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What’s the Big Deal about Paranormal Activity?

The other night I walked out of an advance screening to see a throng of people clogging the lobby, waiting in line for a film. It was 9:30 p.m. on a Tuesday and the line wrapped around the building. The audience members were all in their 20s and most had their iPhones out at the ready, likely tweeting about which movie they were going to see. What movie could possibly pack in the crowds at a late hour on a work/school night? Paranormal Activity.

Comedian Dana Carvey once told a great allegory about fame, involving a grapefruit. He said if you took an average, ordinary grapefruit, put it on a pedestal, then broadcast that pedestal on television 24 hours a day, you would have a star. It didn’t matter if anybody actually watched that grapefruit or not; people would see it in passing as they flipped channels. And if you took that grapefruit out to a mall, put it under glass and just watched, you would see people walking by, stopping, pointing and whispering to each other, “Hey, I think that’s THE grapefruit.” People would take pictures with it, tell their friends they saw it and ultimately feel like they were part of something larger than themselves. From seeing a grapefruit. In person.

The big question of marketing in the digital age is: How do you get that grapefruit out there, now that television is being replaced by new technologies? Well, Twitter has found its first grapefruit. In what is becoming the surprise success story of the season, Paramount Studios has released a fairly unconventional grapefruit in a very unconventional way. Paranormal Activity is a low-budget, independently made film that has been sitting on a shelf at Paramount for roughly two years and was released without a large print and advertising campaign. In its third week of release, it went from complete obscurity to the No. 5 movie at the box office. So how did a $15,000 haunted-house, Blair Witch Project-style movie from 2007 score $7.1 million last weekend?

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Twitter — that’s how.

In one of the boldest and most surprising marketing campaigns in recent years, Paramount released this film as it normally would any small independent movie: in limited release in select markets. But being that this is a more mainstream, big-audience, ghost-story horror film, the studio didn’t want to simply drop it in the art-house markets and let it die. Instead, Paramount rolled out an interesting campaign that involved showing the film to the savviest of young bloggers and then turning loose a Twitter campaign that simply asked people if they wanted to see the film. If you did, all you had to do was click a link to a Web page that checked where you were visiting from (via your IP address) and click a button that said “DEMAND IT” next to your city’s name. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, guess what? You needed a lot of people to click that same button. So people tweeted about it on their own accounts, asking friends to demand it in their town, because, well, they wanted to see it.

Then, as word began to spread, as reviews came in and as people enjoyed the film, the tweets became more prevalent. Soon you couldn’t check Twitter without seeing the words “Paranormal Activity” in your friends’ tweets. There it was, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week — the grapefruit. Spinning. And you just had to see it for yourself, if only to find out what everyone was talking about. And that’s when the final, brilliant phase of marketing kicked in: Paramount announced that if a million people demanded it on the Web site, the studio would give this film a wide release. Fueled by constant tweets from popular online bloggers and celebrities, the film hit a million demands almost overnight, the last 100,000 coming in a matter of hours. And now all of those people feel responsible for putting it in theaters, so even the most apathetic among them should probably drop 10 bucks to see it, right?

For those of you without Twitter (or who simply somehow missed it), Paranormal Activity is a first-person-camera account of the haunting of a house. When a woman begins to believe that her house is haunted, her husband sets up a camera at night to see if they can catch footage of what is really happening. But when they watch the footage, they find that things are worse than they could have ever feared. It is a horror film rooted in reality like the Blair Witch Project that doesn’t function on the Blair Witch gimmick of whether or not it is real. It is just plain scary. And that’s what tweeters the country over have been saying.

And now you’re starting to think about seeing it yourself, aren’t you? Expect no less than a half dozen more attempts by other studios to mimic this success in the coming months. No doubt it won’t take long for people to catch on to this new style of guerilla marketing, but it only needs to work once. And boy, did it work. Paranormal Activity is out now in select market and opens in wide release very shortly.

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