How Did We Lose the Found Footage Film?

In Featured, Industry Insights, Joe Campbell by Amanda ValdovinosLeave a Comment

– By Joe Campbell –

I was a freshman at JPCatholic when Paranormal Activity hit theaters in October of 2009.  I remember because the buzz surrounding the movie took the student conversation by storm.  The horror fans saw it, the non-horror fans saw it, and those who didn’t see it were definitely aware of it.  It was an indie hit, raking in millions of dollars off a minuscule budget (it was made for under $20,000), and of course there was the urban legend that Steven Spielberg returned the movie in a garbage bag because it frightened him so much.  It was a cinematic sensation, spawning sequels, spin-offs, and was the first movie produced by the now prosperous indie studio Blumhouse. But most notably Paranormal Activity ushered in a revival of an almost forgotten sub-genre: the Found Footage movie.  

The Found Footage technique is popular among low budget horror directors because it can be shot with less equipment, smaller crews, and simpler set-ups.  It’s shot entirely from the point of view of somebody recording with a personal camcorder (or cell phone, or security camera, or some other recording device).  It’s often shown from a first-person perspective, with the camera moving about wildly, and for almost ten years it was a popular technique for horror films. After the success of Paranormal Activity, the Found Footage scene blew up, with countless low budget (and big budget) attempts made to capitalize on the fad.

So where are they now?

It’s been four years since the last Paranormal Activity sequel (the series used to pump a new entry out every year or two) and where dozens of Found Footage movies used to be released every year, now it seems we’re lucky to get more than a couple.  Why did this popular sub-genre seemingly die out? For that matter, why did it blow up so suddenly? Where did it come from?

Paranormal Activity is far from the first Found Footage movie, in fact the genre has roots as far back as the ‘80s, where its closest predecessor would probably be the mockumentary.  Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is credited by many to be the first true Found Footage movie, but that’s not entirely true.  The movie is about a camera crew who is sent to document a cannibalistic tribe and never return. Their footage is recovered, and the bulk of the movie is made up of the recovered film revealing their grisly fate; typical schlock horror stuff.  Stylistically, this movie looks and feels a lot like the movies of the late Aughts, with our heroes running from some murderous force picking them off one by one as they capture the details on camera, but the movie is only partially a true Found Footage movie.  The story is told through the eyes of the producers back in the states reviewing the footage from the comfort of a screening room, and although we are watching along with them, their thread is shot traditionally like any other movie.

Perhaps a more recognizable example of an early Found Footage movie is the 1992 Belgian black comedy Man Bites Dog, about a documentarian following a serial killer on his bloody daily dealings.  This may seem more in line with the mockumentary style we’ve come to expect from movies such as This is Spinal Tap (1984), but it lacks that structured look and feel of documentaries.  There are few sit-down interviews and and the whole movie feels “off the books”.  We aren’t watching a well edited informational video on some subject, we’re watching a man with a camera follow a psychopath as he murders people, and like many Found Footage movies to come, it doesn’t end well for all involved.

It wasn’t until the availability of consumer grade digital cameras that the Found Footage genre really had its birth.  In the late ‘90s, two movies came out that can be considered the first true Found Footage movies: The Last Broadcast (1998) and The Blair Witch Project (1999).  Curiously enough, both movies were about documentarians investigating spooky local folk legends (always those pesky documentarians), and get picked off one by one in the process.  While The Last Broadcast never took off beyond being a forgotten blip in horror history, The Blair Witch Project became one of the most famous horror films ever made, and a lot of that is due to its marketing.

Not only was The Blair Witch Project shot to look like archival footage someone just happened to find in the woods, but it was presented to audiences as if it actually happened.  It starred no-name actors and it was shot in an amateurish way that you could believe that these young adults really just ran out into the woods and discovered something creepy (which is basically how they filmed it anyway).  No elaborate effects, no grand mythic story, just the rumors of a supernatural creature in the woods, some creepy stick people hanging from trees, and spooky sound effects at night. The slapdash look and feel to the movie made it more believable to audiences at the time.

But it was thanks to the early days of the internet that The Blair Witch Project really took off.  The official website for the movie featured fake police reports and interviews that tried to sell the idea that the events of the movie actually happened.  Online the creators spread the rumor (complete with “Missing Person” posters) that the authorities were still looking for the main characters. It was an early example of a movie relying on viral marketing, and although the film itself is little more than an hour of people walking around the woods, the plausibility of it made the film a smash hit.

Oddly enough the success of The Blair Witch Project didn’t spawn a million more Found Footage movies, and the sequel to that film itself went in a completely different direction with traditional cinematic storytelling.  There were certainly a smattering of Found Footage movies released in the same vein of The Blair Witch Project (The Collingswood Story and The Poughkeepsie Tapes being two notable examples), but outside of the niche horror market nothing really took off.  It wasn’t until Paranormal Activity came out almost ten years later that producers realized how lucrative the genre could be, with microscopic budgets and the potential for a huge payoff.

Suddenly anyone could make the next Paranormal Activity, and everybody tried.  Between 2009 and 2013 the horror scene was absolutely inundated with cheap knockoffs.  8213: Gacy House, Area 407, Alien Origin, these are just a few of the forgotten Found Footage movies released in the wake of Paranormal Activity.  These all followed a similar format: somebody decides to record everything in their life (usually they’re going on vacation, trying out a new camera, or exploring a haunted house), they find subtly strange things happening around them (creepy noises at night, objects moving when nobody is looking, strange markings, etc.), then in the last few minutes they’re killed by whatever is stalking them and, as the camera falls to the ground, we get one good look at the “thing” that got them (usually a ghost, alien, or government agent trying to cover up a conspiracy).

