The found-footage craze is on a roll in Hollywood

San Francisco ChronicleJanuary 2, 2014 

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“Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” is one of three found-footage sequels due out this year.

PHOTO CREDIT: PARAMOUNT PICTURES — PARAMOUNT PICTURES

  • Like the shaky-camera approach? Try these

    “End of Watch” (2012) – maybe the best-made found-footage film so far, with memorable chemistry between leads Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as good cops who stumble into something big and bad.

    “REC” (2007) and “REC 2” (2009) – two of the scariest movies of the last several years, with the running, screaming zombies that are so much better than the slow, shambling ones. Claustrophobic, freaky, with a complex and messed-up mythology.

    “The Last Exorcism” (2010) – unusually strong writing, acting, and directing, especially for a horror film.

    “Europa Report” (2013) – Not great, but an interesting and intelligent tale of the manned exploration of one of Jupiter’s moons. Contains major acting talent, including Sharlto Copley, Embeth Davidtz, Michael Nyqvist, and the always-excellent Anamaria Marinca.

    “Paranormal Activity 4” (2012) – this is not a straight-up recommendation, but it should be noted that while the second two sequels were generally more acclaimed, this one is less derivative and more accomplished in its filmmaking than those two. Not likely to scare anyone who has seen 2 and 3, but far better acted and thought out than those.

It took Hollywood a while to climb on the found-footage gravy train, but now the veritable wheels are greased and just about anyone with a camcorder can take a run at the shaky, shaky caboose.

For a number of reasons, however, the technique’s batting average – qualitywise – seems awfully low. The no-God’s-eye-view, no-edits, did-this-happen, everyone-is-dead-or-missing conceits often prove too restricting to sustain for even one film, much less several in a series. In fact, the usual gag of killing off all the protagonists forces sequels to keep starting all over again, leading to a rash of rehash-itis.

Of course, that’s not to dismiss all movies using the technique – a tool is only as good as what you make with it. And that hasn’t stopped a few found-footage franchises from flourishing, with at least three such sequels due this year: “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” (this week), “Paranormal Activity 5” and “REC 4: Apocalypse.”

Entries tend to be horror flicks, but some other genres have blended in lately, with wildly varying results.

“Cloverfield” (2008) is clever and scary sci-fi/monster fun with a very good-looking cast; “Chronicle” (2012) is one of the best non-Marvel, non-Batman, non-“Kick-Ass” superhero movies you’ll see; and “Troll Hunter” (2010) is an entertaining, deadpan fairy tale monster movie. And “Project X” (2012) is an execrable – but profitable – teen comedy.

Then there’s possibly the most dramatically satisfying example: the Jake Gyllenhaal-Michael Peña cop drama “End of Watch” (2012), which boasts the character development and acting quality you would expect from a conventional effort, married with the immediacy and tension of found footage.

These movies are relatively, even ultra-, cheap to make because of the nonprofessionalism usually built into them. The lack of recognizable stars is often important narratively, to aid in the suspension of disbelief, especially where a viral promotional campaign attempts to muddy the line between fact and fiction. Ditto the amateur cinematography and sound, eliminating whole departments. And these low, low budgets can mean high, high profit margins.

Low cost, high profit

“The Blair Witch Project’s” (1999) final cost apparently topped out around $750,000. That’s less than a million bucks, folks, for a movie that took in $249 million worldwide. That’s a nearly $248 million profit. That’s 332 times what was spent on it.

In those terms, the original “Paranormal Activity” set a standard that may never be broken: On a reported $15,000 budget, it made $193 million … in profit. That’s nearly 13,000 times what it cost to make.

Those outliers’ numbers are outlandish, but even relatively big-budget entries such as “Cloverfield” ($25 million) and “Chronicle” ($12 million) blew past the $100 million mark at the box office. In fact, the top-10-grossing found-footage films have made $1.5 billion, with a “b,” worldwide on budgets totaling only $65 million. That’s 23 times as much in grosses as they cost.

For comparison, the top-10-grossing films of 2013 may have dwarfed the top found-footage entries with a $5.5 billion total take, but at an aggregate budget around $1.7 billion, for a multiplier of about 4.

After the top 15 grossers, however, the found-footage numbers lose their way quickly. The 16th highest, according to Box Office Mojo, is the Will Ferrell-produced “The Virginity Hit,” which made only $636,706, for a loss of nearly $1.4 million.

Sequels can suffer

“Paranormal” has become the big-daddy franchise, chugging along at three quarters of a billion – yes, billion – dollars in grosses despite a deteriorating critical response. But the Spanish “REC” has to be the best series in terms of quality.

The original 2007 film about a zombie outbreak in an apartment building produced genuine scares (and a wan American remake, “Quarantine”), and its 2009 sequel, “REC 2,” maintained the tension while deepening the mythology. Despite some nice meta moments, however, “REC 3 Genesis” (2012) abandoned the found-footage technique early on and degenerated into near-parody. A fourth and supposedly final installment is due in 2014.

“The Last Exorcism” (2010) is an unusually intelligent entry, well acted and better thought out than most. Its non-found-footage sequel, however, is nondescript.

Oddly, critics have tended to regard found-footage entries more highly than do audiences. For instance, “Last Exorcism” was rated twice as highly by critics (72 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) as by audiences, who apparently hated it (34 percent). Yet it made $59 million, and a forgettable, standard-format sequel was churned out.

Then came ‘Blair Witch’

All this is a far scream from what is widely accepted as the first found-footage film, Italy’s “Cannibal Holocaust” (1980). The technique was so unheard-of that legend has it director Ruggero Deodato was hauled into court for “murdering” his actors on camera. In an unverified story he often tells, Deodato had to produce his cast, alive, to avoid conviction.

A few obscure entries followed: “Manson Family Movies,” “The Last Broadcast.” Only eight such films were made from 1980 to 1999. Then came “Blair Witch.”

That film was a bolt from the black, shockingly new and different. It was one of the most effective horror movies ever made, largely because of the absorbing novelty of the technique. This writer will confess to freaking out friends by leaving small piles of rocks outside their doors afterward. Ah, the ’90s.

However, the floodgates didn’t open immediately, as only about a dozen widely known found-footage movies were made from 2000 to 2006. This was probably in part because of the disastrous follow-up, “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” whose failure might have convinced executives that the first film was lightning in a gimmick.

Then lightning struck again with the runaway success of “Paranormal Activity” in 2007. From 2007 to 2013, 64 such films were made, or three times as many as in the entire history of cinema before that.

That is a trend, continuing with at least five more due in 2014.

Apart from the aforementioned sequels, coming soon are the time-travel thriller “Welcome to Yesterday”; “Into the Storm,” which concerns tornadoes and stars 6-foot-2 dwarf hunk Richard Armitage; and the Toronto Film Festival vampire hit, “Afflicted.”

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