Every so often, the marketing campaign for a movie is itself a work of art. A famous example is The Blair Witch Project (1999), which was advertised via the Internet with a strategy that operated on two interlocking levels. Most obviously, Blair Witch was one of the first films to exploit the viral power of the Web to stir up word-of-mouth. What made the campaign brilliant, however, is the way that it took full advantage of the murky/underground/conspiracy-theory side of the Internet to imply that the movie was “real.” (I’d love to know exactly how many people went into Blair Witch believing that it was a snuff documentary, and also how many came out still thinking so. I suspect that either statistic would be quite frightening.)

Now, 10 years later, Paramount Pictures is out to create a comparable brand of high marketing voodoo with Paranormal Activity, a terrifying shot-on-video haunted-house thriller made very much in the found-footage, this-is-really-happening! mode of Blair Witch. (Here’s my review.) This time, though, no one’s pretending that the movie is a documentary. For one thing, its little-horror-film-that-could success story is simply too good to pass up. Paranormal Activity was made by Oren Peli, an Israeli-born videogame designer with no formal film training, who shot it in a week in 2006 for $11,000. The movie kicked around at film festivals for a year or so. And then, as legend has it (even if this really did happen, it’s also the true beginning of the marketing campaign), once the film was brought to the attention of DreamWorks, Steven Spielberg took a copy of the DVD to his Pacific Palisades estate, watched it there, and then found his bathroom door inexplicably locked from the inside. He thought the movie was haunted!

True or not, that’s a damn good story, and the bottom line is this: Steven Spielberg loved Paranormal Activity. As well he should; it’s a film made very much in the no-frills, true-life-demon spirit of Spielberg’s Duel. After the acquisition of DreamWorks by Paramount, the film is now being released by the latter studio, and just like the Blair Witch folks, they’re tapping the deep power of the Web, only in a way that would make P.T. Barnum — or William Castle — proud.

I’m sitting here at my desk, looking at the studio Website for Paranormal Activity, and in the top right-hand corner there’s a yellow box that says “Demand it!” When you click on the box, you’re led to a site where you can vote for the movie to come to your city, and can also see how many people have voted for the film to come to their city. (As of this moment, it’s 28,157 in New York, 7,830 in Miami, and 592 in Springfield, Missouri.) At the center of the home page is a big clock of Paranormal Activity demand; the number keeps ticking upward, as you (yes, you!) vote to see (no, demand!) the movie. (Right now, the total tally stands at 525,435. If it goes to a million, the film will open nationwide.)

What’s ingenious about the marketing campaign for Paranormal Activity is the notion that it’s putting the power of movie distribution in your hands. That’s a very bottoms-up, invitingly democratized thing to do. It is also, of course, a pure publicity stunt. Yet that doesn’t make it a lie. What Paramount is really doing, of course, is drumming up excitement for the movie, and I hope that it works. I hope that tens of thousands of people vote to bring Paranormal Activity to their city, or maybe even to their medium-size town. The movie is terrific; it deserves to be seen, and with a large and enthusiastic audience. Paramount’s agenda is clear: The studio wants to take its midnight freakout of a no-budget indie fright film and turn it into a mainstream event. Yet the studio should also be commended for bringing a touch of old-school groundswell marketing to an age of knee-jerk, top-down media saturation.

So do you plan to see Paranormal Activity? Or to “demand” it on the studio Web site? And how well does this kind of marketing campaign work for you?

Paranormal Activity
  • Movie
  • 86 minutes