Tuesday, March 6, 2012

At the Found Footage Floodgates

The first few weeks of 2012 have been good to Hollywood. Audiences have been turning out regularly, and the box office returns have been healthy, up about 20% from last year. We already have two $100 million grossing pictures, "The Vow" and "Safe House." After bringing in over $70 million last weekend, "The Lorax" will be the third. However, it's the other box office winner this weekend that has really been turning heads. The found-footage teen comedy "Project X," had an opening weekend of $21 million, already recouping its $12 million budget. It's the latest of a string of new found footage films that have been storming the box office.

After a rare $33 million opening weekend in January, horror film "The Devil Inside" has grossed $53 million from a tiny $1 million budget. Science fiction film "Chronicle," released in February, has grossed $60 million so far on a $12 million budget. The studios have been taking notice. They're currently in a cost-cutting mood, after a lousy 2011 where too many expensive films fell flat. With found footage films, the financial risks are significantly lower with tiny budgets, minimal production values, and no stars. Even a very modest performer like last summer's "Apollo 18" made its money back, grossing $17 million from a $5 million budget. Also, found footage films are great at attracting the young adult demographic that Hollywood likes best.

So it's no wonder that the news came down a few days ago that Universal's "Ouija," one of the Hasbro board game movies they had in development, which was originally conceived as a $100 million supernatural thriller, has now been retooled to be a $5 million found footage film. It's on track to reach theaters in 2013. There aren't that many found footage films scheduled for the rest of 2012 right now - "Paranormal Activity 4" is due in October, and Oren Peli's "Chernobyl Diaries" recently landed a Memorial Day release - but there are a lot of other projects on the horizon. There's even a found-footage television show airing on one of the major networks, ABC's "The River," about a documentary film crew braving the Amazon rainforest.

Found footage has been around for a while, popularized by "The Blair Witch Project," "REC," and the "Paranormal Activity" films, but with "Chronicle" and "Project X," this is the first time we've seen filmmakers branching out into action and comedy, and the good returns suggest that we're going to see them expand into even more diverse subject matter. Even though the quality of these films has been very hit or miss, with "Project X" garnering some of the most vehemently angry critical diatribes I've had the pleasure of reading this year, I like that the genre seems to be growing and evolving before our eyes. There's so much potential for creativity here, and the back-to-basics, do-it-yourself nature of the filmmaking really appeals to me.

Vertiginous shakeycams aside, I tend to like found footage horror films better than the slickly produced, higher budgeted ones, because they're much more effective at actually scaring me. I've seen every possible variation of CGI demonspawn and over-the-top psycho killer, but a found footage film requires a certain veneer of realism, that lends well to tension building and atmospheric unease. Well, the good ones anyway. The big danger with the rising popularity of these low risk, low budget films is that we're going to be inundated with mediocre schlock trying to hop on the new found footage bandwagon over the next few years. With budgets so small, anyone can make one of these films. But then, that's one of the good points too. Lower barriers to entry means more chances for talented newcomers to make their mark.

A bigger worry is that the cheaper found footage films are displacing financially riskier, more ambitious projects. Universal is the studio that cancelled Guillermo Del Toro's "At the Mountains of Madness" last year, the R-rated horror epic based on the work of H,P. Lovecraft. And they also quashed Ron Howard's "Dark Tower" project a few months later. A big budget doesn't determine quality of course, and Hollywood has been plagued by some awfully bloated would-be blockbusters lately, but the studios seem increasingly unwilling to find any middle ground between big budget and microbudget. And the more Hollywood turns to cheaper options like found footage films, the less likely we're going to see riskier material that really needs a decent sized budget to fully realize.

But then, I don't see found footage films becoming really pervasive. They tend to be extremely gimmick-dependant, and if there are too many flooding the multiplexes, audiences are going to get tired of them quickly. Sure, they're cheap enough that they'll regularly make money, and we'll probably see them crowding release slates for a long time to come, but they're not going to be the panacea that some studios seem to be hoping for. "The Devil Inside" may have reaped big financial returns, but it also earned a rare F from CinemaScore audience polling, resulting in disappointed, warier audience members who may avoid similar pictures in the future. The novelty of found footage is finite, and the really strong, memorable films that have used it have been few and far between so far.

Then again, found footage is still a fairly new genre. In a couple more years, with more studio backing and attention, who knows?

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