All of these movies (and yes, I mean all of them) revolve around not showing the audience anything that will cost money, so the majority of the screen time is devoted to people exploring abandoned locations while the actors bicker.  Anything that expensive, like creature effects, is saved for quick flashes here and there, and maybe a money shot in the last two seconds if you’re lucky.

But mixed in with these forgotten flicks we’d get the cult classics, the slightly bigger budgeted movies that captured the horror fans’ attention.  These movies usually had a little more attention to detail put into them, and were attempts by filmmakers trying to find genuinely interesting ways to use the Found Footage technique in ways we hadn’t seen before.  Rec placed us in a quarantined house surrounded by police while the inhabitants are infected by a zombie virus, Grave Encounters used CG face-warping technology to show us some genuinely unsettling effects, and The Last Exorcism surprised audiences with its visceral performances.  Even these movies rarely strayed away from the same tired tropes, but they at least tried to show audiences something different.

Some of the more interesting examples came from bigger studios and household name creators getting in on the action.  JJ Abrams produced one of the more famous examples of the genre with the giant monster movie Cloverfield (one of the few Found Footage movies to actually showcase some impressive effects), V/H/S pulled together several established horror directors for an anthology movie, and even M. Night Shyamalan tried his hand at the technique when he returned to thrillers with The Visit.

Eventually filmmakers tried to expand the genre to see what its full potential might be, and they branched out into other genres.  District 9 goes back to the mockumentary well to document an outer space alien immigration emergency, Chronicle (which I previously wrote about here) is a teen angst drama dressed up as a superhero origin story, and Project Almanac is a time-traveling teen dramedy.  

Project Almanac came out in 2015, and this was the point where the limitation of the Found Footage movie was starting to really show: there’s only so much you can do when you’re restricted by a framing device that requires your characters to constantly be filming.  Every movie came with the question, “Why is this person standing here holding a camera at this moment?”, and rarely did they give a satisfying answer. The script is constricted by this device, and as such, writers kept running into the same narrative beats.

On top of that, Found Footage movies are just generally boring to look at.  It’s difficult to get creative visually when every shot has to be held by an actor, keeping it at eye level in the same set-ups.  Paranormal Activity (and its sequels) found ways around this by using locked down security camera footage (Paranormal Activity 3 especially gets creative with a camera attached to a rotating fan) and Chronicle just cut between whatever camera would plausibly be in the scene at any given moment, such as spectators with cell phones or (once again) security cameras.  When you try branching out into other genres, the limitations become more obvious. How would you film a Found Footage romance? Who would be constantly filming during every awkward, intimate encounter in a budding romance?  Found Footage works best for drawing out and releasing tension with jump scares in dark situations, where we’re stuck in the protagonist’s POV, and between 2009 and 2015 we’d seen that trick played out ten too many times.

When studios started releasing parodies such as Devil’s Due and A Haunted House, it signaled the death knell for the genre.  By the time 2017 rolled around, only a fraction of the films were being produced than before.  While they had once been the revitalization of horror, they had now become the butt end of a joke, and even horror fans were writing off Found Footage movies as cheap, poorly made cash-ins.

So where have they gone?  Will they ever come back? Well…in an odd way they sort of already are, they’ve just evolving.

In 2014 director Timur Bekmambetov produced Unfriended, one of the first computer screen films (or “Screen Life” films, as he calls them).  The entire movie is shown from the perspective of a high school girl’s computer while her friends get killed off by a ghost one by one over video chat.  It’s the same old cliche story, but presented in a new format audiences weren’t familiar with. Unfriended got a sequel just last year in 2018, and that same year we got another Screen Life film called Searching, this time about a father looking for his missing daughter.

The fact that Searching stars a high profile star (John Cho) and doesn’t rely on supernatural elements shows that perhaps Screen Life films might have a wider range than Found Footage films did, while still being innovative.  It’s still too early to tell, and we haven’t had a smash hit that gripped the casual audience like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity did, but if someone can figure out how to crack the format I think it might have even greater potential than Found Footage ever did.

Found Footage movies were built upon their creative use of technology and their marketing.  Both The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity took advantage of the internet and evolving consumer-grade cameras to play into their trendiness at the time.  They were a product of the eras they were created in, and in an age where camcorders are a thing of the past and news spreads across the internet in seconds, the mystery of Found Footage movies has been lost.  I don’t think we can ever really recapture the magic of those movies because we live in a completely different world today, and as technology and social trends change, filmmaking techniques will also have to change.  Even if Screen Life does catch on, it’ll become outdated within the next ten years, and I’m sure something else will take its place.  But if we look at why these trends caught on in the first place, they can often give us insights into the culture of their day, and the reign of Found Footage films is no exception.

 


About the Author

Joe Campbell graduated from JPCatholic in 2012. He now works as a production manager for filmilliterates.com, in addition to being a stay-at-home dad to two kids.  He was born, raised, and currently lives just outside Seattle, Washington.  Some of his favorite filmmakers include Andrei Tarkovsky, Sam Raimi, and Joe Dante.  Besides film, his other interests include hiking, the board game Dominion, and coffee.

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