Found footage movies have been a staple in cinema since The Blair Witch Project took theaters by storm in 1999. The idea of making a film under the auspice that someone stumbled upon a reel of film and produced it into a feature-length “true story” horror flick was something no one had ever truly tried, and it was insanely well-received. Soon, more flooded the market, until we had ourselves a full-on movement within a genre that in many ways needed something new. The found footage motif came at a time when it was most needed, breathing new life into horror.
But then things spiraled out of control. Paranormal Activity found similar success, spawning a series of pointless sequels, and a whole slew of imitators to follow. Suddenly found footage became just another overdone trope of the horror genre, lazily used as a way to cut back on funding while still turning a profit at the box office. So what happened?
1. The market saturated, and saturated bad
In the years following Blair Witch and Paranormal, suddenly horror directors were using found footage more than they weren’t. In just the last five years, a whole mess of releases that most people have never even heard of cropped up: Movies like Frankenstein’s Army, The Borderlands, A Night in the Woods, and more titles for films no one ever saw. Part of what made the genre so revolutionary to begin with was the scarcity of its use. Rather than utilizing the device for the sake of a story, it’s become used for the sake of the device itself. It stopped having purpose, and instead just became another nail in the coffin of horror, a genre that’s grown more and more stagnant over the last decade.
2. Two words: Paranormal Activity
In and of itself, Paranormal still stands today as one of the best found footage films ever made. Created on a shoestring budget of $15,000, it managed to use the power of suggestion and subtly to earn its scares, rather than simply using blood and gore a la Saw. And then four sequels and a Japanese spinoff happened, and the rest as they say, is history. Another film is set to debut this October as well, officially bringing us to a place where the franchise is well past its prime. While they’re no longer shooting on a $15,000 budget, it’s still easy to turn a profit without having to expend much effort; the latest installment still had a meager $5 million production budget, while making $90 million worldwide.
3. It became a way to save money rather than make good cinema
Paranormal Activity‘s $15,000 budget was born of necessity. Director Oren Peli even used his own house as the primary location for the film, and out of that necessity a great film was made. Following its release though, it made a whopping $193 million worldwide at the box office, making it one of the most profitable movies in the history of cinema. Similarly, Blair Witch made $248 million on its $60,000 budget, while years later another found footage contemporary in Chronicle hauled in $126 million after costing just $12 million to make.
In the wake of this, making a found footage movie became a way to cut costs and increase profit margins, rather than simply producing top-notch cinema. Corrupt the intention of art, and soon the quality will follow. For found footage movies, that adage tragically rang true.
4. Oversaturation has sullied the work of found footage films that actually worked
We’d love to look back on Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, and Chronicle fondly. But it’s made difficult when Paranormal continues to churn out franchise films ad nauseam, while both Cloverfield and Chronicle have sequels in production. By exhausting the supply of goodwill that audiences have for the device, we’ve forever tainted the memory of the films that helped build the genre in the first place.
Nowadays, whenever another found footage movie shows up on the scene, you can sense the collective eye-roll. What we need now is to push the genre forward with something new and interesting. The recent release of Unfriended may be a step in the right direction, showing us a horror movie shot entirely on the desktop of a computer. Sadly though, offerings like that are more the exception to the rule.
All box office data pulled from Box Office Mojo
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickNorthwest