The Story Behind Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity is quickly on its way to becoming one of the biggest film stories of the year.

It's an underdog tale that stretches from a first-time director making a tiny-budgeted spook pic in his house, through interaction from one of the world's most famous filmmakers, studio limbo and now, a word-of-mouth marketing campaign that is driving it to huge success.

But where did this little horror flick that could come from in the first place? And how does it fit in to the post-Blair Witch world?

To trace its history, we need to go back a few years…

1. Peli Gets Spooked

Given how many caps he wore making Paranormal Activity - writer, director, editor, VFX artist - Oren Peli (above right) never really had ambitions to become a filmmaker.

A software programmer by trade, the tech-savvy Peli got the initial inklings of what would become the film when he bought his first house after years of flat life.

"When I moved into my house, it was the first time I lived in a detached family home as opposed to an apartment, and it's in a very quiet, suburban neighborhood," Peli has told Cinematical.

"So you become very conscious of every little sound you hear because you don't have any neighbors above the walls, basically you're not supposed to hear anything.

"When you do hear little creaks and knocks and stuff like that, you wonder what's going on. I'm sure most of it was natural sounds of the house settling, but every once in a while you would hear things that would be weird and you couldn't figure out where they are."

"That's kind of what made me think how I would go about trying to figure out what's going on and being the techno-geek that I am, my initial inclination would be to get video cameras and set them up around the house to see what was going on.

"I didn't actually go ahead and do that, but that's what started making me think how freaky it would be if you had cameras running at home while you sleep and actually did catch something."

Despite his clear fascination for the topic of unexplained noises and spooky happenings, Peli also confesses that he's long been terrified of ghosts and spirits, to such a degree that he can barely watch Ghostbusters.

He channeled those terrors into the tale of a regular suburban couple who experience strange goings-on in their otherwise ordinary San Diego home…

Next: Shooting Scares


2. Shooting Scares

Before getting started on the film itself, Peli threw himself into reaching the topic of things that go bump in the night: "The pre-production period involved a lot of research. That was a year before we started physical photography. I read a lot of books on the subject. Many interviews, accounts of exorcisms and stories about haunted homes.

"I looked at all accounts on the topic, so now I have a large library about every angle of haunting, possessions and exorcisms. There are even some good TV shows. So, yes, I got my hands on everything. From my research, I learned the more violent entities are demonic. We wanted to be as truthful as we could be."

Spurred by the material he'd read and his own nocturnal worries, Peli dreamt up the idea for a Blair Witch-style shocker that uses "found footage" and purports to be the chronicle of what happened to Katie Featherston and Micah Stoat in their home during one month in 2006.

The sparring pair are confronted with what appears to be a demonic presence haunting them at night, and it is their differing reactions - Katie is fearful, Micah concerned yet stoked about capturing anything on film - that drive the simple narrative.

"The movie plays on people's primal fears about what happens when you think you're in the safety of your own home, in your own bed while you're asleep and most vulnerable."

And it was in 2006 itself that Peli finally decided to get moving on the movie project. He didn't have deep pockets, and he hadn't approached a studio for backing. He essentially decided to make the film at home, dredging up between $11,000 and $15,000 (reports differ on the budget) for a swift seven-day shoot.

"Basically the entire crew for the original shoot of the movie was myself, my best friend Amir that I've known since I was 13 and my girlfriend I was living with at the time, and she became a reluctant helper because we didn't have a set and were shooting the movie at home, but she did help a lot in every aspect of production.

"The only thing I couldn't figure out how to do on my own was make-up, so I did hire a make-up artist."

It wasn't only the crew that was tiny - Peli's cast is a handful of people, with the focus on Micah and Katie, played by actors who used their own names to give it that extra credibility.

"We did a couple of casting calls and went through a few hundred people. Called in a few to meet them in person. Kate and Micah we auditioned individually and instantly they blew us away. We called them back and put them together for another audition.

"They showed such an amazing chemistry 30 seconds after meeting each other. We started asking them questions about their characters and they just knocked it out of the park.

"If you saw the footage, you would've thought they had known each other for years. They had to have the guy and girl next door feeling and they got it."

The cast also got dragooned into the other side of filmmaking, to boost the reality. "Micah was shooting most of the movie, though in a few scenes Katie was actually operating the camera. Most of the rest of the time, the camera is either stationary on the tripod in the bedroom or sitting on the kitchen counter etcetera."

Keeping the cameras rolling meant that Peli ended up with a lot of footage. "Probably close to 70 hours; it was a lot," he says. "There were also some nights we just had the cameras rolling non-stop. It took about 10 months to edit."

Peli still lives in the house used for the shooting - though it is with a mixture of relief and disappointment that we have to report nothing scary has happened since then.

Next: Festival Find


3. Festival find

With no money to market the thing, Peli did what seemed natural, and submitted the film - finally finished in mid-2007 - to the festival circuit.

Its first airing was at Screamfest LA in October that year, where the first inklings of what would become a tidal wave were clear.

Audiences reacted exactly as Peli hoped - terrified, clutching at each other for support and excitedly jabbering about their experiences as they left the cinema.

