By Meelad Sadat
In this exclusive interview, Amy Powell of Paramount Pictures shares how social marketing turned an independently produced handy-cam horror movie into the most profitable film of all time.
Amy Powell, senior VP of interactive marketing, Paramount Pictures
Even as James Cameron’s “Avatar” gets ready to claim the crown of highest grossing film of all time, many would point to a meagerly budgeted independent movie as the film phenomenon of 2009. That movie is Paramount Pictures’ handy-cam horror “Paranormal Activity.” It was made on a student film equivalent budget of about $15,000 by unknown writer and director Oren Peli. Its two principals, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, were also complete unknowns. The film was finished in 2006 and went on the festival circuit, spending more than a year looking for a buyer. At one point it passed hands through legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who considered remaking it. It was eventually picked up by Paramount and released as is, and with little marketing budget behind it. When it was over, “Paranormal Activity” became the most profitable film of all time, raking in more than $107 million in domestic box office sales and a staggering worldwide tally of nearly $124 million.
No small part of the credit for the film’s evolution into nationwide spectacle goes to Amy Powell, senior vice president of interactive marketing at Paramount Pictures. To hear her talk about “Paranormal Activity,” the film was her baby. It was a project she and her team coddled from the start, and according to her did so based on gut feeling. Ultimately it became one where she managed to break new ground in how to harness social media to market a film. More so, she arguably set a new standard in Hollywood for using Twitter and an online event service called Eventful to build a market for a movie. Powell spoke to the[a]listdaily about what inspired her to embrace social nets, and to explain how she used them to build the groundswell of support that led to record-setting success for “Paranormal Activity.”
How did Paramount decide to take a film like “Paranormal Activity” and distribute it nationwide?
We came to distribute it based upon initial screenings in which we offered prints [of the film] to select webmasters to host from around the country, and then encouraged them to go to our Facebook and Twitter accounts to give us their feedback on the film. It created a real sense of buzz online, specifically on Twitter and almost spontaneously following the screenings. At that point we realized there was a real fan base for the film and decided to create campaigns to allow fans to demand that the movie be released in their city. We rolled out specifically in those cities with the most fans demanding it. When we met a million demands we opened it nationwide, which was the agreement with our online fans.
How was that agreement set up with fans?
It was just the evolution of following the buzz for the movie. We were literally just tracking the buzz and the demand as it was coming in on a city by city basis. As different cities were climbing up the rank, we then rolled the movie out in accordance to that ranking, starting with NY and LA because those were the top two cities. From there, we rolled out the next ten, and we rolled out ten after that, and it kept growing and growing. Finally we decided to have this agreement with them and said, listen, if we hit a million demands we will actually roll it out nationwide.
You said online buzz was specifically being driven by Twitter. When did you recognize that it was growing into this beast feeding your fan base?
At the very beginning of the campaign I knew I wanted to have a really strong Twitter presence. I felt word of mouth for this movie would just be really strong based on reactions. We decided to create an account called TweetYourScream, which was based on the idea of really capturing all of the strong word of mouth by getting people as soon as they walked out of the movie theater. Immediately people were flooding TweetYourScream with their reactions, and it was so fun to watch. They couldn’t sleep, they were scared out of their mind, they didn’t want to drive home alone, these were all the things we were seeing. The stories were really, really fun because our initial screenings were all at midnight. By the time they got to their house it was probably two thirty or three in the morning. I started seeing [TweetYourScream] popping up as a trending topic on Twitter really fast. That was an instant indication that we had really good buzz.
How was the word getting out about the Twitter feed itself?
We initially had our screenings hosted by different webmasters in different cities set up really strategically. We said to each of those webmasters we wanted them to Twitter about the movie, and encourage those at their screenings to Twitter about it and direct it to our TweetYourScream account. It started with the webmasters being super supportive, and the people in those initial screenings. Having all those screenings happen simultaneously at midnight, everybody was hitting Twitter at the exact same time. That allowed us to take over trending topics. And once we became a trending topic, everyone else of-course took notice and it organically grew out from there.
You used Eventful to track and collect fan demands and arrange your screenings. The service used to be seen as more of a tool for demanding and tracking music concerts, festivals and that sort of thing rather than individual film releases. What made you decide to use it?
It was a tool that I was interested in using at some point. I thought this notion of following the buzz through fans by letting them demand the movie in their area was an interesting way of turning the usual cookie-cutter way of getting a movie to the marketplace on its ear. I thought this is a movie that’s perfect, and it was a movie that we had to convince everybody that we should distribute it. The studio was open and willing and wanting to try it, and we did. I’m really happy that it worked, and it only worked because the fans really loved the movie.
Were there certain cities or parts of the country that you pinpointed as central to your campaign, essentially places where fan demand fed interest to other areas?
It was a combination. The first two were NY and LA, and a lot of that was based on the population of those two cities. Then it was a mixture of small towns, big towns, from the country, from Canada. It was a mixture of different demographics demanding the movie. It was as if the local communities galvanized around the film. We just had pockets of fans popping up in a really diverse group of cities, and we were really faithful to those groups as they popped up and rewarded them with the film.
What sort of help did you get from Oren Peli and the rest of the film’s upstart talent?
We had a filmmaker who was incredibly sincere and wanted the fans to be part of the campaign. Oren was a trooper on this from the beginning. It was a labor of love for him, as I think he’d tell you. From the very beginning he was out there asking fans to work with him, to rally the other fans, to rally the studio to distribute the movie. He was a really amazing partner and collaborator in the entire process. The talent in the film joined the second part of our campaign in which we were able to have them on talk shows, on the cover of EW [Entertainment Weekly], and lots of exciting appearances. Print publications covered their story because their story was amazing. Oren’s story was interesting from a filmmaker perspective, and theirs was too from an actor’s perspective. As trite as it may sound, it truly was one big team of scrappy people coming together to make it work.
Was Oren marketing the movie in any way or doing any campaigning of his own prior to Paramount picking it up?
Oren had set up a web site for the movie years ago, and on there was a place to sign up for a newsletter, and facts about the movie. He had been running all of that by himself. We had the opportunity to become part of that. We were very careful to make sure it maintained his voice and his vision, and it was always true to the movie at its very, very base level.
If you had one lesson to impart to others from your part in marketing the most profitable movie ever made, what would it be?
Stay true to your instincts. We, and I mean ‘we’ as in my team, screened this movie and in our guts literally knew that we could market it within the social networks, and could really make it into what we thought would be a modest film run. I’m happy to say it was a very big film run. I’m so lucky to work in a place where they let us do that. I think so many companies are risk averse about wanting to experiment. If you really believe in it, you have got to stay with it. As I said before, be super scrappy about pulling every favor, every person you can call to dial in a favor for you to make it work, that’s what you do. You work twenty-four hours a day, and you go to every midnight screening, and you shake hands with every single fan in line. I just had a baby. I had a three-month old baby in my house, and I’d be in line shaking hands with seven hundred people saying, “Thanks for coming.” That’s what you do.