scares, keep in mind that the future isn't so scary after all. We're entering a new golden age of cinema, one that finally makes use of creative kids from Kansas City to Portland, the fully realized democratization of film.