Among one of the earlier screening crowds was an assistant for the Creative Arts Agency. Realising it might have something special on its hands, the agency snapped up Peli and started sending DVDs of the film in its early form around Hollywood hoping to snag a a deal to distribute it and to drum up some work for Peli as a director.

The response? Crickets. A lonely dog howling as a tumbleweed rolls across a barren prairie. A single bell tolling mournfully - pick your own metaphor for the silence that greeted Paranormal Activity from within the community.

But then something changed. Producer Jason Blum, a former Miramax man with credits on the likes of The Others and The Reader, got his hands on a copy and liked the film enough to support it.

With his producing partner, Steven Schneider, Blum contacted Peli and offered to help get it a little more exposure. Together, the pair edited the film down a little, streamlining the story and amping up the dread.

The plan was to get the movie into Sundance, but the festival folk passed on it. All was not lost, however- the fest's punkier little brother, Slamdance, was only to happy to get the micro-budget horror on to its screening slate.

Still no one decided to buy the thing for distribution. And then Activity's seemingly boundless reservoir of luck welled up again, when a production executive at DreamWorks became a champion for the film.

The next step was convincing production chief Adam Goodman chief to see it. "It's what you don't see that scares you," Was Goodman's reaction. "What's really scary in the movie is a door closing half an inch." The positive buzz surged up the chain of command until one very important part of the DreamWorks team got a look.

His name? Steven Spielberg…

Next: Spielberg's Encounter


4. Spielberg's Encounter

Though he'd been responsible for such scare tactics as Poltergeist and Gremlins, Spielberg wasn't sure that Paranormal Activity was right for DreamWorks.

And then he saw it.

What happened after that has been described as everything from a truly disturbing little coincidence to a load of hogwash dreamt up to keep the movie's legend rolling along.

"I heard the story more than a year and half ago, so I think it's true," Peli has said. "Nobody back then even knew about the movie, so I don't see them coming up with a publicity stunt.

"Apparently, after he watched it, the door to his bedroom was locked from the inside." Yes, the man who is possibly the world's most famous director got the chills from a tiny indie movie and ended up calling a locksmith to solve the problem of the door. Or maybe just because he needed a hug.

"He said, ‘I don’t want this DVD in my house,’ and had somebody take it back to the office. I haven’t talked to him directly, but other people have told me.”

Other versions have Spielberg himself bringing the disc back in a bin liner.

But despite his close encounter (yeah, we went there) with the spookiness of Peli's film, it helped light a fire under Spielberg's enthusiasm.

Even with his input - which included some advice for Peli about editing the film and how he might tweak some of the closing moments (we've put a discussion of the multiple endings on the final page behind spoiler warnings for those who have seen the movie, or those who don't mind getting the end ruined for them) - things didn't exactly move swiftly for the director and his film.

DreamWorks just didn't know what to do with the film, as it wasn't fitting with their traditional plans. The initial idea? A bigger-budgeted remake with the original film included as a DVD extra.

But Blum and Peli convinced the executives to hold another test screening so more people could see how it played in the cinema.

"You watch it in your bedroom, it can look like your kid made it," Blum told The LA Times. "You watch it with an audience, it's an entirely different experience."

DreamWorks also figured they could use the screening to invite along some writing talent to judge how to tackle a remake.

And that showing changed the game…

Next: Lost In Limbo


5. Lost In Limbo

March 2008, and DreamWorks is holding its latest screening, to which it has invited a crop of screen scribes to get their views on a likely remake.

At first, it didn't exactly seem to be going well. Several audience members walked out. "I thought this was one of the worst previews I'd ever been a part of," shudders Goodman.

He needn't have fretted - the empty chairs were caused by some of the audience being genuinely freaked by the film, and reactions following the screening ran the gamut from terrified to tepid.

With the success of the showing, the senior DreamWorks team began considering another option - putting out Peli's original, albeit in a Spielberg-tweaked, shorter form.

And then the split happened. Like warring parents battling over custody of the children, the previously happy deal between DreamWorks and Paramount erupted into a feud.

Many of the joint projects were thrown into chaos as the two studios began to argue about who owned which film.

"Basically, everything between DreamWorks and Paramount was put on hold, and we didn't know where the movie was going to end up," says Peli, who admits that the waiting game to find out whether Paranormal Activity would even see the light of day was scarier than any demon. "It was not fun to sit and wait."

But he had to wait as the studios wrangled. Eventually, Activity ended up as a Paramount trophy. And while it sat on the company's shelf for more than a year, it was still generating interest.

In November 2008, Stuart Ford's IM Global company, in charge of drumming up international sales for the film, showed it to 150 buyers in LA. Cannily, he also recruited teenagers and 20-somethings to fill the other seats.

"It was nothing short of riotous," Stuart has said. "In the next 24 hours, we sold out all the international rights in 52 countries."

Paranormal Activity's bandwagon was well and truly rolling again, and it didn't stop there…

Next: Dusted Off


6. Dusted off

Solid foreign sales were a good start, but if Paranormal Activity was to have any hope of seeing the inside of a few more cinemas, it needed another lucky break.

