Paramount’s Insurge refines its gameplan

Bieber pic will be key to future of newest label

When Paramount announced in March that it was launching micro-budget arm Insurge Pictures, it caught the attention of a film biz still reeling from the implosion of studio specialty and genre labels.

At the time, the studio said it was committing $1 million for Insurge to produce or acquire 10 films with budgets of $100,000 each. But if the industry expected Insurge to be a traditional division, operating under traditional rules, it was wrong.

Half a year later, Insurge is hard to define. Most labels come out of the gate armed with several projects. Not Insurge.

And it’s not at all clear whether the label will stick to its $100,000 mandate, which proved to be trickier than simply greenlighting 10 more installments of “Paranormal Activity,” the microbudget breakout hit that fueled the banner’s inception.

So far the division has announced just one homegrown production, the 3D concert docu “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never,” which hits theaters on Valentine’s Day. One thing’s clear: For Insurge, much is riding on the B.O. perf of that pic.

Insurge’s only release to date is “Grease: The Sing-A-Long,” which had a limited theatrical run, commencing with a bash at the Hollywood Bowl.

The common thread: Insurge’s focus is on finding new, less costly, ways to turn a movie into an event, whether a film centers on the latest teen sensation (Bieber) or a cult library classic (“Grease”). It’s also a place that aims to build a farm team of up-and-comers, an effort that’s so far more evident in how the division has drawn on young execs across the lot than in the signing of any filmmaking talent.

“Insurge isn’t a marketing initiative. It’s really more about finding new voices, and keeping all of our muscles active and being able to seek out new opportunities,” says Paramount Filmed Group prexy Adam Goodman.

Insurge has yet to prove itself as a maverick voice in the studio landscape. Bieber is the sort of overnight sensation that any major would want a piece of. The “Grease” sing-a-long was arguably more innovative, since all the majors are looking for way to mine their libraries.

But if “Bieber” works, Insurge will gain traction.

Part of the advantage — as well as an inherent limitation — is that Insurge operates with virtually no overhead. The good news: It doesn’t have to justify its existence. The bad news: It doesn’t have a lot of coin for development, so wants finished scripts vs. taking a slew of pitch meetings.

In the past, the ongoing expenses of maintaining overhead helped doom other studio labels. And with the economic downturn, parent congloms had little patience for costly management outlays across multiple divisions.

Insurge has only one fulltime staffer, Daniele Bernfeld, a creative exec. Amy Powell, who is in charge of Insurge, has a second, bigger job — as Paramount’s exec VP of interactive marketing strategies and film production.

Powell is the marketing guru behind “Paranormal Activity,” which built on a savvy Internet campaign to widen an initial limited release to blockbuster results.

Development is often a bureaucratic logjam at the majors, but Insurge is working to create a more open, direct and agile approach. Younger creative execs working for the main studio, as well as elsewhere on the Melrose lot, are encouraged to bring ideas to the division.

“We are looking at new talent — internally and externally. It’s revolutionary that Paramount is thinking about its younger executives,” Powell says.

Never Say Never” was conceived during a meeting of such execs, and Insurge was able to move quickly to make a deal.

“Justin Bieber reps the exact brand we are thinking of. He has a huge fanbase of young girls who will make the film an event. He was born out of YouTube, and he really reps the youth culture,” Powell says.

But Insurge’s long-term ambition is to distinguish itself in how it fosters innovation and finds new ideas.

Generally, agents, managers and producers bring ideas to a studio, not the other way around. Insurge, though, is following in the footsteps of companies like Google, which have “think labs,” where younger staffers are encouraged to come up with fresh ideas and angles.

“So many people don’t bring things to the big studios because they feel like we would never be open to it,” says another Par insider. “We can become victims of our phone sheets. This group at Insurge is like a bunch of mad scientists who are having a lot of fun.”

Goodman and Powell aren’t yet ready to talk about what other projects they are looking at, or what talent, whether it be filmmakers or actors.

Goodman says Insurge represents the cutting edge of the studio’s divisions including big Paramount, Paramount Vantage, Nick and MTV.

Goodman and Powell hatched Insurge in the wake of microbudgeted “Paranormal Activity.” U.S. rights to the film were acquired by DreamWorks and Paramount for several hundred thousand dollars. With an estimated budget of a mere $15,000, the pic grossed $108 million domestically. Overseas, the film grossed almost as much, for a worldwide total of roughly $194 million.

But gold mines like “Paranormal” and “The Blair Witch Project,” released in 1999, are rare events. “Paranormal Activity 2” which opened last week, is going out through big Paramount. Insiders say it could have confused moviegoers if the sequel went out through anything other than the Par label.

Industry observers counter, however, that “Paranormal 2” would have been a perfect way to familiarize filmgoers with Insurge.

Powell and Insurge are relying heavily on social media and word of mouth to promote the Bieber concert docu, potentially saving millions in traditional marketing expenses.

Two weeks ago, Insurge sent fans on a treasure hunt via Twitter, as bits of the film’s official poster and the title were revealed over a two-day period by Bieber and other celebs, including Ryan Seacrest, Usher (who helped discover Bieber) and Ellen DeGeneres. The hunt culminated with the full poster being published in U.S. Today.

“We want to reinvent the way we look at films and bringing communities together for events,” Powell says.

Goodman and Powell say they still plan to keep production budgets for Insurge pics in the $100,000 range, but it’s unclear how much “Never Say Never” is costing the label, given Bieber’s high profile, as well as the fact that the film is shot in 3D.

Keeping budgets or acquisitions as low as $100,000 won’t be easy, according to outside observers. Unions weren’t so keen on Insurge’s microbudget plan, since Insurge is part of Paramount, which is subject to standard guild minimums. Even acquisitions at that price are tough.

“We are just trying to create an opportunity for other voices to be heard, including in our own company,” Goodman says. “It’s about the flexibility to be really nimble.”