'Paranormal Activity': A marketing campaign so ingenious it's scary

paranormal-activity-marketing_lEvery 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?

[ewbrightcove “29888952001”, “41247271001”, “525”, “470”]

Comments (76 total) Add your comment
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  • jamey

    I don’t know if it counts but i’ve voted for it everyday for a week, and iv’e been watching it click t word 1 mil.

  • Robert Lönn

    This is cool and very democratic, I agree. Maybe it is a cool idea for us non-americanos to start voting up
    97. Springfield

    Lets do that and see what happens

  • inlove

    Yeah, I voted for it to come to my town. It’s a pretty nifty idea, I think. :) I hope it reaches one million, because I kinda really want to see it. xD

  • Bubbatwo420

    I saw this last Friday at midnight here in Denver and can honestly say it was the scariest movie i’ve ever seen. I literally had chills up and down my entire body!

  • tonytone

    I cant vote enough for good scary movie since they are EXTREMELY hard to come by. Soo many imitations, yet people STILL pay money to see such junk!! I’m still waiting for that LOOOOONG overdue creepy doll movie, in the vein of Chucky (but actually good)!! I wouldnt even mind copycat doll movies because they are always really creepy!! Remember Puppetmaster?? Sucky story but still managed to make me jump

  • Marshall

    I will be seeing this with the full expectation of soiling my shorts.



    • Khristina

      LOL Me too!

    • Marshall

      Replying to my own comment…haha.

      I saw “Paranormal Activity” last night. It was pretty good. Not “bring an extra pair of underwear” scary, but still pretty frightening.

      do you need to bring an extra pair of underwear to watch “paranormal activity?” find out in my review:



  • Fatima

    I’m cheering for it. However, I’ve seen that same demand it setup for different musical artists on their web pages for a while. Something like, “29 people demanded Erykah Badu to come to Minneapolis” or something similar. Not sure it was their idea. Put cool that they put a fulfillment quota to it.

  • Ailene

    I “demanded” it, why not? Its a very cool of way of getting people pumped up to see the movie and spreading the word. The trailer definitely creeped me out, looks good.

  • ia

    I live in a community called The Fox Cities in North Central Wisconsin. The population is a little over 200,000. I have just demanded that it come to the biggest city in The Fox Cities which is named Appleton. I have demanded it 5 times. I will spread the word to friends that they need to demand it, too. The trailer looks eerie, and the movie seems to demand your attention to watch it. I have been waiting since the days of “Blair Witch Project” to see another realistic, creepy, spooky film. Looks like “Paranormal Activity” is it! DEMAND IT to come to your city right now!!!

    • Kayde_Lyn

      Demanded it here in Oshkosh…lots of film students willing to shill some cash to see it. Bet all 249 votes have come from the Radio/TV/Film program, lol…this is a great marketing idea. But more important, this movie actually looks awesome. It wouldn’t work with some piece of crap big studio mess movie.

  • Nita

    I demanded it for my city 2 weeks ago, and just got the e-mail that says they reached 1 million demands–they’re going nationwide. Here’s hoping it gets here soon!

  • Ty

    Just saw the commercial for this movie 2 days ago, and have demanded it several times. If the demands rate stays the same, it should open up nation-wide in the next few days. Can’t wait to see it!

  • Colin

    Paramount premiered this movie in State College, PA, at Penn State University. Not only that, but they premiered it AT MY FRATERNITY HOUSE. There were frat brothers of mine that didn’t sleep that night because they were so scared of the movie, and some are even still having nightmares. It was a terrific event, and an awesome movie.

  • JRB

    At first I thought the campaign was genius, but now I find it irritating as it drags on week after week. Enough already! Either release the movie nationwide or go to DVD.

  • TheGaffer

    uh sorry director Jessica Stover has been using demand it for years. look up Artemis Eternal, look up the silver legacy (both higher quality than this film). EW is always behind the times in movies/web.

    • Danno

      Who is Jessica Stover and who cares about some silly movie that noone but you has ever heard of.

  • Cory

    demanded this for here in the GREAT PLAINS :D i want to see this so bad. it looks REALLY good

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