What terrified audiences most about The Blair Witch Project was how real it felt. The shaky camera, the random cuts, the legitimate terror on the actors’ faces — it all seemed genuine, like a group of student filmmakers actually had disappeared in the Maryland wilderness while making a documentary about a witch. Ah, but we were young and naïve back then, oblivious to the found-footage genre. Now we know better than to think these movies actually happened in real life. But that hasn’t slowed their pace. We are firmly in the era of found footage.
Since 2007, Hollywood has released more than 60 films in the genre. Today, another one, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, will hit theaters. When you take into account the short turnaround, the small budgets, and the revenue studios pull in from these types of movies, it makes perfect sense. There’s little risk involved in producing them, and as long as people keep buying tickets, they will continue to get made. But how can Hollywood still churn out found-footage flicks without risking overexposure? Here are a few suggestions to help keep the genre fresh without turning audiences away.
Most found-footage films are seen through the eyes of the hunted — some poor sap attempting to navigate their way through an exorcism or looking to escape the clutches of a hellish demon. Telling the story through their point of view is a good move: You want the audience to sympathize with the main character and to understand what they’re going through. That’s what makes the film scary in the first place. But you know what would be even more terrifying? Watching it through the bad guy’s perspective instead. A good example of this is the 2007 flick The Poughkeepsie Tapes, which switches up the general found-footage structure by telling the story from the killer’s POV. The film is made up of videotapes depicting the gruesome murders committed by a man known as the Water Street Butcher. Here, you have the killer holding the camera, which allows us to watch the victims freak out front and center. (Like 1960’s Peeping Tom, which included some sequences from the perspective of the murderous cameraman, that we would characterize today as found footage-y.)
Don’t make the entire film found footage
Some found-footage flicks succeed by incorporating the technique into parts of a movie instead of using it for the entire running time. This gives the film some much-needed dimension; having to tell your story through the conceit of someone holding a camera can close off a lot of options, plotwise. Plus, if you’re the type of viewer who has the tendency to puke from quick camera movements, watching a 90-minute film from the point of view of some knucklehead running around with a handheld device is going to make you very sick. By switching it up, you give viewers a breather. That’s basically what Neill Blomkamp did in his 2011 flick District 9, where he split the film into two parts. The first half is shot as a faux documentary. In the second half, Blomkamp opts for a style more in line with a regular feature-length film.
Move outside the horror genre
Since Blair Witch, found footage has become synonymous with horror, but that doesn’t mean each film has to be about ghosts and exorcisms. Both Chronicle and End of Watch were successful because they used the found-footage genre in new and unique ways. For Chronicle, director Josh Trank focused on three teenagers who end up with superpowers after stumbling on a mysterious source of energy. Afterwards, they record their experiences, and their eventual downfall. For End of Watch, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a Los Angeles police officer who decides to start filming his encounters with gang members after taking an amateur filmmaking course.
Focus on the story, not the gimmick
Do you remember Apollo 18? The film, which made a rather paltry $25 million at the box office, focused on the cover-up of a secret moon landing in 1973. The movie was marketed so heavily as a found-footage flick that Dimension Films head Bob Weinstein told EW that the studio “didn’t shoot” the film they “found it” (sure, Bob). The initial interest in the movie was high, with the first trailer being viewed more than 4 million times in its first week. However, when Apollo 18 hit theaters, audiences were less than impressed. Sure, the $25 million it made was more than enough to help pay back the film’s estimated $5 million budget, but it also received a D Cinemascore, which, to be blunt, means audiences thought the film really sucked (keep in mind that audiences gave Grudge Match an A Cinemascore over the recent holiday). Anyway, the point is, some studios spend too much time touting the found-footage aspect of the film instead of investing in strong characters or a compelling story — ya know, things that you need to make a good movie.
Cast well-known actors
This path could be risky, considering found-footage movies rely on unknown actors to help sell how “real” they are (not to mention, casting amateurs keeps production costs low). But then again, the Blair Witch glory days are long gone. Nobody actually believes what’s happening onscreen took place in real life, so why not try casting a few well-known stars in the main roles? It would help spice things up and give the genre a fun new angle to play with. Like you wouldn’t pay to see a movie where Channing Tatum leads an amateur filmmaking team around a haunted house in the middle of nowhere.