Found-Footage Movies Are in a Rut. Can the Genre Be Saved?

Project Almanac. Photo: Paramount Pictures

It's been more than 15 years since The Blair Witch Project came out and made the idea of the found-footage horror movie — the kind of film that purports to have been shot with cameras wielded by the characters — a genre. Blair Witch was certainly not the first of its kind, but the hype it parlayed into box-office success made the world take notice. It’s been eight years since Paranormal Activity — a ghost story built almost entirely from scenes shot via surveillance cameras — broke out big and became one of horror’s most profitable franchises. And it was seven years ago that this style of filmmaking arguably reached its apotheosis, when producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves released Cloverfield, their mysterious, wonderful, apocalyptic found-footage monster flick.

All along the way, any number of films have tried to capitalize on the trend. Not just horror films, either. Three years ago, Chronicle gave us a found-footage teen-superhero drama. That same year, there was Project X, a found-footage teen-party comedy. Last year came Earth to Echo, a found-footage teens-befriend-an-alien movie, as well as Into the Storm, a found-footage natural-disaster epic. And just last week, there was Project Almanac, a found-footage teens-build-a-time-machine flick.

These types of films initially became popular for a number of reasons. For filmmakers, they were often cheaper to produce than movies that relied on more traditional ways of shooting. Go figure: Showing just a bare hint of a special effect and then shaking the camera while your actors scream doesn’t cost too much, and when done well, can be just as effective as something more conventional. Plus, at least early on, found-footage movies were an ideal way to utilize low-cost digital video technology, as director-producer Oren Peli did with Paranormal Activity.

But it wasn’t just about money. There was a certain immediacy to these films: By literally appropriating the point of view of their protagonists, they could, at their best, play off the limited vision of the characters. The Blair Witch Project worked because it constantly toyed with what little the three people onscreen — and by extension, we, the viewers — could see. The briefest hint of something in the corner of the frame could haunt your nightmares for days. Similarly, Paranormal Activity worked because its locked-down, surveillance-cam style heightened the films’ sense of entrapment.

In recent years, though, found-footage films have lost their novelty value; nowadays, they elicit mostly eye-rolls from critics as well as viewers. (The box-office numbers bear this out, too.) Back in 2010, when Paranormal Activity pioneer Peli started off The Chernobyl Diaries (which he wrote and produced) with a found-footage head-feint, then discarded the style within the opening minutes of the film, it felt like he was abandoning it for good. Last year’s found-footage archaeology thriller As Above, So Below had an evocative setting (the Paris catacombs), but the herky-jerky camerawork and the shrill, scream-into-the-lens performances completely ruined it. Meanwhile, Into the Storm didn’t even bother to stick to its found-footage premise, opting instead to regularly cut away to traditional, unmotivated-by-POV shots — to its benefit, frankly.

But some filmmakers seem determined to keep making these movies. Maybe the economics are too hard to ignore. Project Almanac made an underwhelming $8.5 million this past weekend, but it only cost $12 million to make. It’ll still turn a profit fairly easily. There are more Paranormal Activity movies on the horizon, too, and they’ll probably keep doing reasonably solid business.

In cinema, what we don’t see can be just as important as what we do see. Found-footage films make that idea explicit. But so far, very few have taken that idea beyond the gimmick stage. Why not play with the idea that different people can witness something and come away with entirely different conclusions? Imagine a found-footage Rashomon. Or, hell, a found-footage bedroom farce. Or even a found-footage horror movie in which different videographers see different, contradictory things. (As Above, So Below began to toy with this but abandoned it pretty quickly.)

Occasionally, a filmmaker gets creative with the idea. Brian De Palma’s Iraq War drama Redacted isn’t very good, but it’s inventive, incorporating various types of media into a portrait of a war where brutality is constantly being mediated by technology. It’s understandable that De Palma would be taken with such possibilities, since he has been experimenting with point of view ever since his earliest films. Similarly, when zombie-movie icon George A. Romero made Diary of the Dead, he turned it into a riff on cinema and horror, with its tale of a group of film students trying to make a horror movie and then running into a real zombie apocalypse. I’m not a fan of Ti West, but his film The Sacrament began to nod at something cool as well: It pretended to be a Vice documentary about a Jonestown-like cult, and the characters’ constant probing of the parishioners and the film’s slow build to a climactic interview with the cult’s leader had a kind of tension that only this kind of TV-special-gone-haywire conceit could provide.

Unfortunately, none of these films I just mentioned are particularly good; they’re merely interesting. Maybe that’s one of the big problems with found-footage films. Very often, the filmmakers who want to carry this style into new areas stumble, while the ones who succeed are the ones that play it safe. Those uninspired, generic takes merely serve to debase the subgenre further, to the point where just the words found footage conjure a host of images, sounds, and moods that have an overwhelming, stultifying sameness.

But I remain optimistic. Because one of the other reasons this style of movie continues to stick around is that, in many ways, it remains the aesthetic of our time. Cameras continue to become more ubiquitous, with GoPros and wearable devices gaining popularity. These images, in other words, aren’t going away. And neither, I suspect, are these movies. It’s only a matter of time before somebody comes along and manages to reimagine and reinvent this style of filmmaking. Until then, I await the next Paranormal Activity film with dread — and not of the good kind.