Found footage approach becomes Hollywood habit

Filmmakers combine low budgets, social networking for genre pics

“Paranormal Activity” may have been the catalyst for launching Paramount’s Insurge division, but the search for the next “Blair Witch” has been going on since that original microbudgeted hit surged to $200 million worldwide.

It was also the first pic to utilize the “found footage” component in a way echoed in “Paranormal Activity” and the J.J. Abrams-produced “Cloverfield.”

Major names are turning to the found footage aesthetic and leveraging social networking to create youth-oriented hits, while the microbudgeted blockbuster remains the industry holy grail.

Info on Abrams’ upcoming monster pic “Super 8,” for instance, was strategically “leaked” to the public, building buzz.

Joshua Leonard, one of the stars of “The Blair Witch Project” who was most recently seen in “Humpday,” says he finds it ironic how the “Blair Witch” impact has evolved.

“Culturally, we have such an appetite to watch things as they are happening,” Leonard says. “On top of ‘Blair Witch,’ it’s also reality television that has defined an aesthetic that resonates with people.”

Leonard, who has recently gone behind the camera on “The Lie,” adds that while he understands the studios’ pursuit of smaller-budgeted pics, he thinks the industry can’t afford to overexploit the found-footage concept.

“The aesthetic needs to drive the film. … We shouldn’t suck the life out of the form either,” he says.

The approach has worked well for horror pics, but it’s not clear whether it can extend to comedies. Sony looked to stir buzz for “The Virginity Hit” via advance screenings in college towns, then expanded to several hundred screens, but auds didn’t respond and the studio stopped tracking its performance.

The cinema verite-style laffer “Project X” will bow in late 2011. Producers Todd Phillips and Joel Silver recruited unknown actors to star in the $12 million production.

Chris Henchy, an exec with Will Ferrell’s Gary Sanchez Prods. and producer on “The Virginity Hit,” thinks the low investment makes the form worth trying, even if not every pic clicks.

“This is a niche that we need to keep chasing,” Henchy says. “These things come at a little risk and a lot of reward.”

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