Oren Peli saw "The Blair Witch Project" and was inspired to make his own horror movie.
"Those guys really showed what you could do with a cinema-verite style, a great concept and no money."
Peli made "Paranormal Activities" for $15,000 and shot his tale of a young couple who videotaped the strange noises they hear in his own home in San Diego. Now the one-time video-game programmer, 39, has "the new 'Blair Witch'" on his hands.
The critics have spoken. Here's what they have to say:
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"Scariest movie of the decade."
"Scariest movie of my life."
"Scariest movie of our time!"
For Hollywood studio flicks, such raves usually are no more than icing on top of a marketing campaign that cost tens of millions. For "Paranormal Activity," the raves are the marketing campaign.
The comments above, repeated over and over again in various contexts on Twitter and Facebook - along with other online fan buzz - propelled the micro-budgeted horror movie to a $7.9 million opening weekend in just 160 theaters earlier this month. That's a colossal average of $49,379 a theater, compared with "Couples Retreat," which opened in 3,000 theaters with an average of $11,429 per theater.
"Couples Retreat" has stars - Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Kristen Bell, Kristin Davis - plus the traditional mammoth studio sales push - one that included TV spots, billboards and a chic junket for Hollywood reporters on Bora Bora.
"Paranormal Activity" mainly has just its fans - a legion growing by the minute as more and more people post their thoughts.
Peli shot the low-key creep fest in 2006 and had started to wonder if it would ever reach a big screen.
"It was definitely a roller coaster. Things would stall, and stall again," Peli says in between studio meetings in LA. "Somewhere, deep down, I started thinking, 'Maybe some-thing will change.' But it was a lot of days, weeks, months, waiting to hear from the studio what they wanted to do with it, and that wasn't the most fun."
Distributor Paramount Pictures so far has spent only a couple of million dollars promoting the movie, a fraction of the marketing budget for big releases. Most of that money has gone into its Web site and to set up screenings to build the buzz.
"This movie doesn't lend itself to a big, giant marketing campaign. This movie is an old-fashioned word-of-mouth movie," said Rob Moore, Paramount vice chairman.
The studio has only a pittance invested in "Paranormal Activity." The movie was acquired by former Paramount partner DreamWorks at 2008's Slamdance Film Festival.
The original idea was to reshoot the movie, putting more money and gloss into the documentary-style fictional tale of a couple tormented by strange phenomenon and apparitions.
But Paramount decided Peli's raw little fright film could stand on its own. The studio trimmed the movie a bit and punched up the ending, then tried to figure out the best way to hook fans.
In keeping with the movie's do-it-yourself indie spirit, Paramount started with midnight-only screenings in 13 cities, then let the online community decide where the movie would play next. The studio plans to continue rolling the movie out to more theaters based on which towns request it the most. (The movie opened in Columbia this past weekend.)
The fan base has grown exponentially as more people saw the movie, then jumped online to write about it.
"On the social-networking sites, everybody's talking about how freaking scary this movie is," said Paul Dergarabedian, box-office analyst for Hollywood.com. "This does not happen every day. This is literally capturing lightning in a bottle."
Internet hype has become part of every movie's marketing plan, but online buzz generally is a supplement to traditional advertising. Another indie horror tale, 1999's "The Blair Witch Project," became the biggest hit ever discovered at the Sundance Film Festival as months of online chatter pushed it to a $140 million haul.
Preceded by similar Web patter, 2006's "Snakes on a Plane" wound up fizzling, fans deciding it was more fun to sound off about the movie online than to actually see it.
With a combination of Internet buzz and cryptic advertising, Paramount created an aura of mystery around producer J.J. Abrams' monster movie "Cloverfield," turning it into a solid hit last year.
The guys who made "The Blair Witch Project" and helped invent "viral movie marketing" are watching "Paranormal" build an audience, and smiling.
"It's like I'm watching my own film - creepy, realistic, and effectively simple," says "Blair Witch" co-director Eduardo Sanchez. Peli's movie "inspired me to get off my a- and keep working!"
He's not alone. Movies like "Paranormal" "make studios second-guess themselves about what can work," says horror filmmaker Steven Shea, associate producer on the horror indie "Zellwood."
"'Paranormal' reminds them that a great concept is what counts."