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Was 'Paranormal Activity's' Trek Into Theaters a Viral Phenomenon or Just a Ruse?

With "Paranormal Activity" currently creating its own viral marketing sensation, we look at other contemporary films that, both successfully and unsuccessfully, explored new ways to sell themselves.

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By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 15, 2009; 2:54 PM

Sometime during the past three weeks -- perhaps, appropriately, while we were sleeping -- the film "Paranormal Activity" pulled a pop cultural sneak attack.

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Seemingly out of nowhere, this creepy little horror flick about a young couple terrorized by supernatural forces every time they go to bed -- a movie made in 2005 by an unknown filmmaker for just $15,000 -- popped up on the mainstream movie radar, earning nearly $8 million last weekend while playing in just 44 cities, including Washington.

It has become the most consistently popular trending topic on Twitter, surpassing even Music Mondays and "Glee" in its ability to generate breathless, 140-character commentary. (Example: "I went to see paranormal activity last night and now every noise I hear has to be evil demons!")

The movie relies on fake "found footage" to tell the story of a demonic force plaguing the couple within the claustrophobic walls of their San Diego home. Yes, we've seen this deliberately amateurish approach before in "The Blair Witch Project," but college-age audiences in particular love it. With its haul last weekend, "Paranormal Activity" outsold a 3-D Pixar double feature (the "Toy Story" re-release), a Bruce Willis thriller ("Surrogates") and a Michael Moore documentary ("Capitalism: A Love Story").

How did this happen?

Apparently because we -- the same individuals who relish our right to elect a president, choose our American Idols and watch our favorite TV shows OnDemand -- voted to bring this slow-building shocker to a theater near us. Or at least some of us did. Paramount Pictures, the studio distributing "Paranormal Activity," has dubbed it the "first-ever major film release decided by you," mainly because of an online polling system that guaranteed a nationwide roll-out for the micro-budget movie once 1 million supportive votes had been cast.

But did the people who took to the Internet and demanded to see "Paranormal Activity" really participate in cinematic democracy? Or did they merely fall for a clever marketing ploy that allowed them to think they were running the show when, really, the execs at a major Hollywood studio were calling the shots?

Douglas Rushkoff -- writer, media studies faculty member at the New School and a man often credited with coining the term viral marketing -- has a hard time buying that Paramount's efforts constitute a genuinely viral phenomenon.

"This isn't some piece of propaganda that's so dangerous that movie theaters are refusing to show it, or even so potentially unpopular that theaters don't want to show it," he says. "This is a movie distributor looking for some way to create publicity about itself. . . . They're pretending there is some distribution obstacle that people's popular demand is going to overcome."

Megan Colligan, co-president of domestic marketing for Paramount, wants to assure "Paranormal" constituents that their votes did matter. "We were in search of a tool that would let us know who wanted to see the film, so we could let the demand be defined by the market instead of establishing the demand ourselves," she says. "We wanted to reverse the process."

Paramount found that tool by teaming up with Eventful.com, the Web site that hosts the Demand service, a feature that, until now, was best known for bringing musical acts, stand-up comics and politicians to towns with particularly active online fan bases.

By clicking on the "Demand It" button on the "Paranormal Activity" Web site, people provided Paramount with personal data, including their Zip codes and dates of birth, which helped studio execs determine which markets should get the film first and whether there was enough of an audience to justify putting it in hundreds of theaters. "The psyche around that [approach] is that they feel like part of the event, they feel like mini-producers of the event," says Jordan Glazier, Eventful's chief executive.

Those "mini-producers" got the ball rolling on Sept. 25, when Paramount opened "Paranormal Activity" in a dozen college towns and screened the film only at midnight. Tickets sold out. Social media sites lit up with stories of audience members being petrified, and that started generating clicks -- prompting Paramount to add late-night shows in more markets on Oct. 2 (including Washington), all without buying a single national ad on network TV.

But would Paramount have opened "Paramount Activity" nationwide even if online demand had stalled at, say, 800,000 votes? Colligan says no, that the studio would have explored a more modest way to expand "Paranormal's" reach instead of opening in additional markets where interest in the film hadn't been evident.

So maybe the real issue isn't whether Paramount truly put its release's fate in the hands of its fans. Maybe a better question is: Do average consumers even notice, or care, when a studio essentially uses them to sell their movie?

"I think savvy people 'check their brains' at the door for what is entertainment [especially of this nature]," writes Rob Kubasko -- a political consultant who commutes between Alexandria and Phoenix and was one of the 5,864 people who demanded to see "Paranormal" in the D.C. area -- in an e-mail. "Obviously, this was just a marketing gimmick. But it was a well-crafted one that allowed the viewer to 'play along.' "

Travis Hopson, another "demander" from Alexandria who has already seen "Paranormal Activity" twice, agrees. "There are plenty of occasions where there are movies I really want to see and I can't get them here to save my life," says Hopson, who works as a defense contractor by day and co-writes the movie blog Punch Drunk Critics on the side. "I like the fact that, even though I realize this is a big studio effort to get the movie some press and hype, the fact remains that if people didn't demand it, it wouldn't be here at all."

However it got here, "Paranormal Activity" seems likely to stick around a little longer. In theaters around the country -- including the AMCs in Georgetown and Tysons -- many screenings have been selling out. Given the interest, Paul Dergarabedian, president of Hollywood.com's box office division, is closely watching what happens this weekend when the Scary Little Well-Marketed Movie That Could expands its reach.

"A lot of marketing is an illusion and we don't know if it's true," he says of Paramount's campaign. "Who cares? It's working."


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