It got it when Adam Goodman accepted a job as production chief of Paramount in June 2009.

Granting the film a place on the studio's autumn release schedule, Goodman laid down a challenge to his marketing team to find a way to get the word out.

The first step was another festival launch, this time the prestigious Telluride Film Festival, not an event usually known for its genre screenings.

Nevertheless, the movie was shown at an outdoor screening to several hundred rain-sodden guests and few walked away despite the biting cold.

It garnered more positive reviews, and, more importantly, some solid word of mouth buzz beyond those who had seen it a couple of years ago and those who had been trying to get it out into the world.

The real challenge was to come, though.

"This is a very challenging movie to market in the sense that, you know, we don’t have named stars. And this is the studio that has, you know, the big temples, you know, Transformers and Star Trek," Peli admitted at the time.

"We figured the main strengths of the movie is the way it plays in the theaters, because usually the audience reacts and is like through the roof. So that’s one of the things they’re trying to emphasize that this is the kind of thing that it’s more than just a movie, it’s kind of like an experience or an event. And that’s why they tried to make it special.

"So it’s best at college towns and it’s special screenings."

And in the spirit of the Blair Witch, it's also the internet….

Next: Viral Terror?


7. Viral Terror?

Just about every movie gets marketed online these days. It used to be the studios stumping up for a basic official site, then interactive content crept in, and things have evolved even further in this techno-savvy era.

Now, the likes of Twitter and Facebook, though their final impact has yet to be accurately measured, are being plumbed for their benefits.

Paramount set about capitalising on the word-of-mouth buzz by ramping up the film slowly.

In September, the movie was screened simultaneously in seven cities across the US as part of Fantastic Fest. That was quickly followed by a college town tour.

Midnight screenings began to sell out - as the old saying goes, an impossible ticket is a hot ticket - and the legend of the film spread. Paramount cannily put webcams in several cinemas so audiences could record their shellshocked impressions.

And the smartest move? Using a piece of web technology usually associated with smaller music acts, where fans can "demand" a gig - or in this case, a screening -  take place in their town.

The studio ramped up the tension by announcing that should 1 million "demands" be registered, the film would be released wide across the US.

There are differing opinions on whether it would actually have gone through with a muted release should the counter have fallen short - cinema owners have reported that the plans were in place for a wider October schedule before the demands began coming in.

If it's not quite as grassroots as truly public-generated movements (some have sneered that it's "astroturf" - an entirely invented strategy with little concern with how the Demand experiment turned out), it does seem to have worked.

"It's very rewarding to see the fans embracing the movie. This is totally a fan driven movie, because if it wasn't for the fans, we wouldn't be talking right now.

"This movie was launched by Paramount in a way that really allows people to decide whether or not they want the movie to be released and where.

"So if it weren't for them demanding the movie and saying, 'We want it to play in our home town' and if it weren't for the fans spreading the good word online in forums or on Twitter, the movie probably wouldn't have gotten anywhere," says Peli.

Finally, it was time for Paranormal Activity to occur on a wider scale…

Next: Teasing And Terrifying


8. Teasing and terrifying

The film won't be trying to scare UK cinemagoers until next month, but it's already going gangbusters across the pond.

Following on from the viral campain's initial release, the movie's expansion has been very successful. In its third weekend - the first on wide release - the film made more than $20 million. Not bad for something that cost a few thousand to produce.

It may never quite reach the heights of the Blair Witch's $250 million worldwide success, but it's already profitable.

Peli, meanwhile, has moved on to another project, with Area 51 about ready to shoot. It sounds distinctly sci-fi, but he won't say  much about it until it's finished.

Suffice to say however, it won't be as under the radar as Paranormal Activity.

As for how you react? We're guessing a few people will be sleeping with the lights on after their first exposure…

Next: The End?



9. The End?

Spoiler Alert! This last chunk should only really be read once you've seen the film. No, really. Don't blame us if you feel demonically possessed to keep going…

The ending of the film? Not the original. In fact, Peli shot several finales to the movie, and the one which currently plays was suggested by Steven Spielberg himself.

"The original ending that I shot was different, and it was well-received by some but not all," Peli told MTV. "So when the studio got involved, one of the things that we wanted to try and improve was the ending.

"We tried a couple of different endings, including the one you see now, and that's the one that by far worked out the best. So we were very happy to stick with it."

In the current cut, the final moments see Micah bodily thrown into the bedroom, directly at the camera. As he lies slumped on the floor, unmoving, Katie enters the room and crawls over to him very unnaturally on all fours, as if possessed. She sniffs at the body and then leans into the camera, an evil smile across her face. Audiences at initial Paranormal Activity screenings in 2007 and 2008 saw something much different.

"The original ending involved cops arriving to the scene of the crime at the very end," explains the director. The crime in question occurs off-screen, with Katie apparently stabbing Micah downstairs.

"She then returns to the bedroom, huddling on the floor against the bed until the police arrive and the credits roll. Summing up his impressions on the original ending, Peli said, "it wasn't very exciting or thrilling compared to the current ending."

We'd argue differently, but your mileage may vary - and hopefully we'll get to see them all on DVD...

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