‘Chronicle’s’ low-budget liftoff

Fox film made an asset of its liabilities, paying off at B.O.

At first glance, 20th Century Fox’s “Chronicle” — a found-footage movie that revolves around three not-so-super superheroes — would seem the opposite of what studios are seeking to develop these days: It was not a branded property, it had no big names attached, and it was a low-budget film (just south of $15 million) that was not an acquisition but developed inside the studio. Trickiest of all, it was targeted at a demo that has proven surprisingly elusive: young males.

Yet with a projected worldwide cume near $150 million, the B.O. success of “Chronicle” has encouraged Fox to hunt for one or two big-idea/low-budget pics per year at a time when the majors are producing fewer, yet more commercial, films.

“If you make films at the right price, you can take a lot of risks,” Fox production prexy Emma Watts told Variety.

The studio turned the pic’s budget limitations into an asset by going for unknown actors, which filmmakers say added to the authentic feel the movie needed.

Fox banked on first-time feature director Josh Trank, who worked with the production team to come up with creative, low-cost tricks for much of the vfx.

“Chronicle” was also Fox’s first low-budget, found footage-style film, and while the studio saw pics like “Cloverfield” and the “Paranormal Activity” as examples of cost-effective success stories, it did have concerns about how to approach the project.

Watts, producer John Davis and senior VP of production Steve Asbell were initially hooked by the script by Max Landis, who most recently sold his pitch “Woogles” to Timur Bekmambetov’s Bazelevs banner (Daily Variety, April 3). Landis, along with Trank, who had written and directed a few episodes of Spike TV’s “The Kill Point,” bandied ideas back and forth, eventually deciding to center the story around three Seattle teens who develop superpowers after being exposed to a mysterious substance.

Davis brought the project to Fox’s Asbell, who pushed relentlessly for a greenlight from day one. Asbell, along with Watts and the filmmakers, felt that making the characters seem like real teenage boys was key to attracting the young male audience the movie needed.

“I very deliberately tried to make it sound authentic,” Landis said. “There are more dashes to indicate unfinished thoughts than in anything I’ve ever written.”

Though the execs and studio co-chairmen Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos saw potential in the project, they wanted to see something concrete before giving it the greenlight. So Fox asked for a test.

With just two prep days and one shooting day, Trank and Landis created a short film of a few of “Chronicle’s” important scenes, including the moment where the three main characters move a car with their powers.

The studio wondered if Trank, as a first-time helmer, could get the right look within a limited budget. And would the film be too shaky, a complaint often associated with the found-footage style?

But filmmakers came up with some clever techniques, including adding the shakiness in post-production, which allowed them to work faster and control the effect. They also used in-camera effects, which helped get the right look at the right price. In the end, Trank et al. had just under five minutes of footage to show the studio, costing Fox about $50,000.

“When we saw it, we just said, ‘Wow, OK, let’s go,” Watts said of Fox’s reaction to the short. “It proved that (Trank) could do what he said he could do.”

“It helped everybody just kind of understand that we could make a commercial movie out of this,” Davis told Variety.

There was also the challenge of casting within the budget, and where to film. Fox eventually decided they could make South Africa look like Seattle, and planned for a shoot under 40 days.

And while the filmmakers knew they’d likely end up with unknown actors (eventually casting Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly and Dane DeHaan), they had a hunch they could make a traditionally noncommercial element work in their favor.

“Here’s the thing about unknown actors: If you don’t know them — and the film’s supposed to feel real because you don’t know them — as long as they’re really good actors, it feels real,” Davis said. “It happened to work for our budget … but coincidentally that was great … it was all real and authentic, and it had to be, because it’s a found-footage movie.”

The next challenge was marketing, a particular concern after several young male-targeted pics failed to connect with auds last year. Despite the film’s low production budget, the studio would still have to spend at least $20 million on prints and advertising.

That campaign, led by Fox marketing heads Oren Aviv and Tony Sella, ended up relying heavily on social media and YouTube. Fox took the unusual step of putting a strong media buy behind its earliest trailers, drumming up interest in a cost-effective online campaign as early as November that it continued in January with its guerilla “flying people” videos, which generated strong word of mouth.

“Fox marketing did a really good job of understanding that kids don’t watch TV anymore, and if you’re gonna get to them, you’ve got to get to them through their computer,” Davis said. (Along those lines, Fox recently began its online campaign for Alien prequel “Prometheus” with a fake Ted conference speech on YouTube featuring Guy Pearce as Peter Weyland, the CEO whose company sends the spaceship off to a distant planet.)

Studio debuted the “Chronicle” trailer on YouTube, racking up millions of hits within a week, and screened the pic in advance for select bloggers. After noticing more than 15 million interactions with the film on Facebook, the studio also aired a five-second clip of a QR code during the opening round of the NFL playoffs, linking to online footage from the film.

On its Feb. 3 opening weekend, “Chronicle” surprised observers when it opened at No. 1 with $22 million, higher than actioner “The Grey,” which played at more locations. A $100 million-plus worldwide cume was enough to spur Fox to sign Landis on for a sequel that will likely have a similar feel and budget. Both pics would fit into Fox’s new strategy of targeting one or two pics per year they can make for a price and still target a global audience.

Butt Watts said the process starts with the material, not with the budget. “They still have to be big-idea movies,” Watts said. “Chronicle” is “still a huge idea. It’s just the approach to it allowed for it to be made for the price it was made for.”