Grassroots campaign helps horror flick find audience

Microbudget horror movie “Paranormal Activity” isn’t technically an indie release, since it’s being shepherded by Big Paramount. But indies and majors alike can learn something from the pic’s successful grassroots marketing campaign that’s resulted in an $11.5 million gross to date mainly from college towns and select cities.

Paramount, which is widening the release to 800 playdates this weekend, has taken its marketing moves straight out of the indie rulebook. So far, promo costs have been kept relatively low (around $2 million) without expensive primetime TV buys. Par has primarily waged a viral campaign, with an emphasis put on how the film makes viewers feel (quotes on Paranormalmovie.com highlight words like “creepy,” “freaky” and “terrifying”).

Par engaged Internet booking specialist Eventful to mount a campaign on the pic’s website, Facebook page, tweets and email blasts, asking people to demand the film play in their cities.

The grassroots approach has worked. Per-screen averages as high as $49,379 have broken records, and last weekend “Paranormal Activity” managed to place at No. 4 on the weekend B.O. Top 10 list with less than 200 screens.

“The story is the distribution strategy: How a major studio has figured out how to release a film like this,” noted CAA’s Micah Green, whose agency reps “Paranormal” helmer Oren Peli and handled the domestic sale of the film. “It’s maybe a more inspired distribution strategy than some of the indies are using these days.”

The backstory of how “Paranormal” came to be distributed by Par is a long one. It played at Screamfest in October 2007 and was slipped by fest director Rachel Belofsky to an assistant at CAA. Peli was signed by the agency’s Martin Spencer, who sent the film out to various execs around town as a directing sample. Producer Steven Schneider, a former academic and horror junkie, screened it and was genuinely frightened by the pic. “I just thought right away I had found gold,” he said.

Schneider showed the film to producer and former Miramax acquisitions exec Jason Blum, who agreed it had value. They shared it with others, including Ashley Brucks, then a junior exec at DreamWorks. “My hair definitely stood on end,” remembered Brucks. “It was just infectious. It festers in your mind. I put it on the weekend read and watched it with another exec. In my gut, I knew this project was special.”

They all pushed the film forward. It got more fest play at Slamdance in January 2008, and Brucks pestered her boss Adam Goodman to see it, who eventually got DreamWorks’ Stacey Snider and Steven Spielberg on board. DreamWorks initially picked up remake rights, but after execs saw it at a screening with an audience, a decision was made to distribute the original film with some tweaks and a new ending.

Then the DreamWorks-Paramount divorce stalled the process. In November 2008, the film’s foreign rights were sold out by IM Global after a screening stuffed with teens convinced buyers at AFM. “It helped,” said Blum. “With every step along the way we had to build a case.”

Many months later, after the dust settled at the studio and Goodman was installed as Par’s production head, the film was revived and shown to marketing execs. It wasn’t until this summer that Par put the film on its fall release slate.

With so much hype around the first two weeks of midnight screenings and a fairly limited release, execs are trying not to jinx things. Some admit that what’s been accomplished so far with an $11,000 movie is already a lot.

But Green says he hopes the industry will see “Paranormal’s” success in the right light. “It would be the wrong take-away for the lesson to be, ‘Horror is hot again.’ It’s about finding something cool and actually marketing it.”

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