'Paranormal Activity': A Phenomenon Long In The Making

Despite a corporate snafu and its subsequent limited release, the low-budget film has become an impressive success thanks to social networking.

Over the weekend, director Oren Peli's "found footage" horror/suspense flick [movie id="369646"]"Paranormal Activity"[/movie] opened just a little bit wider, getting all-day screenings in 159 theaters across the country. The [article id="1623594"]weekend box office[/article] receipts -- the fifth-highest-grossing film of the weekend -- amounted to roughly $7 million. For comparison, the weekend's big winner, "Couples Retreat," took in roughly $35 million from the 3,000 screens it on which it opened.

Impressive, yes, but where did this "Paranormal Activity" phenomenon come from? The movie, about a couple who record their at-home activities on camera in the hopes of catching proof of what appears to be a haunting, was completed in 2007. Shot on a budget of less than $15,000 and featuring a tiny cast of unknowns, it's one of those rare long shots that seems to be making it.

The movie adopts a "tell, don't show" philosophy to build suspense. Still, at least part of the success "Paranormal" is now experiencing should be credited to Paramount and their aggressive grassroots campaigning. Harnessing the power of social networking through sites like Twitter and Eventful, fans and would-be fans have had the opportunity to voice their interest in forums where people who matter can respond. (Editor's note: MTV and Paramount are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)

Early last week, Paramount revealed that the staggered opening schedule for the movie would come to an end once the Eventful user demands for a wide opening reached 1 million. The number hovered in the high 300,000s that day. By Friday afternoon, the figure had surpassed 900,000, leaving an easy weekend run for the million.

Prior to this past weekend's slightly wider opening, "Paranormal Activity" had been playing on only 33 screens, most of them in major markets and only for midnight screenings. Major markets weren't even in the picture a week before that -- the movie opened for midnight screenings in 13 college towns on September 25. Even New York and Los Angeles, the usual recipients of limited-release offerings, had to wait.

The real question is, why the delay? "Paranormal" wrapped in 2007 and it made Screamfest and Slamdance festival appearances in late '07 and early '08, respectively. The movie initially ended up at DreamWorks, where Steven Spielberg gave the thumbs-up on Peli delivering a remake after the veteran filmmaker had a haunting experience with his own private screening.

A sort of focus test screening was staged with the intent of gathering feedback for the coming remake script. It was not to be, however. So strong was the reaction to Peli's initial effort that the studio decided to simply release it. Unfortunately, business got in the way when Paramount and DreamWorks split in 2008, and the "Paranormal" release was delayed. The buzz was out though, and it wouldn't be silenced. It only grew through Paramount's -- who took the reins post-DreamWorks -- aggressive grassroots campaigning.

It's been a long road for "Paranormal Activity" since 2007. It's also one of those rare Hollywood success stories, a situation where good timing, cleverly deployed promotional tools and, most importantly, fan appreciation aligned to give the little guy a shot at something truly big.