By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 15, 2009 at 8:48AM
From the start, Paramount online marketing executive Amy Powell knew that she could sell micro-budget horror thriller Paranormal Activity on the Internet.
Friday, October 16, Paramount will open the haunted-house flick on
1000 760 screens; last weekend it grossed $7.1 million on 160 screens. The studio allowed Powell to perform her web-marketing experiment, daring her to deliver butts in seats before they'd release the film in theaters. She delivered by promoting the film primarily online, asking moviegoers to demand via eventful.com that the movie play in their local town. The towns with the most votes would win a booking. The studio agreed that if Paranormal Activity scored one million votes, they would release the movie nationwide. Paramount is delivering on that promise: "The first-ever film release decided by you."
The strategic decision behind Paranormal Activity's success was to avoid trickle-down marketing, where a studio hard-sells audiences on what to watch, in favor of a grassroots movement propelling its own decisions about what to see. President Obama's online bid for the White House, where he let the people own his campaign, was Powell's initial inspiration.
Paranormal Activity could promote a new marketing approach where less costly, long-term brand-and-buzz building from the ground up replaces mass-market saturated ad blasts at moviegoers. Tired of information overload, movie fans are seeking authenticity, as movies with no stars, from District 9 to Zombieland, keep scoring at the box office. Word-of-mouth has always been the most potent way to sell a movie. Now the Internet spreads it with the speed of a click. Paranormal Activity demonstrates that power.
Of course it only works with a movie that plays!
Over a year ago, Powell showed the movie on the Paramount lot to her young online team, who live and breathe the internet. They were terrified.
The movie fell into the background as various studio management changes eventually put former DreamWorks exec Adam Goodman in charge of production. He had picked up the $15,000 HD docu-thriller for a potential remake, but the way it played with audiences made him change his mind. At the studio's weekly meeting, Powell asked if she could give the movie to the Austin, Texas genre film festival, Fantastic Fest. Sure, why not?
Then Powell asked if she could broaden it to a national launch with midnight screenings in eight key markets, backed in each case by a movie site webmaster. She wanted these showings to be fan-driven, not Paramount presenting the film, and she would only promote the movie online. When aint-it-cool-news' Harry Knowles visited the lot, she taped an introduction from him. At Fantastic Fest, AICN and Knowles promoted the film's debut there on September 24. Bloodydisgusting hosted L.A., AICN's Capone did Chicago, Comingsoon was New York, and San Francisco was Fear.net. The studio gave the movie to the fan sites, put it in their hands, so they could champion it. The studio even posted their logos on the movie website.
Audiences lined up around the block. At the Sunshine in New York, 900 people waited outside. At the Arclight, three hours before midnight, the line snaked through the parking lot. Paramount exec Rob Moore quickly grabbed two more screens at the multiplex to accommodate demand. Computers in the theater lobbies encouraged movie fans to "tweet your scream" and join Paranormal Activity on Facebook (70,619 fans and counting).
Back at the studio, the brass figured the initial enthusiasm for the film was strictly from movie geeks. But Powell thought they could reach more. She asked, "What if we put it back in the hands of the people and give it to them? Ask them to demand the movie?" If any town could get 5000 people asking for the film, they could have it. The race was on, led by New York and Chicago, then Cincinatti and Charlotte. Then college towns started popping up. So the studio booked midnight runs in thirteen college towns. Then, the following weekend, 33 markets, based on demand. When Boston wasn't ranking, they figured out that the town was splitting zip codes. Once they combined them, Boston jumped to number nine.
Powell's team monitored Facebook. The growth was exponential. Suddenly the demands were up to 300,000. The studio told her if they got to a million, she could have a national opening. They pushed it with the fans, and they responded. When they reached 1 million, they added "You did it!" to the site. While this weekend's screens were booked in advance and it takes time to add runs, Paramount insists that the people who demanded the movie will get the movie.